Thursday, 11 July 2013

Victoria and Albert Museum, Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars

Treasures of the Royal Courts, Victoria and Albert Museum

Enter a rich world of royal treasures and history come alive in this brilliant exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum! The exhibition, Treasures of the Royal Courts, celebrates 500 years of exchange between Britain and Russia and features priceless works of art ranging from jewellery, portraits, ceremonial armour and tapestries with detailed commentaries on the lives of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Ivan the Terrible.<p>

The 200 years of fertile cultural, diplomatic and trading relations between England and Russia or Muscovy as it was then known are portrayed and we see how relationships between the two countries were nurtured by exchanging gifts. Some extraordinary gifts came out of English Tudor and Stuart courts including miniature coaches, guns, silver, portraits and jewellery. Contemporary paintings reveal the public excitement behind the diplomatic encounters that occurred between the two countries.<p>

Rather dramatically as soon as you enter the exhibition you are confronted with four enormous, life size beasts, called ‘The Dacre Beasts’ which were made to commemorate the Tudor soldier, Thomas, Lord Dacre (1467 – 1525) who fought for Henry VII against Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Carved from a trunk of single oak and since repainted, the four animals – bull, griffin, ram and dolphin –  are all holding flags to demonstrate Dacre’s loyalty to the crown and are a fitting example of the codes of chivalry and royal loyalty. In the same room is an impressive array of some of Henry VIII’s armour which demonstrates the sheer size and presence of this formidable British King who was 6 feet tall and clearly enjoyed all that was chivalry, knightly lore and jousting. The armour really emphasises the physical and political power of the king.<p>

As you walk through the show you can see art work that is in incredible condition. There is an oil painting of Henry VII for example that has weathered the years so well and which portrays the lavishness of his dress and jewellery. Similarly Elizabeth I would take enormous pride and care in her jewellery and dress to present herself in portraits showing her to be the regal, powerful and beautiful queen of England that she was as well as a fertile bride. We learn of the many gifts she sent to the Russian court including a stunning set of virginals that she gave to Tsar Boris Godunov. On display are intricate and stunning pieces of Elizabethan jewelry including ‘The Drake Jewel’ which was a gift from Elizabeth I to Sir Francis Drake; a gold jewel covered in enamel , rubies and diamonds which opens to show a portrait of Elizabeth I and a phoenix.<p>

The number of silver gifts given to the Tsars by the English monarchs, such as a magnificent leopard ewer and a huge basin were many and often Elizabeth I would personally select them herself for Tsar Ivan IV. She would also give instructions that the figurative scenes wrought on the precious metal should be explained by engraved inscriptions. One of the most impressive items on show is an example of one of the earliest English coaches presented by the ambassador Thom Smith on behalf of James I to the Tsar. It is immaculately preserved and really portrays the incredible detail and workmanship of these English craftsmen. On specific parts of the coach can be seen carved decorations to celebrate Muscovite military victories. The Russian works on display are stunning; there is an immensely powerful painting of Prince Peter Potemkin who was a soldier and diplomat sent to London in 1681 by Tsar Fedor Alekseyevich. The rich details of his fur lined coat is made to give an impression of the grandeur and splendour of the Russian court and we learn often startled the English.<p>

The exhibition is keen to explain that if it weren’t for the Russian curators of the Kremlin much of this English heritage would have been lost. It is a stunning exhibition and a powerful record of 500 years of history. I recommend that you do not miss it. 

By Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor,

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