Porcelain and Politics: How Table Services Reflected the Romanovs' WorldviewSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Editor‘s note: This article highlights one aspect of the Celebrating St. Petersburg: 300 Years of Cultural Brilliance sponsored by the Center for Russian and East European Studies and other University of Michigan units. This collaborative festival included lectures, an exhibition of works from the Hermitage, musical and dance performances and film. The celebration runs through February 15. For more information on the St. Petersburg festival please visit http://www.umich.edu//stpetersburg.
Perhaps porcelain today is given as a wedding present that sits in a china cabinet and is used on rare occasions. But in seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Europe it held meaning greater than creating a beautiful table: it was used to cement alliances, show off wealth and taste and enhance collections of art. The Romanovs might have been some of the greatest employers of porcelain in Europe at that time.
Before Peter I (the Great), Russia‘s orientation was to the east but after extensive travel abroad, Peter I became convinced that Russia needed to focus west. He returned to Russia and in 1703 founded St. Petersburg in which he infused his vision and dream of establishing a great European capital. Craftsmen from all over Europe were imported to ensure the venerability of the buildings as well as teach Russian craftsmen new western European techniques, methods and styles. By 1722 St. Petersburg was glorious enough to rival other European capitals. “At present Petersburg may with reason be looked upon as a Wonder of the World, considering its magnificent palaces, sixty odd thousand houses, and the short time that was employed in the building of it,” said Friedrich Weber, the Hanoverian Resident in Russia.
Peter I then turned his attention to acquiring objects that spoke of European elegance and sophisticated tastes as part of his cultural reform. His collecting included paintings, sculpture, silver, furniture and porcelain—these to demonstrate to Europe that Russia and St. Petersburg deserved to be a peer power taken seriously. It is rumored that Peter the Great sent several emissaries (spies) to “German Lands” to learn the secret to making porcelain so he could establish a factory in Russia, but it wasn‘t until 1744, under the rule of Elisabeth I, daughter of Peter the Great, that the Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory began producing pieces of porcelain solely for the court and imperial family.
The first large porcelain service was a gift to Elisabeth from August III of Saxony on the occasion of the wedding of her nephew Grand Duke Peter to a minor German princess (later Empress Catherine the Great).
The use of porcelain to assure alliances came into its own during the reign of Catherine II, more commonly known as the Great. To smooth relations and commemorate Russia‘s military victory over the Turks, Friedrich II of Prussia ordered a porcelain service known as the Berlin Dessert Service that was made in Meissen, Germany and had the Russian Imperial monogram of Peter I and the cross of the Order of St. Andrew. One of the centerpieces was a statuette of Catherine on a throne and another showed captured Turks. Friedrich II also gave three plates to Paul Petrovich, Catherine‘s son and later Paul I, to commemorate important Russian victories in three wars.
“It was probably from Friedrich II of Prussia that Catherine learned that art collection of the first rank could serve her imperial ambitions almost as effectively as an imperial army,” says James Christen Steward in his article “The Private Taste of the Romanovs in Eighteenth-Century Russia.”
Catherine herself ordered a service from Sevres, the Cameo Service that is a vibrant blue and the most expensive that the factory had ever produced. French porcelain was the best quality at that time. Catherine spent an inordinate amount of money on the service but it served two purposes—to show that Russia was a country of wealth and a new and real power within Europe.
In 1773 Catherine the Great commissioned one of the most famous table services of all time: a 944-piece service from Wedgewood. This was notable because this is the first large-scale order from a British company, rather than French, German or Danish as had been de riguer in the past. An admitted anglophile, Catherine II ordered the service that was to become known as the Green Frog service for her the Kekerekeksinen Palace, and had each piece painted with different British landscapes. The obvious message in this purchase was the overt interest and adoration of things British, both gardens and architecture. At the time, the British Empire was expanding to become one of the largest in the world, the government the most stable, and its culture seen as extremely sophisticated. Before making its way to Russia, the Green Frog service was displayed in London. No doubt this was Catherine‘s way of displaying her wealth and connection to Britain—not a bad propaganda tool.
“While Catherine‘s porcelain collection was beautiful, it was also politically motivated,” said Lidia Liackhova, curator of porcelain, at The State Hermitage Museum. “She bought from France to help stabilize relationships and from Britain to show them that Russia had sophistication and taste.”
Several generations passed with little attention to porcelain until Alexander III, who ruled from 1881 to 1894. He used porcelain in a different manner. To him it was something to collect, catalog and enjoy. While all of these services were actually used as they were intended, Alexander saw the aesthetic as well as utilitarian function of porcelain, rather than political implications. He and his wife, Danish princess Maria Sophia Frederika Dagmar, often visited Denmark and collected pieces of fine porcelain from there as well as continuing to collect Wedgewood.
Alexander was a devoted autocrat, very tall at six feet four inches and believed to be crude and not overly intelligent. However, he was a passionate collector and took great pains in restoring fine art. Preferring Russian works of art, Alexander III was a great patron of the Imperial Russian Porcelain factory.
“The symbolism of the table is very ancient. It involves people in the mutual theatrical performances. It is a situation to represent yourself and a way to be represented,” said Liackhova. “Porcelain may also be the most functional objects among the diplomatic gifts.”
Porcelain is a mediator of political affairs today no less than in the time of Catherine the Great. Queen Elizabeth II commissioned a Wedgewood platter to commemorate her official visit to St. Petersburg in 1994. And tea and coffee sets are still one of the most recognized gifts of high society. The social implications of refinement and the functional and artistic values of porcelain continue to make porcelain more than just plates and cups.
Errata: The print version of this issue was incorrectly designated as Vol. 10, No. 4.
Eleanor Shelton is editor of the Journal of the International Institute .