Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Catherine the Great:An Enlightened Empress - National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh

22nd August 2012

I was interested in going to this exhibition as I had been to St Petersburg (it was called Leningrad then) in 1975 and had been to the grave of Catherine the Great.  She and Peter the Great were the only czars who were on show in Soviet times.  From memory Peter the Great had more flowers.  Then I spent 4 days in Leningrad on a British Council sponsored trip with the National Union of Students.  In those days there were mandatory visits to the sites of Soviet history, the Great October Revolution etc.  I remember visiting the Winter Palace, Petrodvorets (view of Cronstadt) and the Peter and Paul fortress.  I also remember viewing the city from the top of St Isaacs Cathedral (Museum) with the babooshkas warning people not to take photographs.  We went round museums and galleries but were soon “tombed” out. 

I won the catalogue for this exhibition in the Chambers Street Museum in a Twitter RT competition.  Having had a few pages read to me, I decided I would need about 3 hours to get a reasonable idea of the scope.  While the objects are but a tiny part of the Hermitage stockpile, this innovative exhibition manages to convey part of the Russia ruled by a German aristocrat for a long period in the 18th Century. 

I entered the museum via the sliding doors in Chambers Street and a guard took me to the information desk.  This is located to the right on entering.  I told Anne about having won the catalogue in a Twitter competition and that I had been to St Petersburg in 1975. 

Anne made a phone call to the exhibition team leader and suggested a way of having me guided around by exhibition staff between rooms.  She then took me to the exhibition floor.  My guides were Hannah, John and Magda.  (I have sadly forgotten the name of a 4th guide!)  They read out the room guides and object labels as well as describing the objects along with explaining the exhibition settings and charts. 

In addition to the objects, the museum has designed connecting doors which mimic the panelled doors with white/yellow and “eagled” symbols engraved.  Some rooms seemed to have a carpet painted on the floor and I was struck by the city scenes and landscapes which framed some of the objects.  The huge sleigh is an eye catcher.  Some of the portraits are too big for me to make out details but Hannah was able to fill in the gaps of the Catherine series and those of Empress Elizabeth. 

I recounted my memories to a friend who noted them down and we tried to match my memories of the objects with items in the catalogue.  Two days later I went back to the museum and a guard took me to the museum shop.  I described my memories to Sarah who took me up to the “merchandise” section.  I treated myself to a silk tie, a trinket box and some postcards and said how much I had enjoyed the visit and that my 3 hours had gone too quickly. 

The following are notes taken from memory and identified with catalogue entry.

I was struck by Catherine’s baptism into orthodoxy and objects relating to the wedding, birth of children and death of Empress Elizabeth.  Objects relating to the coup against her husband and her swift coronation were also interesting.

Development of arts and humanities evidenced by busts of Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau. 

There was also a strong link with Scotland in the construction and running of the Cronstadt naval base and barracks.  This involved the installation of dry docks, ordnance from the Carron works in Falkirk and planning.  Scottish medical staff were also at the forefront of military medicine and surgery.  Personalities listed in the catalogue include Dr Guthrie and Charles Cameron, the architect.  There are drawings of the plans for buildings in St Petersburg. 

Some art forms are difficult for me such as detail on porcelain and tapestries which are faded.  In these cases, John was able to describe much of the designs painted on the porcelain and some of the curiosities from the various dinner services.    

A huge sleigh within the exhibition (catalogue #161)

Heraldic eagle and Catherine monogram as letter E (ekatarina)

Portraits of Catherine throughout her life. 

Hannah had mentioned her favourite piece was a furniture item and I asked Magda about it.  It is in the cameo section near the end of the exhibition, where Catherine, the great collector, is featured with prize objects from antiquity and the Old Masters themselves.

Furniture cabinet for cameos

Old Masters:
Claude’s Landscape with Christ on the Road to Emmaus #225
Darius Opens the Tomb of Nitocris #221 – remarked about yellow slippers
Rubens: #227 and #223.  Heavily cordoned for security
There is double hanging of the Old Masters at the end.

#28 – Catherine II departing from Peterhof on the day of the coup d’etat
#29 – The Swearing of Allegiance to Catherine II by the imperial guard of the Izmailovsky regiment on the morning of 28 June 1762

Toys for imperial children – working models for rifles and pistols
#179-#190 – smallswords and replica guns

Curious ornate coconut cup (#26) – not sure what it was used for.

Samples of glassware and porcelain from St Petersburg and Meissen (#s 4,18,19)

Portrayal against Peter the Great

Gilded wood on red velvet

Tree of descent from the Kiev Rus or Ruric.  This is a claim to legitimacy mirroring that of the medieval manuscript.

Ballot boxes (55,56)

Figures of people of Russia: woman from Kamchatka, Estonia (#50)

#52 – Dissertations Sur Les Antiquites de Russie

#58 – View of the Palace Embankment, St Petersburg, from Vasilyevsky Island
Mentioned to John that had been on island in 1975

#87 – card table – wondered how it folded out
#90 – rules of behaviour – read out – penalties for disobeying them
#142 – Catherine as Minerva – reminded me of Boethius with Catherine personified as philosophy. 

 #32 – described as a small painting.  If this was small, wonder what a large one would be like!


This is a fascinating collection of period pieces reflecting the power, ingenuity and charm of Catherine the Great.  Her legacy was to first build on that of Peter the Great and then to out rank him with her achievements.  The admission ticket allows a break in viewing and I missed a few of the military and naval campaign memorabilia. 

The Scots were present in their traditional role as witnessed by the material about Guthrie, Cameron, Greig and Knowles, including the attempts by his secretary Robison to engage James Watt.  General Tam Dalyell had also been a soldier of fortune in a previous age. 

There is a lot of material to take in and I found the method of ‘guiding’ suggested by Anne worked well with me.  For example the painting of Darius opening the tomb was described to me by Magda.  Persians were always described as being “shod in yellow slippers” from the time of Herodotos in the 5th Century BC and Western Art still portrays them as such. My question to Magda was answered by “He is wearing yellow sandals.”

Many thanks to all the museum staff. 

There is a selection of attractive postcards with notes from The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, including:

Equestrian Portrait of Catherine II by Vigilius Eriksen, Danish, signed after 1762

View of the Palace Embankment, St Petersburg, from Yasilyevsky Island by Johann Georg Meyr, German, signed and dated 1796

Count Alexei Bobrinsky as a Child by Carl Ludvig Christineck, Swedish, signed and dated 1769

The Apotheoisis of James I by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1623-33
The following note is on the postcard:
This is a sketch for the central painting of Ruben’s famous ceiling in the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace in London, which was commissioned by King Charles I.  It shows Charles’s father, King James VI and I, being browned with a laurel wreath by figures personifying Religion, Faith, Justice, Victory and Minerva, on his way up to heaven.  Acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, 1779.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is titled Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress and is published by the National Museums of Scotland

More information on the exhibition can be found on the museum's website: