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Just about a year ago, I went to a special exhibition in Newark, New Jersey that had artifacts from the private domain of Russia's last Tsar and his family. As I strolled among the clothing and photographs and paintings, there was one object that stood in solitary splendour in a glass case, occupying a place of honor.
The object was a bouquet of lilies of the valley, arranged in a beautifully woven basket, nestled in moss. But unlike real flowers, this was all crafted in gold, pearls and diamonds, and jade. It's so carefully made that you can see the veining in the leaves, the delicate strands of moss, and so vivid that if there was a breeze, you would swear that the arrangement would quiver.
Presented to the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna as a coronation gift, it sat on her desk until the Revolution. But it wasn't the only object that she owned that was crafted by Faberge. Every well-to-do and aristocratic home had frames, silver, and other designs created by Faberge and his firm in their homes. One of the most popular of these were the small floral arrangements, usually just one or two sprigs of a particular flower in a vase of rock crystal.
In Faberge Flowers, Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey explores these tiny treasures. Most are only a few inches high at the most, and delightful to look at. With other researchers and others that have fallen under the spell of Faberge's work, she takes a look at the works of this craftsman. Each essay is accompanied by splendid photographs of the flowers -- and a few of the famous Imperial Eggs -- which made the book worth purchasing.
One of the top researchers on Faberge, Alexander von Solodkoff, writes the first essay, cleverly disguised as the introduction, where he talks about the fondness of Russians for flowers, and the cultural significance of them, especially with their associations with spring and Easter. He also talks about the varied collectors of Faberge, both before the Russian Revolution and after.
"A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Foever:" The Faberge Flowers, by the editor of the book, Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, goes into the history of these little objects of art. Known as "flower studies," these were also the rarest of the various objects d'art that the firm crafted. Only a hundred or so of these fragile objects are known to have survived to now, and when they rarely come to the open market, they fetch astronomical prices. Swezey discusses the materials used -- most remarkable is the actual dandelion fluff used to create the dandelion flowers, each held in place with minute wires -- along with the Art Noveau style which drew inspiration from nature. For the Russian court, it was a breath of fresh air, and reaction to the at times overbearing magnificence of the most wealthy court in Europe. Also covere are the various exhibitions that were held of the Faberge flowers as well.
An Astonishing Discovery by Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm
discusses how the fall of the Soviet regime in Russia has led to the discovery of the original designs and notes that were made in the creation of the flowers. She shows the finished object side by side with the designer's notes, and the details on both are what takes my breath away when I look at them. The author also goes into the decision making process and the steps in crafting the finished product, from the selection of the stones to the making of the rock crystal vases that formed the base of many of the flowers.
"His Greatest Patroness:" Queen Alexandra and Faberge's Flowers by Caroline de Guitaut talks about the largest collection of Faberge outside of Russia, and the woman who started it. The elder sister of Empress Marie, Queen Alexandra was very familiar with Faberge's work, collecting small hardstone animals as well as more than twenty-three of the floral studies. There are also notes about the others who have added to the Faberge objects in the Royal Collection today.
Faberge's London Branch and the London Ledgers by Tatiana Faberge is the shortest of the essays, just covering how Faberge opened the London branch of the firm, and how the surviving business ledgers have proved to be valuable in tracking down where many of the objects are today.
In Search of Faberge's Flowers in Russia by Valentin V. Skurlov is translated by Dudley Hagen, and talks about the collectors in Russia before the Revolution. Not only discussing the various collectors, he also mentions that having a knowledge of flowers was a sign of being educated, and that the flowers were quite an acceptable present when a piece of jewelry would be 'awkward.' Many of these objects vanished in the confusion of the Revolution, and their whereabouts are unknown. Another tidbit is that Skurlov talks about the various floral firms that supplied many of the hothouse flowers for the aristocracy -- and as models for Faberge's artisans. Using notes and ledgers, Skurlov gives a list of the various flowers purchased or given by the Romanovs, and among the photographs can be seen one creation nestled in the original case.
Faberge's Flowers: Science in the Service of Art by Mark A. Schaffer talks about his own love of Faberge (his firm A La Vieille Russe sells jewelry and often Faberge objects in New York City) and the little touches and detail that Faberge put into his designs, showing fruits and flowers in every stage.
Every photograph is annotated, and the essays have plenty of notes attached. There is an extensive index and while the book is not cheap -- the cover price is over 30$US -- it is worth it to add to any collector who is interested in Russian art, Faberge, or who simply delights in beautiful things. This is one of the best books about the Faberge workshops, and gives plenty of information that hasn't been revealed before. The photographs are what make this worth looking at -- they are very sharp, clear and evocative, each one a serene portrait of nature caught in time and craftsmanship.