Treasures of Catherine the Great - Prince Gregory Potemkin
Hermitage Rooms - Somerset House

Another exhibition at Somerset House was Treasures of Catherine the Great, which took place in the Hermitage Rooms. The exhibition officially opened on 25 November at a ceremony attended by Prince Charles. The exhibition runs from the end of 2000- September 2001.

The name"Hermitage" derives from the hermitages built by the Renaissance princes on their country estates as spiritual retreats. In later times the term was applied by Louis XIV of France and other monarchs to country residences where court ceremony and formality were abandoned in favour of the simple life. Peter the Great imported the idea to Russia, building an Hermitage in the grounds of his country palace at Petergof and using it for private entertainment. Catherine the Great built her Hermitage pavilions onto the Winter Palace so as to be able to entertain friends and lovers in private. The rules she drew up for behaviour in the Hermitage are displayed in the Winter Palace Gallery. These show her great sense of humour, "Orders of precedence and haughtiness, and anything of such like which might result from them, shall be left at the doors"; or, "be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything".

She acquired hundreds of paintings, forming an art collection in her Hermitage, which was really museum. She also amassed hundreds of drawings and sculptures. But her real interest was for collecting engraved gems, some of them depicting biblical stories. She was indeed a voracious collector. The works of art and other precious items that she owned still dominate the state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, but now viewers have had a chance to see some of the treasures for themselves at Somerset House. Decorated in the style of the Winter Palace, even down to reproducing the delicate floor that adorns part of the Russian building. The suite of ground floor galleries evokes the splendour of Catherine's own surroundings and in the first room visitors are confronted by a large-screen real-time image of the Hermitage itself.

There are miniatures of Catherine's lover Count Grigory Orlov. But the most surprising is Catherine's wig made entirely of silver thread and on public display for the first time. Apparently, it was a gift to Catherine from the Russian Count - the leading dandy of his day! Legend has it that Catherine wore the wig when she took part in a play at the Count's palace. Her buying was not confined to Russia. One of the most striking of her dinner services was The Frog Service commissioned from Wedgwood for her Gothic Chesme Palace, built in Marshland. Each of its 994 pieces is decorated with a green frog as well as views of English palaces, castles and abbeys set in natural surroundings. One of the plates shows Somerset House.

In 1777 Johann Gottlieb Scharff made Catherine a snuffbox featuring a beautiful, enamel miniature of her favourite pet dog; a greyhound called Lisetta. The dog is at the centre of two circles of diamonds each as big as peas surrounded by hundreds of smaller gems.

She had her weak husband Peter III assassinated and had herself proclaimed Empress Catherine II. With her new lover Prince Gregory Potemkin by her side, she set about reforming her empire by freeing the serfs and embarking on a series of bloody but victorious military campaigns. She died of a severe stroke at the age of 67.

Geraldine Norman - a young women in her 60's - the English art correspondent and now Director of the new Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House is quite a character. She went to a select, upper-class girls' school - St Mary's in Calne - then on to St Ann's College, Oxford where she had - according to her parents - many unsuitable boyfriends!! In due course she married - again unsuitably to her parents' minds, but very happily - the author and playwright Frank Norman, an old Barnado's boy, with a short prison record, who became a household name in the sixties with his musical Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be. After he died, Jeffrey Bernard, already unwell, was her lodger for five years which gave her experience in dealing with tricky customers!! Geraldine Norman's love affair with St. Petersburg and the original Hermitage inspired the museum to loan this exhibition to the West following the year 1993 after 70 years of Communism.

I loved the exhibition. Like Geraldine, I too have a passionate love affair with Russian history, as you might have noticed from my previous entries in my diary. Good night, darlings.


Verinha Ottoni.


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