Mrs Alice Keppel (1869-1947)
Mrs Sonia Cubitt, daughter of Mrs Keppel
Sale: Sotheby’s Geneva, 11 May 1989 (Objets de Vitrine from the Collection of Mrs George Keppel)
Carl Fabergé, Goldsmith to the Tsars, Stockholm, National Museum, 6 June 1997 – 19 October 1997, no. 102
Carl Fabergé, Goldsmith to the Tsars, Stockholm, no. 102, p. 145, illustrated in colour
A Fabergé gold cigarette case of rectangular form with arched top and bottom, decorated with translucent royal blue enamel over an engine-turned ground, divided by vertical gold stripes, the gold mounts engraved with flowerheads and laurel leaf bands, further set with a diamond thumbpiece; contained in its original wooden case, the interior of the lid stamped with the Imperial warrant and inscribed: ‘Fabergé, St. Petersburg, Moscow, London.’
The cigarette case comes from the collection of Mrs Alice Keppel (1868-1947), the most famous mistress of King Edward VII and great-grandmother to Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, the spouse of Prince Charles. Both the King and Mrs Keppel were avid smokers. Unlike many ladies of the period, Mrs Keppel smoked in public and surrounded herself with all the elegant paraphernalia of jewelled cigarette cases, vesta cases and cigarette holders.
Hailed as one of the most beautiful women of her time, Alice Keppel was one of the best-known society hostesses of the Edwardian era. ‘I liked greatly to listen to her talking,” her friend Sir Osbert Sitwell later wrote about her, “if it were possible to lure her away from the bridge table, she would remove from her mouth for a moment the cigarette which she would be smoking with an air of determination, through a long holder, and turn upon the person to whom she was speaking her large, humorous, kindly, peculiar discerning eyes’. (O. Sitwell, Great Morning, London, 1948, p. 218)
The eighth daughter of Admiral Sir William Edmonstone, Alice Keppel was born in 1869, and at the age of twenty-two married the Hon. George Keppel. In 1898 she met Edward Albert, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), then aged 56. She was 29, and within a matter of weeks, Alice was his official mistress. The royal affair was an open secret. Her husband and queen Alexandra knew about the affair that continued until the king’s death in 1910. She was even called to his deathbed by the queen who tolerated her although she didn’t like her.
When Mrs Keppel died, a large quantity of jewellery and objets de vitrine were deposited with Drummond’s Bank where they remained for forty-six years. On the death of Alice’s daughter Sonia in 1986 the items were sold by Sotheby’s at Hotel Beau-Rivage, Geneva (first sale – 11 May 1989, Sotheby’s, Geneva). The items formed a fabulous collection of objets d’art acquired and collected by Alice. Fabergé items in the sale spoke of Alice’s connection with the royal Fabergé collection.
Alice Keppel was a great admirer of Karl Fabergé’s work and was instrumental in the creation of the Royal collection of Fabergé: she advised the king on presents for his wife Queen Alexandra. Records show that Mrs Keppel was largely responsible for the creation of the famous Sandringham animals. Alexandra and her sister Dagmar, who became Empress Maria Fyodorovna, consort of Tsar Alexander III were two major patrons to whom Carl Fabergé owed his international success. The two sisters engaged in a constant exchange of gifts for Easter, Christmas and birthdays. Soon Edward VII was equally passionate about the pieces – an enthusiasm he passed on to his son, George V and the rest of Edwardian society.
At her death, Alice Keppel’s Fabergé collection in Florence included twelve items: a gold and enamel pedestal pill-box, five gold and enamel cigarette cases; an enamel vanity case; a gold, enamel and hardstone vesta case for matches; a gold, diamond and enamel egg pendant; a jewelled gold and enamel miniature Easter egg; a gold enamel and hardstone patch box; and a jewelled hardstone compact. All the pieces were acquired prior to the Russian Revolution when Fabergé’s business was at its height.
Fabergé piece mostly associated with Mrs Keppel is the snake cigarette case, now in the Royal Collection (RCIN 40113). She presented the case to Edward VII sometime around 1908. After king’s demise, his wife Queen Alexandra returned the case to Mrs Keppel ‘as a souvenir’. Twenty-five years later, in 1936, Mrs Keppel gave the case to Queen Mary, thereby ensuring that it would remain in royal ownership.