Silver & Objets de Vertu

Silver & Objets de Vertu

The tradition of gold- and silver-smithing in Russia reaches back well into the Middle Ages. Beginning in the mid-16th century, throughout the 17th century, until the reign of Peter the Great, the Kremlin workshops (Oruzhenynaya palata) produced superb jewelled and enamelled gold and silver-gilt artefacts, many of them commissioned by the tsars. Many of them can today be admired in the Kremlin Armoury Museum. The forms of these objects were essentially Russian: the oklad (icon covers), kovsh (duck-shaped drinking vessel), charka (vodka cup), bratina (bowl), stakan (beaker), as well as arms and liturgical implements. Neglected throughout most of the 18th century and early 19th century when they were supplanted by Western shapes and decorations, all these forms resurfaced during the Russian national revival beginning in the 1840s and remained popular until the 1917 Revolution.

Beginning with the rule of Peter I in the late 17th century and until the reign of Alexander I (1801-1825), Russian decorative arts, including silver and gold, were subjected to several waves of European influence, first Dutch, then German and finally French. Craftsmen from these countries supplied the Russian court with great masterpieces, and many of them settled in St.Petersburg, inspiring their Russian competitors to ever more European forms of expression. Early Victorian silver continued to exercise influence in St.Petersburg through the Magasin anglais or “The Great English Shop of Nichols and Plinke”, founded in 1804 as a retailer of fine wines, silk, toilet accessories and porcelain. By the end of the 1830s they had become the main suppliers to the Court in silverware, their pre-eminent position lasting until 1878. Carl Tegelsten and his workshop, one of the outstanding sources of fine silver, also produced large services for the Imperial family in the 1830/40s. The leading suppliers in liturgical objects were Fedor Verhkovtsev and Danila Andreyev, whose highly celebrated works have been almost completely annihilated by the Bolsheviks. Other names, celebrated at the time, but little known today are those of Aleksander Kordes and of the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Vaillant. Moscow, on the other hand, could boast of the most important Russian silversmith of the mid-19th century, Ignaty Sazikov, whose work was highly appreciated both at home and abroad.

Russia owes Nicholas I (1825-1855), who was personally fascinated by his country’s glorious historical and artistic past, the re-introduction of a truly national idiom. It was Nicholas who encouraged and financed the pioneering studies of Fedor Solntsev, Russia’s architectonic past. His publications were to have a lasting effect on Russian decorative arts of this tsar’s reign, including Ignaty Sazikov, Pavel Ovchinnikov, Ivan Khlebnikov and all the other Russian craftsmen represented in this catalogue.

Sazikov showcased his gold and silver wares at the Russian shop located at Englehardt House on Nevsky Prospect, St.Petersburg and won a gold medal at the local Industrial Art Exhibition of 1849. Abroad his figural sculpture “Dmitri Donskoi” won him a Grand Gold Medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the first example of a Russian historical subject treated by a silversmith. Other typical examples of this uniquely Russian idiom are trompe l’ oeil wares such as woven baskets, vodka-sets with basket-weave mounts and cigar or cigarette-boxes engraved with tax-bands. The Pan Slavic, or Old Russian style permeates all of Russian decorative arts for virtually the entire second half of the 19th century.

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