CATHERINE the Great’s reign was contradictory in many ways – an Enlightenment despot who was also a proto-feminist – but her patronage of the arts was discerning and far-reaching
CATHERINE THE GREAT - ENLIGHTENED EMPRESS
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND, EDINBURGH
WEAVING THE CENTURY
DOVECOT STUDIOS, EDINBURGH
Princess Sophie Frederica Augusta of Anhaldt-Zerbst was a minor Prussian princess, but her obscurity shaped her fate. Because it seemed she could be no threat, she was chosen as the bride of the heir to the Russian throne. The Empress Elizabeth had seized the throne in a coup. Childless herself, she appointed her nephew, Peter the Great’s grandson, as her heir, the future Peter III. He needed a bride to provide an heir to secure the line of Peter the Great. As her own position was shaky, Elizabeth did not want this bride to bring any new problems with her. Hence the choice of Princess Sophie, who on her marriage and conversion to the Orthodox Church became known as Catherine. She did her duty and provided an heir, although her husband may not have been the father. Her job done, in her own words she experienced “Eighteen years of boredom which however gave her the opportunity to read many books”.
When Elizabeth died, her nephew’s reign as her successor lasted just 186 days. Catherine, the obscure Prussian princess, proved to be a person of considerable resource. In a carefully calculated move, she claimed the throne herself. Peter III was deposed and within a week, he was murdered by the brother of one of Catherine’s lovers.
It sounds more like the Middle Ages than the Enlightenment, nevertheless Catherine the Great, as she came to be called, must certainly figure in any history of the Enlightenment. She was the patron of Voltaire and Diderot, whose books she read, and indeed both of whose libraries she purchased wholesale. She encouraged the arts and learning, established the Hermitage as one of the world’s greatest collections. She bought collections in bulk to fill it, though always with a discerning eye. She gave St Petersburg the ordered neoclassical appearance it still has. Her improvements to the city exactly coincided with the building of Edinburgh’s New Town, a fact surely to the credit of Edinburgh. All in the day’s work for an absolute ruler, imposing uniformity was a quite different undertaking for a modest city council.
Catherine also greatly expanded the Russian empire, westwards into Poland and south to annexe the Crimea. She was, up to a point, even a reformer in the spirit of the Enlightenment; though, always pragmatic, when she realised Russian society would not stand any greater extension of liberty, she limited her reforms to securing her own autocracy and the rights and privileges of the nobility.
Her career and achievements are now the subject of a sumptuous exhibition in the National Museum. It consists almost entirely of loans from the Hermitage and so reflects the friendly cooperation between the two institutions. Indeed the range and generosity of the loans is remarkable. They include, for instance, the coronation portrait of Catherine, restored for the occasion and not seen in public since the Revolution of 1917.
This relationship is itself part of the occasion for the exhibition, Catherine The Great - Enlightened Empress, but that itself also reflects a much older relationship, which is illustrated in the story that the exhibition tells. We have a historic connection to the Baltic. Easily accessible, it has always offered opportunity to adventurous Scots. It was in that tradition that Catherine’s dramatic initiatives in St Petersburg and in Russia more widely offered opportunity to a good many Scots. Several are given cameos here.
Samuel Grieg was one of several Scottish sailors who joined her service. He distinguished himself at the crucial victory over the Turkish navy at Chesme in 1770 and later became supreme commander of the Russian navy. When he was taken ill with a fever, Catherine’s personal physician, another Scot, Dr John Rogerson, was sent to tend him, unsuccessfully as it turned out.
Greig also persuaded Charles Gascoigne, the master of the Carron ironworks, to travel to Russia to set up the manufacture of the guns needed for Russia’s imperial campaigns. This was highly controversial. It not only took work from Scottish factories, but also supplied arms to a potential enemy. Other engineers followed Gascoigne, however, and thus a succession of Scots presided over the establishment of heavy industry in Russia.
The architect Charles Cameron is perhaps the best known of these Scottish servants of the empress. He introduced elements of cool neoclassical order to the baroque style of her favourite palace, Tsarskoye Selo, for instance. This was very much to Catherine’s taste and it was in keeping that she had a passion for the restrained classical beauty in miniature of antique gems and cameos. A selection from her superb collection is on display. James Tassie’s exquisite reproductions of classical gems appealed to her and she became his most important patron. She set up an art academy, but also workshops in many different crafts, both to encourage industrial skills and to furnish her many palaces. These crafts provide some of the most beautiful objects here, especially the gems and watches, the porcelain and a collection of particularly beautiful Russian-made glass.
Catherine’s portraits and indeed the clothes on view here are intriguing, and her personality comes through them. She was extremely energetic and hard-working and a good strategic thinker. She completed the work Peter the Great had begun in making Russia’s cities European and turning her adopted country into a major player in European politics.
If she isn’t already, she ought to be a feminist hero, too. As an autocrat she could do what she liked and so she did things that women everywhere would no doubt like to have done then and did eventually find the freedom to do. She rode horses astride, for instance, and occasionally wore men’s clothes, not because she was mannish, but because she didn’t see why comfort and convenience should be the privilege of only one sex. Nor did she see why men should be licensed to have all the fun.
Her love life was notorious and her lovers numerous. In the epitaph she composed for herself, she wrote “When she came to the Russian throne, she wished to do what was good for her country and tried to bring happiness, freedom, and prosperity to her subjects.” For some of them, certainly, this was true, but not for all. While she promoted the Enlightenment, in a way, by entrenching autocracy and the position of the nobility, she also inoculated Russia against it. Modern Russia is to an extent still shaped by Catherine. In the end, perhaps, enlightened despot is an oxymoron.
Tapestry was among the crafts Catherine established in Russia. In the 18th century with palaces to furnish this made sense, but in 1912 the Marquis of Bute set up a weaving workshop to help furnish his Gothic mansion Mount Stuart, tapestry was an anachronism. Certainly nobody could have suspected that as Dovecot Studios the workshop would still be flourishing a century later. An exhibition, Weaving The Century, marks the centenary and is accompanied by a book, The Art of Modern Tapestry: Dovecot Studios since 1912, edited by Elizabeth Cumming. In the early years, the productions of the workshop were certainly pretty old-fashioned. The secret of the workshop’s survival was the alliance that it formed with leading contemporary artists just after the Second World War. The range of artists with whom it has cooperated since then is quite remarkable. There are works here designed by Elizabeth Blackadder, Eduardo Paolozzi and Alan Davie, by Graham Sutherland and John Piper, but also by artists from overseas like Adolf Gottlieb and Louise Nevelson. These tapestries are, on the face of it, no more than paintings recreated in woven wool. It doesn’t sound promising, but in the process a strange metamorphosis takes place. The image is not simply transferred to a different medium. Perhaps because of the intricacy, but also our intuitive feel for the material, it takes on a different kind of life, a different level of object-hood.
• Catherine the Great runs until 21 October; Weaving the Century until 7 October
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