Apologies... (from Moscow)

August 29 2021

Image of Apologies... (from Moscow)

Picture: View of the Kremlin by A K Savrasov - Tretyakov Gallery via. AB

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

Apologies for the delay in service this week. I’ve been off visiting Moscow for a few days. My previous visit to the city was twelve years ago, back when my interest in paintings was rudimentary compared with my knowledge of medieval Russian history.

As it happens, I have retraced the steps of another Warwickshire lad who made a similar journey two-hundred-and-twenty years ago. My research into the neglected archive of Warwick Castle unearthed an uncatalogued memoir and watercolours. They were made during the Grand Tour of Henry Richard Greville (1779-1853), Lord Brooke and later 3rd Earl of Warwick (pictured below). Henry’s tour brought him to Russia in September 1801 when he was a mere twenty-two-year-old. I have been re-reading his memoir during my travels here, comparing his experiences and impressions with my own.

The aesthetic focal point of Henry’s visit, as well as mine, were the magnificent Churches of the Kremlin. This glorious collection of ancient holy structures provides a rather otherworldly experience. The sheer number of frescos, icons and gilded decoration induces the same bedazzlement intended for its visitors back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Visiting foreigners have been a feature of Muscovy for centuries. I delighted in spotting a group of sixteenth-century Western courtiers (presumably ambassadors to Ivan the Terrible or the early Romanov Tsars) painted onto the walls of the Dormition Cathedral wearing their ruffs and lace collars (pictured below).

It seems the young Lord from Warwickshire too studied these places. He completed a quick watercolour of the curious ‘pineapple’ towers of Saint Basil’s Cathedral (pictured below), alongside a view of the then white-washed walls and towers of the Kremlin.

The scale and magnificence of Russia impressed him very much. The extravagance of the Russian nobility also dazed Henry with their endless entertainments and extremely hospitable open houses. He recounted having been told that carriages with less than ‘two four’ sets of horses were generally not admitted at Muscovite noble residences.

Henry’s visit was far more eventful than my own. His visit to Moscow coincided with the coronation of Emperor Alexander I. The young Lord managed to acquire a good seat for viewing the coronation service itself, where his attentions were directed towards the Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna:

…the Empress is very handsome – a fine figure. Looks very melancholy & far from happy – but I do not believe there was an Englishman present who did not think her the handsomest woman they had seen since leaving their own country.

During one of the coronation dinners chaos ensued trying to find a seat. Seatless-Henry eventually ended up sat on the Imperial family’s table:

…where he [Tsar Alexander] desired me to sit down & eat my supper which I did much to the Horror of our Embassadors & others, who thought I had done so inadvertently.

One of the pleasures that I had, which Henry did not, was exploring the vast collections of the Pushkin Museum and Tretyakov Galleries. I was quite taken aback by the scale of the latter. It contained so many iconic masterpieces that I had known from the front countless modern editions of Russian novels (pictured below).

The wealth of Italian and French works in the Pushkin Museum (the Flemish and Dutch galleries were closed, alas) kept me busy for a good four hours. Fortunately, the Babushki guardians of the Pushkin Museum allow to you get much closer to their paintings than in the Hermitage. A most curious thing, as their paintings seem to generally be in better condition than those in Petersburg. I had the joy of eyeing up outstanding works by the likes of Poussin, Claude, Boucher and Vigée Le Brun.

The Italian pictures are also impressive, including fine canvases by Carlo Dolci, Guido Reni, Canaletto and Tiepolo. In particular, I spent a considerable time examining this David with the Head of Goliath by Domenico Fetti (pictured below). It is a powerful picture that I have been waiting to see for a while now.

Exiting these places, I am left with many questions about the history of collections and taste for old masters in Russia. Is there a reason that they had so many versions of the Flaying of Marsyas, for example?

Picture: The Flaying of Marsyas by Luca Giordano - The Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Overall, one has the sense today that Moscow is a tremendously forward-looking modern city. Petersburg is a beautiful relic in comparison. Moscow is an intensely international city, an impression that Henry too captured in his watercolours of the many peoples he encountered there.  Change is inevitable in such a vast and ancient place that has experienced as much history as Moscow has. The surviving houses and palaces of the aristocracy, whose balls and entertainments Henry attended almost every evening, have mostly been converted into foreign embassies.

It will take me a mere 3 hours and 50 odd minutes to get back to Saint Petersburg by train. It took poor Henry no less than 8 days by horse, riding through wooden villages inhabited by the Russian peasantry. His journey continued southwards, taking him as far as Athens and Constantinople. Mine will end in the next few days, unfortunately.


Picture: The Street Market by Y Sorokin - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.