I was at the V&A yesterday in order to buy advance tickets for the Bowie exhibition (my parents are coming down at the end of May and my dad in particular really wants to see it), and while I was there I thought I might as well visit the new exhibition Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars. I am very interested in history – I have a degree in the subject and actually studied the Tudors at A Level – and I am fascinated by anything to do with Russia, so this exhibition sounded ideal for me.
The background to the exhibition is that the Tudor era was when relations with Muscovy – now Russia – began to be established. The explorer Richard Chancellor reached Muscovy in 1553, while looking for the north east passage – his route took him over Norway and Sweden rather than via the Baltic – and this kick-started the diplomatic and economic relationship between the two powers. In 1556 the English Court House was founded in Moscow and from then until the end of the reign of Charles I, English ambassadors were a regular presence in the city. Relations soured during Oliver Cromwell’s rule – Russian powers were appalled that the English had executed their monarch (understandably, given what would happen in 1918!) – but were reinstated at the Restoration of Charles II.
The exhibition attempts to convey the nature of the treasures of the Tudor and Stuart courts via displays of armour (including an impressive suit worn by the portly Henry VIII), beautifully wrought jewels and miniatures, and impressive pictures. As soon as you enter you see a pair of magnificent stone leopards that once graced one of Henry VIII’s palaces – they reminded me of the two living leopards that attend Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Just beyond are four large animal heralds belonging to the Dacre family – Thomas, Lord Dacre, fought for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. Impressive as these riches all were, I did wonder what they had to do with the Russian Tsars (other than the fact that they were from the same time period) – I thought the exhibition title was slightly misleading. Maybe that was just me?
Eventually, I came to a selection of displays that did have a clear connection to Russia, including diplomatic gifts that have been kept in the Kremlin in Moscow for years. Interestingly, their presence in Russia ensured their survival during the English Civil War – had they remained in this country, they would almost certainly have been destroyed. Some beautiful silver was on display, and a small replica – alongside video footage – of a magnificent carriage given to the Tsar Boris Godunov (immortalised in Alexander Pushkin’s play). I also enjoyed looking at the manuscript records and sources, including a record that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed – possibly for the first time – on Twelfth Night 1601 in honour of the Russian ambassador Gregory Mikolin.
The exhibition didn’t take very long to go round, which in a way was a good thing as it meant there wasn’t too much to take in. Although I was disappointed that the connection of some of the displays to Russia was tenuous, I did enjoy it and I don’t regret going.
Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars is on until 14 July.