Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress at Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland

By Jenni Davidson | 03 September 2012
A photograph of a carved wooden sledge
Catherine's Winter Carnival sledge© National Museums Scotland
Exhibition Review: Catherine the Great – An Enlightened Empress, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until October 21 2012

The Hermitage in St Petersburg is known for its vast and lavish collections. This is due in a large part to one woman, the Empress Catherine the Great. Her cultural acquisitions during the 18th century laid the foundation for what later became the State Hermitage Museum.

Catherine began her life as Sophie, a minor German princess who took the name Catherine when she converted to Russian Orthodoxy after her marriage to the future Peter III in honour of Peter’s grandmother, Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great.

She assimilated well into Russian society, so much so that she succeeded in being crowned empress of Russia in 1762 after a coup in which her husband was assassinated, despite her having no legal claim to the throne. This show celebrates the 250th anniversary of this unlikely accession.

A painting of Catherine the Great in full regalia
Attributed to Vigilius Eriksen, Catherine II in her Coronation Robes, after 1762.© State Hermitage Museum
More than 600 items have been borrowed from the Hermitage collections, including Old Master paintings, jewelled snuff boxes, porcelain, metalwork, furniture and clothing documenting her reign. They demonstrate some of the great Russian industries of the time: the Imperial Porcelain Factory, the Tula armouries and the Imperial Tapestry Factory.

Many of the objects have never been shown in Britain before. One painting has not been seen, even in Russia, since the Russian Revolution in 1917. Showing Catherine in her full coronation robes with all the symbols of state power, the painting was discovered in the Hermitage store and has only recently been restored.

Catherine achieved, consolidated and extended her power through allegiances with key men, two of the most important being her "favourites" - Count Grigory Orlov and Prince Grigory Potemkin.

One of the most striking exhibits on display is the Cameo Service, a beautiful tea set of gilded turquoise porcelain decorated with cameos that were copied from cameos in Louis XVI of France’s own collection. This tea set was given to Potemkin as a gift and it was so expensive it took Catherine 24 years to pay for.

Catherine had a passion for cameos and amassed a vast collection of carved gemstones during her life. By the end of her reign this amounted to 10,000 originals and 34,000 copies.

The Scots cameo artist James Tassie supplied her with 30,000 copies of his designs, and the Hermitage now has the largest collection of his designs in the world. A selection can be seen here.

There were a number of Scots at Catherine’s court, and the exhibition pays tribute to a few of them, including her doctor, John Rogerson; Admiral Samuel Greig, who played a key role in Catherine’s navy; and the architect Charles Cameron, who brought the spirit of Robert Adam to Russia, redesigning the summer residence of Tsarskoye Selo according to Catherine’s taste for the neoclassical style.

For all her opulence, Catherine was a progressive Empress who was influenced by Enlightenment ideas from abroad.

She corresponded with Diderot and Voltaire and bought their libraries, some of the contents of which are on display.

Voltaire refered to her as "an enlightened despot". She undertook a number of social reforms and seriously considered one of the most radical possible measures, to abolish serfdom. She was put off by the French Revolution and the Russian peasants’ revolt, realising that such a move would threaten her ability to hold onto power.

A painting of Catherine the Great in men's riding clothes
Vigilius Eriksen, Equestrian Portrait of Catherine II, after 1762.© State Museum Hermitage
She also had a great sense of fun. She didn't like the hierarchy of court, where she was held in reverence, so she set up the Small Hermitage to escape the protocol of the White Palace.

“When I enter a room, you would say that I had the head of a Medusa," she said.

"Everyone is petrified and they all stiffen up. I often screech like an eagle against such habits. But I can tell you that this isn’t the way to stop them because the more I screech, the less people are at their ease.”

One can only imagine the effect of an Empress screeching like an eagle on her courtiers, but inside the Small Hermitage she made her own house rules, some of them quite amusing.

She decreed that all ranks, hats and swords must be left outside, there was to be no yawning and no gnawing at anything and everyone had to be sober enough to walk at the end of the night.

The punishment for breaking the rules was reading out loud from the Telemachida, a contemporary Russian poem that was considered to be very boring.

Catherine was very much a Renaissance woman. As well as collecting art and studying Russian history and culture, Catherine wrote books - including what is thought to be the first children’s book in Russian - and loved sledging and hunting.

There is an impressive carved sledge in the exhibition, which she used at the Winter Carnival, and a number of carved ivory firearms made for her and her grandchildren.

Catherine ruled Russia for 34 years and left an extraordinary cultural legacy that still stands today. The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world and this exhibition gives taste of the glories it has to offer - and the woman behind it.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission £9 (concessions £6-£7.50). Book online.
More pictures:

A photograph of a turquoise and gold porcelain tea service
Pieces from the Cameo Service© National Museums Scotland
A photograph of a row of busts
Busts of key Enlightenment figures© National Museums Scotland
A photograph of a glass cabinet with various objects in it
Items from the Small Hermitage© National Museums Scotland
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