A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY:
Wedgwood in Russia

Empress Catherine II commissioned the Green Frog Service from Josiah Wedgwood in 1773

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Triangular tray from the Green Frog Service by Wedgwood. The service was commissioned by Catherine II in 1773 and delivered to Russia in 1774. From 1777 it was kept at the
Kekerekeksinen Palace (renamed the Chesme Palace in 1780). In 1830 it was moved to the English Palace at Peterhof and transferred to the Imperial Hermitage in 1912.

Earlier this week, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg opened a new exhibition: A Sentimental Journey - Wedgwood In Russia in the former Blue Bedroom of the Winter Palace. The exhibit is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Exhibition of Wedgwood Ceramics in the Imperial Academy of Arts, one of Its supervisers was the first Director of the State Hermitage Museum - Sergey Nikolaevich Troynitsky (1882-1948).

Empress Catherine II commissioned the Green Frog Service from Josiah Wedgwood in 1773 through Alexander Baxter, the Russian consul in England. Work on the commission was completed in the summer of 1774.

The service was intended for Catherine's wayside palace at a spot called Kekerekeksinen, which means "frog marsh" in Finnish. Hence the original name, Kekerekeksinen Palace, and the original, amusing emblem - a green frog in a heraldic shield, placed upon each item in the commissioned service.

The set was made for 50 persons and included dinner (680 pieces) and dessert (264 pieces) services, totalling 944 items. Each object in the service was, in keeping with the commission, decorated with a view or views of old castles, abbeys, country estates, suburban mansions, urban and rural landscapes, and majestic natural scenes. In all there were 1,222 views, with not a single repetition, forming a unique panorama of Great Britain. Wedgwood's partner, Thomas Bentley, compiled a handwritten catalogue for Catherine II containing the titles of all the views. The numbers given to the views in Bentley's catalogue are written in dark brown ink on the back of each item.

The majority of items in the service duplicate the so-called "royal shape" that got its name from the fact that Wedgwood used this design to make a service for King George III. But the models for some items - compotiers, cream bowls and ice-cream dishes - were created specially for the Green Frog Service. This modified version of the "royal shape" was given the name "Catherine shape". The dinner service part of the set was embellished with a border of oak sprigs, while the dessert service had a border of ivy leaves. The items in the service were shaped and fired at the Etruria factory in Staffordshire, then sent to the Chelsea Decorating Studios in what was then a suburb of London to be painted. The service was made in a type of pottery new for its time, standardized by Wedgwood through the improvement of traditional English cream-coloured earthenware. In 1766 Wedgwood had given this material the name "Queen's ware" in honour of Queen Charlotte, whose patronage he enjoyed.

When the service was nearing completion, the bulk of it was put on display at Portland House, Greek Street in London, so as to show it to the English public before it was dispatched to Russia. The exhibition, which opened on 1 June 1774, was honoured with a visit from Queen Charlotte. The service reached Russia in September that same year. At the present time the Hermitage collection includes some 770 items from the famous Green Frog Service.

In 1777 the service was delivered to the Kekerekeksinen Palace, built by Yury Velten. a Grenouillere, as Catherine called the palace (translating the Finnish name, meaning "frog marsh" into French), functioned as a stopping-place for the imperial court on the road from the capital to the summer residence of Tsarskoye Selo. On 24 June 1780 the new masonry palace was renamed to mark the anniversary of the Russian naval victory over the Turks at Chesme Bay in the Aegean. That same day saw the consecration ceremony of the church that was built nearby to the design of the same architect in 1777-1780. The Chesme Palace and Church were the earliest Neo-Gothic constructions in the environs of St Petersburg.

Church of Saint John the Baptist at Chesme Palace

Visitors were drawn to the collection of full-length painted portraits of the rulers of European countries and members of their families (including Catherine II). The portrait gallery occupied the central hall and ten adjoining rooms. In the upper part of the walls bas-reliefs by Fedot Shubin depicted all the Russian rulers and monarchs from Rurik to Elizabeth Petrovna. In Catherine II's time the round central hall served as a meeting place for members of the Order of St George, of which the Empress was head. The hall contained a throne upholstered in red velvet embroidered with gold. In front of the throne, on a velvet-covered table, stood the famous Chesme inkwell, made of gilded bronze decorated with enamel. Nowadays the inkwell is in the Hermitage collection. Early descriptions of the palace, dating from 1782, make the first mention of the Green Frog Service as one of its sights. There are several documents indicating that the service was used on special occasions. In 1777, for instance, when King Gustavus III of Sweden visited Russia under the pseudonym Count Gotland, he attended the laying of the foundation of the Chesme Church. At the formal dinner that followed the ceremony, "the table was laid using the faience service". The British ambassador to St Petersburg, Sir James Harris (later Lord Malmesbury) also saw the service and described it in a letter to his father dated 3 June 1779. The service was used again when the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II visited St Petersburg under the name of Count Falkenstein. The Emperor was present at the consecration of the Chesme Church. Additionally, the service is mentioned in the diary of King Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski.

After Catherine's death in 1796 the Chesme Palace was deserted. The service was forgotten, left in the three sideboards where it had been kept in the Empress's lifetime. In 1799 Emperor Paul I gave orders for the palace to be given over to the Knights of Malta (of the Order of St John of Jerusalem) for use as a hospital to be financed by the order. These plans were not implemented, however, as a special commission found the building entirely unsuited to house a medical institution. In 1812, under Alexander I, the round hall on the ground floor was converted into a church, and it was here that the Emperor's body rested for a time on the way from Taganrog in the south, where he died in 1825, to his burial-place in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.

Watercolour of the Chesme Palace

In the summers of 1827-28 young girls belonging to a charity institute lived in the palace, and two years later a decree was issued ordering that the palace be restored to a condition befitting its status. There followed a series of reports on the state of the building, one of which noted the need to replace the old dilapidated sideboards in which the Wedgwood service was kept. On 21 April 1830 it was decided to turn the palace into a home for war veterans and the service was soon removed to Peterhof.

Its new home was to be the English Palace, constructed within the English Park at Peterhof in the late 18th century, a time when many palaces and mansions were being constructed in the environs of St Petersburg. Interest in English culture was enormous at that time and in 1799, the noted English gardener James Meader was invited to create landscape parks at Peterhof. The actual palace building, designed by Giacomo Quarenghi for Catherine II, was austere and impressive. Throughout the 19th century it was used for various purposes, including living accommodation for the diplomatic corps. The palace was also a favourite place to hold tea parties. In the 1860s some of its rooms were given to the board of the Peterhof Veterans Home and from 1885 to 1917 the building accommodated the court choir. In 1885, during major restoration work at the palace, an inventory was made of its contents. The greater part of the lists then compiled was an inventory of the Green Frog Service.

The English Palace at Peterhof

Subsequent events in the history of the service are connected with the British researcher George Williamson, whose contacts with the Russian imperial court led to a revival of interest in this forgotten work of art. George Charles Williamson, a doctor of letters, member of the Legion d'Honneur, an art expert known as a connoisseur of miniatures and the editor of Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers was the first to begin studying the history of the service. The starting point was Dr Williamson's interest in Burgh House in Hampstead, formerly the property of Queen Anne, which his family owned between 1906 and 1924 (today it is an exhibition centre and local history museum. In collecting information about the building, Williamson came across views of Hampstead in William Howitt's book Northern Heights of London (1869) with a reference to the Russian service and he decided to seek out the service itself. At that time, however, it was believed to have been lost long since. Approaches to the administration of the Wedgwood company and Russian officials proved fruitless. Yet Dr Williamson's conviction that he should continue the search led to him applying to Emperor Nicholas II himself. As a result the service was brought back from oblivion and put on display in a splendid case in the English Palace as one of its main attractions. Subsequent requests to the Emperor and Dowager Empress Maria Fiodorovna led to 34 items from the famous service being provided to the Wedgwood company for its jubilee exhibition in 1909, marking 150 years of Josiah Wedgwood's pottery business. Francis Wegdwood, a descendant of the founder and representative of the firm, personally escorted the exhibits from Russia. In 1912 items from the service were included in a Wedgwood exhibition at the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, and on 22 September 1912, the bulk of the service was given to the Hermitage, excluding only those pieces that were in the Cottage palace, Maria Fiodorovna's summer residence in the Alexandria Park at Peterhof. (Those articles were reunited with the rest in 1921.) The Green Frog Service has been evacuated twice. The first time was by Kerensky's Provisional Government in 1917, when it was moved to Moscow together with part of the Hermitage stocks. It came back in 1921. During the Second World War the service was sent to safety in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) in the Urals. In 1945 it returned intact to the State Hermitage, where its occupies a place as "one of the most famous European dining services" as a gem in the collection of decorative and applied art.

A Sentimental Journey - Wedgwood In Russiaruns until March 31st, 2013 at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Source & Copyright: The State Hermitage Museum and Royal Russia
12 December, 2012