Peter Carl Faberge – Henry Charles Bainbridge



IN the execution of his work, Faberge invoked the aid of many styles, and absorbed them all: the French of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Italian of the Renaissance, Old Russian and Greek. Some of his objects are in the ‘art nouveau’ manner, some are purely  naturalistic, and some are caricatures ; yet to-day all his work is embodied in a single style, recognized as ‘Faberge’.

Whether the article is an animal in nephrite, a cigarette case in gold adorned in one of the French classic styles, some object in ‘art nouveau’, or a typically Russian figurine in a variety of stones, the same quality pervades them all, a quality so emphatic and distinctive that it admits of no error on the part of the seeing eye. I go further and say it is a quality which can be felt.

Such is creation: and it stamps Carl Faberge as the Master he was. What further is to be said is best stated in the words of his contemporaries. At the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where he exhibited his productions hors concours and received the award of the Legion of Honour, his work created a sensation. It was then that he was acclaimed by the goldsmiths of France: Louis Quatorze; Louis
Quinze; Louis Seize! ‘Where are they now?’ they said, and themselves replied: ‘In Petersburg, for we now call them “Faberge”.’ England was equally happy in her recognition of him, for it was Mr. Leopold Davis, the art connoisseur, who proclaimed him ‘The Last of the Great Craftsmen’.

Now I propose to take the verdict of the French goldsmiths as my text and to examine it in the hope that I may make clear in what this quality, which Faberge managed to instil, as if by magic, into all his articles, consists, and why it is that it exerts such an attraction over all those who collect his objects. It is evident from the action of the Frenchmen that they did not mean that Faberge had in some way appropriated their styles, and by some successful coup had made more objects and done more business than they themselves had done in France.

The only meaning to be attached to what they said is that Faberge, while still keeping their styles recognisable as such, had managed to do something to them which had enhanced their virtues. This actually is what the craftsman did, and it is this ‘something’ which is his chief contribution to Art.

If to-day you ask someone well versed in Fabergiana (a dreadful word, but I use it because Faberge matters have largely become a field of general interest and investigation) to tell you what this ‘something’ is, he will most likely say that it is something which his experience tells him is good, but which he cannot put into words, just as he knows very well the difference between a South African and a Brazilian diamond, but for the life of him cannot tell you in what it lies.

I propose to go further than this, and I hasten to add that though what I have to say is the result of my association with Faberge, it is his contribution, not mine. He flowered in his works, not in speech. His mind was of that type which may be called centripetal, not centrifugal. As soon as a subject presented itself to him, it ‘ worked inwards to the root of the matter, not outward to the flower. He was no long-winded story-teller therefore, and learned to express himself concisely in the fewest of words, the meaning of which left no doubt whatever in the minds of his hearers.

In the first place I would say to any investigator that he must at once get off the material plane and on to one which is not material, as we understand this word, otherwise there will be no practical outcome to his enquiry and he will come to a dead end. To illustrate my meaning

I return to the South African and Brazilian diamonds. Everyone will agree that whatever difficulty there may be in explaining in words the difference between these stones, one thing is certain: one is the product of South Africa and the other of Brazil. Further, to expect to find South African stones in Brazil and vice versa is to hope for the impossible.

Still further, that the South African stone owes its specific qualities to certain physical conditions prevalent in South Africa and the Brazilian to the physical conditions prevailing in Brazil. But when you put forward the suggestion that the genius loci of any country can be just as potent as a creative force, and even more so, then it is that only the dreamer and the poet are fully with you.

Having hit so many nails on the head long before the nails were there to hit, they know what you are talking about. To the many, you are living in the limbo of the lost in a fool’s paradise. And yet there is no need to travel far and wide in search of some demonstration of the power of locality. One has only to walk into a court of law, into the House of Commons, into a cathedral, go down a coal mine or, for a  matter of that, walk into one’s own home to be assured of the fact.

Writers on art to some extent acknowledge the existence of this power, but rarely do they emphasise it as a creative agent just as potent and concrete as rocks and soils.

And this brings me to Russia. By this time, you, reader, should have a very good idea which way we are going, so it will not come to you too suddenly when I say that the idiom of Russia is the idiom of Faberge. Nowhere in all the world is the ‘spirit of place’ more powerful than in  this one-sixth of the total land surface of the earth. Here it is certainly no will-o’-the-wisp, for it takes you by the throat. Why it should be so potent, who can say ? It may be due to its vast spaces, or to the snows, for there is no fertiliser like it.

With four-fifths of Russia in Asia and one-fifth in Europe, here East and West actually do meet. As East meets West, so does the negative meet the positive; the alkaline, the acid; the heart, the will and the intellect, and all these cannot come together without some reaction taking place.

May it not be that the ‘spirit of place’ par-takes of some essence compounded of all these ? Who can say ? But to whatever the spirit of Russia is due, there is no gainsaying its potency and its magic. And here, reader, it is well that you should take the next step in the company of another. No man has made a finer contribution to the understanding of Russia than Mr. Sacheverell Sitwell in his book, Valse des Fleurs.