The opening of the photo exhibition Tsarskoye Selo. Residence of the Last Emperor of Russia was held on Friday, 5th July in the Russian Spiritual and Cultural Orthodox Center (RDPC) in Paris. The exhibit features reproductions of unique colour images of the interiors of the Alexander and Catherine Palaces, taken several months after the abdication of Nicholas II.
“Although the Imperial palaces had been nationalized by the Bolshevik government, they were left virtually intact,” said Victoria Plauda, senior researcher at the Tsarskoye Selo Museum-Reserve, at the opening of the exhibition. According to her, it was thanks to the efforts of the creative intelligentsia of Petrograd, which included the artist Alexander Benois (1870-1960), the writer Maxim Gorky (1892-1936) and the singer Fedor Chaliapin (1873-1938), who collectively managed to achieve a thorough inventory of the former Imperial residences during which these photographs were taken.
The photos were taken by military photographer Andrei Zeest. The corresponding task was entrusted to him by the architect and art historian George Lukomsky, who headed the Tsarskoye Selo Artistic and Historical Commission created to preserve and protect the property of the former Palace Administration. Filming in the Catherine Palace began in June 1917, and in the Alexander Palace in August, immediately after the family of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II was exiled to Tobolsk, and continued until October of the same year.
The reproductions which are currently on display in the RDPC, reflect “stunning clarity and brightness of colours” – which were amazing for that time – are particularly noteworthy. The organizers also brought 11 black-and-white photographs from the collection of the Imperial family (the originals are kept in the library of Yale University in the USA), as well as 27 auto-chromes, not made with ordinary camera film, but with the aid of special glass dies with a special coating. Due to the microscopic size of the elements (about 0.015 mm), the structure of the image is not visible even with an increase in the resulting transparency. Some visitors even asked representatives of the museum if it was just a question of copies of authentic photographs of those times, and not about modern digital photographs.
“These photos are invaluable material for us, because we have already been working on reconstructing the historic interiors of the Alexander Palace for several years. And very soon, after a few months, our visitors will see the first restored halls of the former private apartments of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna,” the museum representative added. She also noted that the auto-chromes were invaluable to restorers and artists in the recreation of decorative items and furniture for the rooms.
The photo exhibition Tsarskoye Selo. Residence of the Last Emperor of Russia runs until Sunday, 25th August 2019, in the Russian Spiritual and Cultural Orthodox Center (RDPC) in Paris.
Difficult fate of a unique collection
The Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Reserve currently has more than 90 auto-chromes in their collection. In fact, there were many more of them, but after 1918 the trail of some of them was lost. After Lukomsky left the post of chairman of the Artistic and Historical Commission and went abroad, 843 images from black and white negatives and 83 color slides were transferred to the Kopeyka publishing house for reproduction in a publication prepared by Lukomsky but which never came to fruition. According to Plauda, Lukomsky took some pictures after he left Russia.
Only in the post-war years (late 1950s- early 1960s) was it possible to form a collection of 45 images, transferred to the Tsarskoye Selo Museum by the heirs of the photographer Zeest and a member of the Oxford club by the Englishman G. Barrat. In June 2012, the museum acquired another 48 auto-chromes at an auction organized by the Drouot auction house in Paris.
© Paul Gilbert. 8 July 2019