“As if the door had just closed behind them” – Anastasia Timina on the restoration of the Alexander Palace

PHOTO: Studio 44 architect-restorer Anastasia Timina

Any museum restoration and reconstruction requires the expertise of specialists: researchers, curators, architects and designers. In particular is the restoration of the iconic Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, which began in the autumn of 2015 and is not expected to be completed no earlier than 2022.

Anastasia Timina, an architect-restorer of the Studio 44 architectural bureau, a graduate of the Stieglitz Academy, and leading architect of the Alexander Palace restoration project.

What is the difference between an architect and an architect-restorer?

The work of an architect mainly affects modern buildings and structures, but we are dealing with history, with monuments of cultural significance which need to be preserved, reconstructed and at the same time treated with the utmost care. This involves certain restrictions and additional responsibilities.

The architects of our bureau are developing a project for the reconstruction of the Alexander Palace as a multi-museum complex for modern use, filling it with modern engineering networks and communications. The main task of the bureau’s restoration department is to reconstruct the interiors of the private rooms of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and to restore their historic interiors.

The restoration of the lost interiors is almost complete. At the moment, our department is engaged in the design of free-standing pieces of furniture for the restored interiors of the Alexander Palace based on historical photographs, descriptions and surviving samples. Fortunately, a table from the Mauve Boudoir and a chair from the Imperial Bedroom have survived, which have become standards for the manufacture of other items.

How long have you been working on the project to recreate the interiors of the Alexander Palace?

My participation began in 2014 from the stage of a detailed design. At that time I came to Studio 44 from the oldest design and restoration organization in St. Petersburg – Lenproektrestavratsiya.

The project for the reconstruction of eight interiors, which I was assigned to work on, included detailed drawings for wall decoration, built-in wall furniture, as well as sketches for the recreation of curtains for window and doorways.

The development of design documentation is divided into several stages: first, a draft design is created, showing the development of a general view and the main concept, followed by a detailed design – this is the most detailed documentation, including types of products, fragments, details, nodes at a scale of 1:1, specifications taking into account the volume and nature of the materials used.

In 2013, a draft design was completed, but having studied all the iconographic material in detail, I came to the conclusion that the working documentation required significant changes. I worked as part of a large team of architects-restorers, under the leadership of Oleg Arnoldovich Kuzevanov – the chief architect of the restoration project of the Alexander Palace. From 2016 to the present, I have been supervising the recreation of the interiors.

PHOTO: The eastern wing of the palace (highlighted on the left)
will become the Museum of the Russian Imperial Family

It is clear that this is a very complicated process. What is the most difficult task?

The most difficult task is to recreate an interior “from scratch”, to work on the project only on the basis of black and white historical photographs, often of poor quality. In the pictures, only part of the room can be seen, a complex angle is taken, there are no frontal views of the walls and interior details. Based on these images, it is necessary to understand how the space in the photograph is distorted, and to calculate the real dimensions and proportions of the projected objects. In such work, any genuine detail that has survived to our time helps, for example, fragments of fabrics. Having measured the size of the rapport and the details of the drawing, we can scale the photo and calculate the dimensions of the interior details surrounding the fabric.

Of course, we would be happy to have more historical photographs at our disposal, but we try to use all available interior images. For example, to a non-specialist, the image of the Empress against the background of a fragment of a chair (possibly out of focus), a table or curtains will seem useless from a restoration point of view, but we can visualize the necessary detail that is hidden in photographs of the interior. Even if a photo is blurry, of poor quality, and seems useless, it can, oddly enough, also be of invaluable design help. By the way, in our work we are also utilizing items from the Alexander Palace, which have been kept in the Pavlovsk Palace Museum-Reserve since the 1950s.

When restoring lost interiors, there is nothing more important than complete information and a large number of historical images in order to achieve maximum authenticity. Therefore, when new details (photos, inventories) and even small details appear, it is necessary to correct the project. We do this all the time.

What discoveries and interesting finds took place during the restoration work?

The most significant discovery is the original pieces of interior decoration found under the flooring of the Moorish Bathroom of Nicholas II.

This is a very complex interior full of different elements, including Metlakh tiles on the floor, a tiled fireplace and tiles covering the walls and sides of the pool. In this interior, there are more than 40 different types of tiles that do not repeat in pattern, relief, and most importantly, in colour. But neither the inventory nor the archival data gave us a detailed idea of ​​the colour scheme of the interior. All historical photographs are black and white, the only assistant was a watercolour by the architect Bezverkhny. During the construction work, when opening the floors of the first floor, genuine fragments of ceramic tiles and Metlakh tiles, marble were found in the layers of construction dust. A large bathing pool was also found with preserved tiles and two steps leading to the pool. Until this moment, we had no idea it had survived.

This discovery in September 2016 was a real miracle for us. We have revised and supplemented the project documentation, we have already restored the missing fragments of the tile pattern from historical photographs. In addition, small fragments of ceramic tiles for the fireplace facings in the Working Study of Nicholas II and the Maple Drawing Room were also found.

The second significant discovery concerns the found fragments of alfrey painting. During the clearing of the Soviet plaster layer, a historical plaster layer was discovered on the lime mortar with traces of tempera painting. A picturesque frieze ran along three sides of the Moorish Bathroom, but, unfortunately, only small, but still very valuable fragments of it have survived, as they display to us the true color scheme – both for the frieze and for the smoothly painted wall. Fragments of the murals on the walls of the lobby of the eastern wing were also found.

A very valuable find – a fragment of a historical plaster layer with a plastered “rose” molding that once adorned the walls and the archway, found during the opening of the historic opening connecting the mezzanines of the Empress’s Maple Drawing Room and the New Study of Nicholas II. This allowed us to restore the stucco decoration, and the true color of the walls.

Is the restoration of interior decoration carried out using traditional materials or with the help of modern technologies?

The problem is precisely how to achieve historical similarity using modern technologies.

Of course, when restoring interiors, traditional materials are used – precious woods (walnut, rosewood, maple, oak), lime mortar plaster, oak parquet flooring, etc. Ceramic tiles are made by hand and in ovens. In the preserved interiors (the New Study and the Reception Room of Nicholas II), restoration work is carried out in compliance with the restoration methods.

The situation is more complicated in the restored interiors. More than a hundred years have passed, technologies have greatly advance, but, unfortunately, the skill of manual labor has almost been lost, finishing materials (varnishes, enamels, glazes) have changed significantly, wooden carved parts are made on CNC machines, only slightly modified by hand.

The Alexander Palace is the favorite home of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II and his family, a place with a special energy. Do you feel a special responsibility?

The responsibility is colossal. It is quite clear that this is not a private, closed residence, but a museum, in which thousands of visitors will want to visit. I wanted to create a unique atmosphere for the presence of representatives of the Imperial family, to convey the spirit of a lost era. As if the door had just closed behind them.

The first eight interiors are now scheduled to open at the end of 2020.

© Paul Gilbert. 9 September 2020

Old Ekaterinburg through the lens of Prokudin-Gorsky


Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky, self-portrait 1912

NOTE: All of the articles pertaining to Nicholas II and his family which were originally published in my Royal Russia News blog, have been moved to this Nicholas II blog. This article was originally posted on 5 September 2018 in my Royal Russia News blog – PG

I have had the pleasure of visiting the Ural city of Ekaterinburg on three occasions over the past six years: 2012, 2016, and most recently in July 2018. Out of all the Russian cities which I have visited since 1986, Ekaterinburg has become my favourite.

It is a city rich in history, and the setting for one of the darkest pages in 20th century Russian history: the final days and murder of Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II and his family in the Ipatiev House on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

Sadly, the city is overlooked by most visitors to Russia. It is seldom included in group tours, relying mainly on foreigners travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express. Many of them stay for only one or two nights, which really is not enough time to explore and appreciate what Ekaterinburg has to offer. Having said this, however, Ekaterinburg is becoming increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, and the FIFA World Cup matches held in the city in June 2018 have helped spread the word to foreigners, that Ekaterinburg is indeed worth visiting.

As a devout book collector, I have always been on the hunt for pictorials, which offer vintage photographs of what life was like in Russia before the 1917 Revolution. During my most recent visit to Ekaterinburg, my book hunting skills produced a couple of gems to add to my personal home/office library.


Дом Ипатьева: летописная хроника в документах и фотографиях

Дом Ипатьева: летописная хроника в документах и фотографиях (Ipatiev House. Documentary and Photographic Annals. 1877-1977) by photojournalist and historian Vitaly Shytov. Published in 2013 in a hard cover edition in Chelyabinsk by the Auto-Count Publishing House, the book features more than 700 pages and more than 1,000 photographs. Only available in Russian. Shytov has dedicated 40 years of study to the tragic history of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. There were only 500 copies printed, and it remains the the most comprehensive study of the Ipatiev House to date. Sadly, Shytov’s research has been virtually ignored by Western historians, who have written on the last days of the Imperial family in the ‘House of Special Purpose’.


Екатеринбург: История города в фотографии

Екатеринбург: История города в фотографии. Том 1: Вторая половина XIX – начало XX веков (Ekaterinburg: History of the City in Photographs. Volume I. Second half of 19th – early 20th century) by A.V. Berkovich and O. A. Bukharkina. Second edition published in 2015 by the Ekaterinburg City Administration. Published in a hardcover edition, the book features 208 pages, and more than 200 vintage photographs. Despite the Cyrillic text on the book’s cover, the contents are in both Russian and English.

The latter presents a very different view of Ekaterinburg, in that it presents for the first time, a selection of historic photos from the most famous photographer of old Ekaterinburg Veniamin Leontiyevich Metenkov (1857-1933).


The Metenkov House and Photographic Museum is situated near the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg

Sadly, the Revolution destroyed the photography business which Metenkov created. He died in obscurity in 1933, his name forgotten for more than half a century. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the house where Metenkov lived and worked was turned into a museum named after him. Until recently Metenkov’s archive was believed to be lost, however, a persistent search for the photographers’ legacy yielded the discovery of more than 200 negatives in the funds of the Sverdlovsk Oblast State Archive.

Another noteworthy Ekaterinburg photographer was the city doctor Vladimir Alexandrovich Paduchev (1859-1919). The Paduchev family archive of more than 500 negatives focus on the private world of the city middle class, taken during the first decade of the 20th century. The collection lay hidden in an old barn for more than a century, before their discovery.

ALL colour photographs below are courtesy of the Ekaterinburg City Administration

The unique photographic view of Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Ekaterinburg, however, belong to the pioneer of colour photography Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).

His photos of Russia’s nature and monuments earned him invitations to show his work to the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1908, and to Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1909. The Tsar enjoyed the demonstration, and, with his blessing, Prokudin-Gorsky got the permission and funding to document Russia in colour. In the course of ten years, he was to make a collection of 10,000 photos.

Using a railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled the Russian Empire from 1905 to 1915, using his three-image colour photography to record its many aspects. He arrived in Ekaterinburg in 1909, where he gave lectures and visited Veniamin Metenkov at his home. Metenkov accompanied Prokudin-Gorsky on his trips in and around the city, suggesting interesting locations to be photographed.

Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, after the Russian Revolution, and eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1944. While some of his negatives were lost, Library of Congress purchased a collection of more than 2,600 images from the photographer’s sons in 1948.

All three photographers are represented in this handsome volume. Their legacies transcend a century, allowing the reader to look back to a unique and beautiful city, far removed from the ancient Russian capital of Moscow, and the glittering Imperial capital of St. Petersburg. These images document daily life in the Ural city, which has changed beyond recognition, many historic landmarks lost forever, and only the photographs preserve the flow of a lost world.

© Paul Gilbert. 4 November 2019