Today, August 19th marks World Photography Day – a perfect day to present the following article on the Romanov Family Albums stored in the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
The first Kodak camera was gifted to the Tsesarevna Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna (future Empress Maria Feodorovna) in the late 1860s, when she took a serious interest in photography.
Her passion later became one of the favourite pastimes of her son Emperor Nicholas II and his family, who were often seen carrying Kodak Brownie Box cameras. They snapped thousands of images, pasted them in albums, many of which have survived to this day.
The family’s passion for photography was also shared by close friends, the most popular being Anna Aleksandrovna Vyrubova (1884-1964), the best friend and confidante of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna,
Anna was an avid photographer, one who captured the private day-to-day lives of Russian’s last tsar and his family on camera. During her years at the Russian Court, she diligently preserved her photograph collection into large handsome sturdy albums, bound in textured leather—green, blue, and brown.
In her memoirs, Vyrubova wrote that she and Alexandra pasted the photos onto the pages together. Often, the tsar himself—a notoriously fastidious man—stood over the two women, supervising them as they worked. “He could not endure the sight of the least drop of glue on the table,” wrote Vyrubova.
Anna in old age and in exile, reliving memories of the Imperial family before the Revolution
Six of the *seven personal photo albums of Anna Vyrubova are today kept at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The albums contain about three thousand (!) photographs of the everyday life of Emperor Nicholas II and his family.
[*Anna presented Album No. 1 to Queen Louise, who bequeathed it to Prince Ludwig. This album is now stored in Darmstadt – PG]
When Anna fled Bolshevik Russia in 1920, the albums were one of the few things she took with her into exile to Finland. In 1937, Robert D. Brewster, then a student at Yale University, visited Anna to learn more about the family of the last Emperor. In his article The Golden Hours of the Romanovs, published in the Summer 2003 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, writer Tim Townsend explains Brewster’s interest in the subject began after seeing the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress.
Life in exile was not good for Anna, her health was poor, she lived in very cramped conditions, she had no income, and she was even denied citizenship. As a result, Brewster persuaded Anna to sell him the albums, as well as 35 letters written by her from prisons of the Provisional and Bolshevik governments. In 1951, Brewster donated the albums and letters to his alma mater.
The albums were transferred to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where they were catalogued and remained there until 1966, almost unknown to anyone. It was not until the autumn of 1966, when the Pulitzer laureate Robert K. Massie, was finishing his now classic bestseller Nicholas and Alexandra, that brought him to Yale and discover the now famous photograph collection.
Click HERE to view ALL 6 Romanov Family Albums stored in the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Note; click on each album to open and view the photographs.
Robert K. Massie (1929-2019) wrote the introductory text for the book The Romanov Family Album (published by Vendome Press in 1982), explaining how he discovered the Romanov albums and of their immense historic value:
“I see wonderful things!” – exclaimed British archaeologist Howard Carter, when he first poked his head into Tutankhamun’s tomb and there, by the light of a flickering candle, glimpsed the glitter of golden objects that had slept for thirty centuries. Something of the same thing came over me the first time I saw the collection of Romanov photographs from which the present series has been selected.
My wife and I found them almost by accident. In the autum of 1966, I was nearing the end of three years work on Nicholas and Alexandra. Suzanne, long involved with the research and editing, had taken complete charge of the search for illustrations, scouring commercial film libraries and seeking individual pictures in private hands. At the time, she was also writing about ballet and had become a friend of Evgenia Lekhovich, the director of the School of American Ballet. Evgenia and her husband Dmitry both were interested in our attempt to recreate the life of the last Russian Imperial family, and Evgenia suggested that I might like to meet a Russian friend of their, Sergei Taneyev, who lived in New York. Taneyev was the brother of Anna Vyrubova, the intimate friend and confidante of the Empress Alexandra. Perhaps, Evgenia suggested, he could add something to the story his sister told in her book Memories of the Russian Court [published by Macmillan in 1923 – PG]. I was eager, but Mr. Taneyev, it developed, was not; he had apparently tired of being identified as “Anna Vyrubova’s brother”. But he did say to Evgenia Lekhovich: “Tell Mr. Massie that Yale University has some of my sister’s things.”
I reacted casually to these words. After telephoning New Haven, where a charming research librarian named Marjorie Wynne, confirmed that Yale did, have certain materials catalogued as “Romanov Memorabilia”. I arranged to go and take a quick look on Saturday morning before attending a football game. I had been writing myself into exhaustion; an afternoon in the fresh air seemed a healthy prescription.
And so, on an October morning in 1966, Suzanne and I walked into Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. We met Miss Wynne and filled out the required forms. Soon, from behind closed doors, a small, rolling table was wheeled in, laden with six fat albums in cloth and leather, all peeling and cracking at the edges. We opened the first album. Here were photographs of an Edwardian family in the lighter moments of life. But, incredibly, they were not just any Edwardian family; they were the Russian Imperial family, which a few years later would be obliterated in the revolution, along with so much of the life and culture of Old Russia. Turning the pages, we found hundreds of pictures, collectively confirming the millions of words that I had read about the life of this couple and her children. It was an extraordinary collection: the most complete set of intimate photographs of the imperial family to survive the holocaust of the revolution. Not only had most images of this kind been lost, scattered or confiscated during the revolution itself, but afterwards there were stories of attempts by Soviet agents to locate, remove, and destroy from all public and commercial archives any photographs depicting the last tsar and his family as normal human beings, whose faces and activities might arouse a shred of interest or sympathy.
But here they were, like Tutankhamen’s treasure, miraculously surviving. We have them today because of an unusual set of circumstances. The years when these pictures were taken coincided with the first days of the age of popular photography. The capturing of images on a light-sensitive surface was half a century old by the turn of the 20th century, but it was during the pre-war years of the Edwardian era that amateurs began regularly to take informal pictures – we call them snapshots – of family and friends, on guard and off. Kings and Queens, no less than nobleman and middleclass folk, issued the command: “Look this way! Now hold very still!” pointing their Brownies at each other.
Nicholas II had an especially keen interest in photography. [see my article Nicholas II: The Amateur Photographer – PG] It was he who commissioned the extraordinary collection of color photographs of the Russian Empire by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, a collection that has recently been published. Traveling for six years across the expanse of Russia, Prokudin-Gorsii took pictures of rivers, lakes and forests, of simple wooden churches and thick-walled fortress monasteries, of muddy village streets and everyday peasant life, of canals, locks and bridges, and brought them back so that the Emperor could see his Empire. Naturally, like most monarchs of the day, Nicholas II also employed official court photographers who recorded the ceremonial scenes of pomp and flourish which went with the specialized work of royalty. In addition, however – and this is where we today are extremely fortunate – Nicholas kept some of these photographers on assignment even when he and his family were off-duty; now the cameraman’s task was to capture moments of intimate family life. And so the shutters clicked while the Emperor went rowing, finished a set of tennis, or strolled off into the woods in search of mushrooms. They recorded the Empress knitting on her yacht or wading barefoot along a rock-strewn beach. They caught the little Tsarevich Alexei playing soldier and teasing his kittens. Sometimes, the cameras were in fact, held by royal hands – several of the pictures in this book were taken by Empress Alexandra herself.
Once the films had been processed, duplicate prints were delivered to the Imperial apartments. There, after dinner, the family hugely enjoyed settling down to an evening of pasting pictures into green leather albums stamped in gold with the Imperial monograph. After 1907, the Empress’ closest friend Anna Vyrubova, joined this intimate circle. She too had copies of the prints, and she arranged and captioned them in her own albums.
© Paul Gilbert. 19 August 2020