Fabergé Travels to Tennessee

The United States lost one of its greatest Fabergé collections to Russia in 2004, when the Forbes Collection was sold to Victor Vekselberg. But despair not—there are still great Fabergé pieces to be seen here, and one collection debuted last month at a new home in Nashville, Tenn.

The Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection (MGGFC) is the result of one woman’s passion for Fabergé. Gray began collecting Fabergé items in the early 1930s, but the foundation itself sprang from her desire to ensure that her extensive collection would be seen by the general public. The foundation, which is managed by Gray family members and other trustees, assumed control of the collection after Gray’s death in 1971. An extensive tour of U.S. museums followed, and then the foundation placed the collection on long-term loan to the New Orleans Museum of Art.

In February the collection debuted at Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art in Nashville for a five-year stay, thanks to Harold H. “Spook” Stream, Gray’s grandnephew. Stream, a longtime resident of Nashville, arranged for the loan, as he and his family are involved at the museum and wanted to see the collection in their hometown.

The Cheekwood exhibition has been guest-curated by John Keefe, curator of Decorative Arts at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the author of Masterpieces of Fabergé: The Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection.

MATILDA GEDDINGS GRAY

Gray was a “shrewd, clever businesswoman,” says Keefe, who built up her family’s petroleum holdings while nurturing a strong artistic streak. She was a student at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College of Tulane University in New Orleans where she decorated Newcomb pottery—a revered name to American pottery collectors—in traditional floral motifs drawn from the Deep South. She also was a skilled bookbinder and sculptor and had a natural talent for painting and drawing that she enhanced with formal lessons from the renowned Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo.

Don’t go looking for displays of her work, however. “Her pottery is extremely rare,” says Keefe. He notes that NOMA has one tyg—a large multihandled ceramic drinking cup—on loan from Matilda Gray Stream, Miss Gray’s niece and Spook Stream’s mother. “All of her other work is in the family possession,” Keefe says.

Gray’s first exposure to Fabergé came at the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago, where she saw an Armand Hammer display of Russian art. Thereafter she became a recognized Fabergé collector and a regular customer of the major dealers—including the Hammer Galleries and A la Vieille Russie in New York and Wartski Ltd. in London.

Keefe notes that Gray was a pioneer in collecting Fabergé, assembling her collection long before the House of Fabergé became a renowned name. She also got the jump on other American collectors—although she eventually saw competition from wealthy Fabergé enthusiasts including Marjorie Merriweather Post and Malcolm Forbes.

THE FLORALS

MGGFC contains 57 pieces. Alongside three Russian Imperial Easter eggs are functional items, such as smoker’s accessories, frames, boxes, and carved gemstone trays. MGGFC also contains the second-largest collection of Fabergé floral pieces—18—in the world. It is surpassed only by the English Royal Collection, which has 20.

Among the floral groups is an item that’s regarded as Fabergé’s floral masterpiece, the Imperial Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket of 1896. This piece, which is attributed to work master August Wilhelm Holmström, manipulates various ingredients into an extraordinarily lifelike product. The basket is fashioned from woven yellow gold, while the “moss” from which the flowers grow is yellow and green gold that has been spun, fused, and clipped. The plants consist of carved nephrite leaves, gold stems, and pearl blossoms edged with silver and rose-cut diamonds.

The Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket was one of the favorite possessions of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872–1918). “It’s the greatest piece, and my favorite in the collection,” Keefe says. “It’s the greatest single piece in the United States. People are always focusing on the eggs, but there are over 50 of them—whereas the Lily-of-the-Valley Basket, there’s only one. So mainly, I’m taken first by its beauty, and second, by its rarity.”

MGGFC’s two other Imperial floral groups are the Imperial Anemone and Imperial Cornflowers. The Imperial Anemone piece, which is believed to have belonged to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (1847–1928), is fashioned from gold and polychrome enamel, with a bud and leaves of carved jade. The bright salmon- and crimson-tone flowers—which have symbolic Russian Orthodox associations with the celebration of Easter, as well as the return of spring—rest in an elaborate rock-crystal vase that gives the illusion of water-filled glass.

Tsarina Alexandra is said to have owned the Imperial Cornflowers, which Keefe describes in Masterpieces as “one of the most appealing floral compositions in the Gray Foundation Collection.” The cornflowers are fashioned of gold, silver, and vibrant enamels.

The iridescent art-nouveau vase in which the flowers are placed was created by the Imperial Glass Manufactory, circa 1900–1905. Keefe sees the use of this vase as a demonstration of Fabergé’s awareness and support of contemporary Russian art. And the vase itself is rare, as the IGM was not known for working in the art-nouveau style.

A range of other carved gemstone, metalwork, and enamel pieces fill out the flower group collection, including tulips, roses, orange blossoms, and daisies. There’s even a dandelion-seed clock that was created by Fabergé work master Henrik Wigström. Wigström fashioned the incredibly lifelike and fragile seeds from asbestos fiber embellished with tiny rose-cut diamonds.

Keefe sees the collection’s broad range of floral items as evidence of Gray’s appreciation both for the quality of the work and the floral subjects themselves. “Miss Gray was an accomplished gardener, and she also held elaborate dinner parties, where her floral arrangements were just spectacular,” he says. He notes that there is also a floral link to her artistic pursuits—particularly her Newcomb College pottery use of floral themes, as well as her watercolor training with Rufino Tamayo, who was known for his still-life compositions of fruit and flowers.

THE EGGS

GFC includes the Imperial Caucasus Egg, the Imperial Danish Palaces Egg, and the Imperial Napoleonic Egg. The Imperial CaucasusEgg was created by Fabergé work master Michael Perchin and dates to 1893, when it was presented by Alexander III (1845–1894) to his wife, Maria Feodorovna. Crafted of gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, and pearls, the piece is notable for its vivid red guilloche enamel.

The piece is topped by a large table-cut diamond that rests over a portrait of the Grand Duke George Alexandrovich (1871–1899), son of Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna and brother of Tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918). George suffered from tuberculosis and was sent to live in Abastuman, the Imperial hunting lodge in the Caucasus mountains. The healthy mountain climate failed to improve his health, however, and George succumbed to the disease in 1899.

Detailed watercolor miniatures of Abastuman appear in the four windows of the Imperial Caucasus Egg. The views were painted by little-known miniaturist Konstantin Krijitski, and are dated 1891.

Krijitski miniatures are also in the Imperial Danish Palaces Egg, which belonged to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. Also by Perchin, the egg boasts a pale, opalescent pink shade of guilloche enamel. Gold of various colors forms the body of the piece, with additional embellishments of rose-cut diamonds, cabochon emeralds, and a large star sapphire finial.

Inside the egg, a velvet pocket holds a 10-panel screen. When removed and unfolded, each panel reveals a Krijitski miniature of a royal Danish residence—Maria Feodorovna was Danish-born, so these buildings were familiar to her—or an Imperial Russian yacht or dacha (country house). The miniatures are painted in watercolor on thin panels of nacre, which allows some light to shine through each piece.

The Imperial Napoleonic Egg, 1912, also belonged to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. Created by Wigström, the body of the egg incorporates gold, green guilloche enamel, diamonds, and platinum and has a neoclassic feel. Golden eagles, laurel sprays, and other embellishments are included in the surface design and result in an opulent outward appearance.

A multipanel folding screen inside this egg illustrates six Russian regiments. The Dowager Empress was honorary colonel of these regiments, which included the naval guard, sharpshooters, and cavalry. The ivory panels were painted by the miniaturist Vassily Zuiev in gouache and are so highly detailed that specific officers can be identified.

The panel frames have diamonds and green guilloche enamel, and the hinges are capped with tiny diamond-set gold axes. Each panel is backed with enameled gold and features the Dowager Empress’s cipher set in diamonds and topped by an Imperial crown.

NOMA MOVES ON

While the GFC has left NOMA, “We’re not closing our Fabergé gallery here,” says Keefe. The museum asked several private collectors for help in replenishing their collection, and a number of them have provided the museum with 35 objects on loan.

Keefe wouldn’t discuss specific items but did say the new exhibit would feature a broad selection of objects: frames, cigarette and snuff boxes, animals, one egg—although not Imperial, he says. And the collectors are also on the lookout for floral groups, even though they’re rare.

A conversation with anyone in New Orleans prompts questions about Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, NOMA fared reasonably well. “The building itself suffered minimal damage,” says Keefe. Water, however, caused the building’s slab foundation to crack and develop a network of microscopic fissures, which means the basement can no longer be used for storage. Interior reorganization and the creation of a new public learning center will be a $5 million job, says Keefe, but the art collection itself sustained very little damage. Hit hardest was the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden, which was battered by wind. And staff reductions were unavoidable.

“But the museum is OK,” says Keefe. Fund-raising benefits have been held at other museums with one planned at the Louvre. “People have been extraordinary about showing support, and there’s been a lot of international response,” he says. But in general, he adds, progress for both NOMA and New Orleans “is just going to be very, very slow.”

Background information for this article was drawn from John Keefe’s book Masterpieces of Fabergé: The Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection. A new collection catalog will be published this spring; more information can be found at cheekwood.org.