THE HISTORY OF THE WINTER EGG
An extremely valuable insight into the House of Fabergé including the tradition of the presentation of Imperial Fabergé Easter Eggs, instituted by Alexander III in 1885, has come to light with the publication of the Memoirs of Francois (Franz) Birbaum, one of Carl Fabergé's most important employees. These Memoirs were recently discovered by Valentin Skurlov and were first published in the catalogue of the most recent exhibition: Fabergé Imperial Jeweller which took place in St. Petersburg (1993), Paris (1993) and London (1994): "It was Alexander III who started this tradition, and it was continued by Nicholas II, who presented them to both Empresses (i.e. his wife and his mother, Maria Feodorovna, Alexander III's widow). The designs for these eggs did not have to be approved. Fabergé was given a completely free hand in the choice of theme and in the execution itself. About fifty or sixty of these eggs were made, and I composed more than half of them myself. It was not easy work as there could be no repetition of theme and the ovoid shape was compulsory. We tried to make use of family and other events in the Imperial household to give some meaning to the gift, but political events were, of course, avoided. The eggs could almost always be opened and there would be a surprise inside. For the most part, work on these eggs was very complicated. To avoid repetition we had to vary the materials, the exterior, and the content of the egg. ... The process of making these eggs usually took about one year. Work started soon after Easter, and they were only just ready for Holy Week of the following year. They were usually presented to the Emperor himself by the head of the firm on Good Friday. The last days were anxious for everyone: nothing could be allowed to happen to these fragile works of art. In case anything unexpected happened, the craftsmen remained at their places of work until Fabergé returned from Tsarskoe Selo." pp.452-453.
The Tricentenary of the founding of the Romanov Dynasty was celebrated in 1913. The anniversary was marked by events throughout Russia, especially in St. Petersburg. Fabergé rose to the occasion and produced two eggs of arguably unsurpassed excellence: The Romanov Tricentenary Egg, presented to the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (now in the State Museums of the Moscow Kremlin) and The Winter Egg presented to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.
The Winter Egg is without doubt one of the most creative and original of the Easter eggs ÿFabergé made for the Tsar. It symbolises the transition from Winter to Spring, the seed emerging into new life, the Resurrection. The Spring flowers appear as if through a frosty mist inside the Winter ice of the egg, before the egg is opened to reveal the surprise in its full detail. Only in the first Imperial Egg, the Hen Egg of 1885, and in the Resurrection Egg, probably 1887 (now both in the Forbes Magazine Collection), is the Easter message so clearly illustrated, but neither of these has the degree of realism and delicacy achieved in the Winter Egg. Many of Fabergé's Imperial eggs rely on standard rococo and neo-classical motifs, albeit superbly executed in gold and enamel, for their effect, but Alma Theresia Pihl, the designer of the Winter Egg, broke away from the conventional elements to produce a magical work of original creative genius.
The Winter Egg was made in the workshop of Albert Holmström, which mainly specialized in jewellery. His father, August Holmström, had been appointed principal jeweller to the firm of Fabergé in 1857 and on his death in 1903 he was succeeded by his son. With the inspiration of the highly talented designer, Alma Theresia Pihl, whose two pièces de résistance were The Mosaic Egg, presented in 1914 (now in The Collection of Her Majesty The Queen of England) and The Winter Egg presented in 1913 and under the direction of Albert Holmström, some of Fabergé's most outstanding works were created.
Both the discovery of the stock books, with drawings illustrating the items produced in the workshop of Albert Holmström between 1909 and 1915 and the sale of the Nobel Ice Egg (Christie's Geneva, 17 May 1994, lot 294), unseen since 1939, have provided further insight into the inspiration and realization of The Winter Egg. In his article, "Two Books of Revelations" Apollo (September 1987) p.155, A. Kenneth Snowman quotes from a letter of 30 December 1986 from Ulla Tillander in Helsinki: "The text of the sketch books seems to be in Alma's handwriting. ... In 1911 she got a chance to do designs of her own. Alma remembered very vividly the day there was an order from the Nobel Office, very urgently to make up forty small pieces, in a new design. ... As ice crystals were very frequent on the draughty window glasses in those days, she suddenly got her inspiration from those. This is how the Nobel snowflakes came about. The year was 1911 or 1912." In A. K. Snowman, Fabergé Lost and Found (London, 1993), the first drawings on the snowflake or "Winter" theme, dated 3 December 1912, which were eventually executed in rose-diamond and platinum, appear for a bracelet commissioned by Dr. Emmanuel Nobel (p.115). Illustrated alongside is a photograph of the finished article (now in the Forbes Magazine Collection). Drawings of miniature eggs of similar design also appear (p.132), dated 10 April 1913 resembling, in smaller and less elaborate form, The Winter Egg. The design for the base of the Egg, conceived as melting ice with platinum mounted rose-diamond rivulets, is also echoed in the entry for a pendant, dated 2 May 1913 (p.136). Dr. Emmanuel Nobel, one of the leaders of the oil industry at this time, was amongst Faberge/'s most important clients. The Nobel Ice Egg, commissioned by him, was created in platinum, silver and seed-pearls. It not only stems from the same inspiration as The Winter Egg, but also shares the same technique in the execution of the hinge within graduated borders. However, the Nobel Ice Egg has no stand and lies on its side and its body with translucent white enamel over engraved frost crystals arguably lacks the charm and realism of the Winter Egg .
The skill of the Holmström workshop in mounting the rock-crystal is highlighted by Birbaum in his Memoirs, which include a detailed section on the different stones uses in the Fabergé workshops, as well as a general reference to the quality of the work: "Its friability demanded of the craftsmen a particular skill, and its setting was entrusted only to the most experienced workmaster. It could not tolerate the slightest heat and the settings were never soldered, even with thin tin, but were assembled with clips and in other ways", "Birbaum Memoirs", Fabergé: Imperial Jeweller (St. Petersburg, 1993) p.457. The method by which the rose-diamond set platinum ice crystals are attached to the rock-crystal shell of the Winter Egg is not apparent. They do not appear to be pinned and the only suggestion found is that they were glued to the rock-crystal beneath.
According to Bainbridge in his book Peter Carl Fabergé, Goldsmith and Jeweller to the Russian Imperial Court (London, 1949) p.75, "In the case of the rock-crystal egg, the only work for which the Holmströms were not responsible was that of the lapidaries on the egg, pedestal and cacholong flowers, and the engraving of the internal frost-flowers." Based on Birbaum's Memoirs (op.cit. p.460), it seems highly likely that all the lapidary work for the Winter Egg was executed in the Fabergé workshop of Petr Kremlyev and probably by Kremlyev himself. The basket itself is engraved on the base in Roman characters FABERGE 1913, the surprise of the Mosaic Egg also designed by Alma Theresia Pihl and produced in the same workshop is inscribed in Roman letters, G. FABERGE. According to Bainbridge the 'G' is an error.
The flower compositions created by Fabergé stand out amongst some of the most technically demanding works produced by the firm, and yet perhaps the most exquisite, as so eloquently described by A. Kenneth Snowman, The Art of Carl Fabergé, (London, 1974) p.72: "In Russia, where the winters are long and pitiless, the first signs of spring take on a special significance, and the flower becomes a symbol of happiness and renewed hope. Special trains used to bring spring flowers from the South of France on blocks of ice to brighten the Court Balls. In recognizing this special significance, Fabergé created some of his most lovely compositions. These pots of flowers are the ultimate refinement of his art - in them he has shed all unnecessary and disturbing elements, and, naturalistic to an astonishing degree, they yet may be justifiably be regarded as the most typically "Fabergé" of all his pieces." The basket of anemones inside the Winter Egg, is also very reminiscent of the Imperial Basket of Lillies of the Valley created by August Holmström and presented to the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna in 1896 (now in the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection), each depicting spring flowers emanating from a bed of gold moss in a basket.
The history of the Winter Egg, after the Russian Revolution is one of the best documented of all Imperial Easter Eggs. It appears first in the manager of Fabergé's London branch, Henry Charles Bainbridge's largely autobiographical book, Twice Seven (London, 1933), aÿfter having been acquired by Wartski's in the late 1920's from the Soviet Union. Bainbridge illustrates the Egg with a photograph (pl.VI) stated to be from 'Faberge's original collection' and discusses the Winter Egg at length in his book, generally considered to be the first reference work on Fabergé, Peter Carl Fabergé, Goldsmith and Jeweller to the Russian Imperial Court (London, 1949) pp.75-76. Since its last appearance on the market in 1949, The Winter Egg has not been exhibited and detailed colour photographs of the egg and the surprise have not been published before. It can be considered as one of, if not the, last documented eggs ever to come on the market from a private source, as almost all of the known and documented Imperial Eggs are in museums or well established collections. Approximately fifty-six Imperial Easter Eggs were delivered by Fabergé to the Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II between the years 1885 and 1916, for presentation to Tsarinas Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra Feodorovna. The whereabouts of forty-seven of these are now well recorded in various private and institutional collections.