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Thursday 31 May 2012

An Interview With Petra H. Kleinpenning

While there are many wonderful biographies and novels providing insight into the characters of people from the past, few books provide so deep an insight as collections of original diaries and letters, particularly when those letters are exchanged between close family members. For this reason, the letters between Queen Victoria and her daughters are fascinating and give such a lovely glimpse into her world. Lesser known, however, and so even more fascinating are the letters between Alix – the last Tsarina of Russia – and her brother, ‘Ernie’. Until recently these letters were not widely available but, thanks to Petra H. Kleinpenning's wonderful book - The Correspondence of the Empress Alexandra of Russia with Ernst Ludwig and Eleonore, Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse. 1878-1916 - we can now discover a great deal more about the life and character of the Empress Alexandra. I am delighted that Ms. Kleinpenning very kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work as I know I am not alone in finding her responses – and, of course, the book itself – truly interesting and enlightening.

Many people have preconceived and erroneous ideas about the character of Tsarina Alexandra, do you think that these letters present her in a different and truer light?

Obviously, a correspondence between two siblings cannot give a complete picture of the lives and characters of the letter writers. The picture that emerges from this correspondence is that of a woman who was indeed shy and religious. However, the letters contain no sign of her alleged religious mania and provide no evidence that Alix strived for influence or was hungry for political power from her first day in Russia. The idea that she was completely under the influence of Grigori Efimovich Rasputin in later years is not confirmed either.

In spite of the perceived opulence of the Russian palaces, the Imperial Family lived very simple lives in simply furnished rooms. Do you think this was a reflection of Alix’s character and her love for her native Darmstadt, and do you think this simplicity comes across in the letters?
In 1895, Alix enthusiastically described the Lower Dacha at Peterhof, one of its assets being that it had attractive nooks and ridges to put photos and trinkets on. And one reason why she liked the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo was that it was a place where her husband could work in peace and could get fresh air and sufficient exercise to keep fit. The interiors of the private wing of the Alexander Palace included many objects that reminded her of, or came from, Darmstadt. Alix wrote that their bedroom had the same chintz as Ernst Ludwig's bedroom at the New Palace in Darmstadt. In the Palisander Room hung a wedding gift from Darmstadt: a beautiful painting of Romrod Castle by Eugen Bracht. Old photographs of the Palisander Room also show folding screens on which one sees woodcuts of familiar buildings in Hesse. Moreover, the Maple Room was decorated in Jugendstil, of which her brother Ernst Ludwig was a devoted patron in Darmstadt. Opulence seemed immaterial.

Out of all her siblings, would you say that Alix was closest to her brother? Do you feel that this is apparent in the letters?

I think that the age difference between Victoria and Ella on the one hand and Alix on the other was too large for them to develop a truly close relationship. Irene was 'only' six years older, and Alix’s relationship with her seems to have been closer. This was reflected in their correspondence that has been partly preserved in the state archive in Moscow: the cards that Irene sent to Alix were written in a very warm tone. Of all siblings, Ernst Ludwig was the one closest in age to Alix. Generally, he was the typical older brother who assisted her in word and deed, in practical issues as well as in awkward situations. He also livened things up, for instance by taking Alix and some friends to Kranichstein Hunting Lodge for an afternoon of skating on the pond. During her first year in Russia, Alix was quite homesick; Ernst Ludwig would receive one letter a week on average, no matter whether he wrote back or not. Through the years, she sympathized with his marital grief and later his marital bliss. She also showed an interest in his pursuits, from his student days and time in military service to his years of patronage of the arts in Darmstadt. Ernst Ludwig does indeed seem to have been the sibling she was closest to.
How did you decide which letters to include in this collection? And do you have a favourite letter?

The correspondence of Alix with Ernst Ludwig and his second wife Eleonore has been included in its entirety, apart from one unreadable card. Any selection would just have reflected my personal opinion about the importance of various letters, and I didn’t want to impose my views. Personally, I find the passages in which Alix wrote about her first pregnancy, about the new life developing inside her, very beautiful. A letter that I find very gripping is the one from World War I in which she expressed her grief for her Siberian regiment that had become victim of a horrible gas attack and had been virtually annihilated.
The pictures are also beautiful. Again, how did you decide which to include, and do you have a favourite.

Not surprisingly, the pictures are meant to give an impression of the letters themselves and of the main people and locations mentioned in them. The book contains only a few letters from or to Victoria Melita, Ernst Ludwig’s first wife. To ‘increase her presence’, I have included a photo of little Princess Elisabeth of Hesse with her mother, instead of her father. I also thought it important to put faces to the names of some non-family members who played a role in Alix’s life in Darmstadt, such as her friend Toni Becker, Oberstallmeister Moritz Riedesel zu Eisenbach and Oberhofmeisterin Wilhelmine von Senarclens-Grancy. The colours of the original antique Hanfstaengl reproductions are more attractive, but my favourite pictures are nevertheless the portraits of Tsar Nicholas II, in civilian clothes, his wife and eldest daughters created by F. A. Kaulbach in 1903.
Thank you very much Ms. Kleinpenning!

Sunday 27 May 2012

Jubilee Fever

With the lovely warmer weather, everything is certainly hotting up now for the Jubilee! The shops are filled with bunting, street party items, dressing up clothes for children (guards and princesses) and souvenir books and biographies of the Queen; and the newspapers are filled with supplements and patriotic CDs. The cake shops are filled with red, white and blue cakes, and manufacturers have changed their packaging on so many items...these pictures show just a few.

I happen to have a wonderful original programme from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Procession, which was published at Queen Victoria’s request to raise money for the Prince of Wales’ Hospital Fund. The booklet contains sketches of the different groups making up the procession – numerous military and naval squadrons, civic dignitaries and members of the Queen’s Household, foreign presidents and representatives from all over the globe (strangely it states Morocco and Waldeck-Pyrmont: No representative – wonder why they bothered to write that, rather than just omitting them?) – what is most fascinating to me is the list of royalties who attended (alongside which princesses will travel in which carriage and with whom). Unlike her Golden Jubilee which was a great family occasion, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was more a celebration of Empire and fewer of her descendants attended. Nonetheless this is quite an impressive list of royalties and I would have loved to have been in the crowd that day to watch them pass. (Ah well, at least I am here for this Queen’s Diamond Jubilee....something that doesn’t happen everyday!)

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria

Prince Charles de Ligne of Belgium

The Prince and Princess of Bulgaria

Prince Waldemar of Denmark

Prince Mohammed Ali Khan of Egypt

Prince Albert of Prussia

The Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse

The Hereditary Prince and Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg

The Prince and Princess of Naples

Prince Arisugawa of Japan

The Hereditary Grand Duke of Luxembourg

The Grand Duke and Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

Crown Prince Danilo of Montenegro

Prince Amir Khan of Persia

The Duke of Oporto

Grand Duke Serge and Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia

The Duke and Duchess of Coburg

Prince Alfred and Princess Beatrice of Coburg

Prince Herman of Saxe-Weimar

Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony

The Crown Prince and Prince Mahit of Siam

The Duke of Sotomayor (Spain)

Prince Eugene of Sweden

Duke Albert of Wurttemberg

The Prince and Princess of Wales

The Duke and Duchess of Connaught

Prince Arthur of Connaught

Princesses Margaret and Patricia of Connaught

Princess Alice of Albany

Princess Alice of Battenberg

Princess Ena of Battenberg

Princess Victoria of Schleswig Holstein

Princess Marie Louise of Anhalt

Princess Margaret of Prussia/Hesse-Kassel

Princess Feo of Saxe-Meiningen

Princess Alexander of Battenberg

The Duke of Albany

Princess Louise of Battenberg

Princess Victoria Moretta of Schaumburg-Lippe

Princess Maud of Denmark

Princess Frederick of Hanover

The Duchess of Teck

Princess Mary of York

Princess Victoria of Wales

Prince Henry and Princess Beatrice of Battenberg

Princess Irene of Prussia

Princess Louise

The Duchess of Albany

Princess Louise, Duchess of Fife

Empress Frederick

The Duke of Cambridge

And I have probably overlooked a couple here!

Friday 25 May 2012

The Royal Photographic Collection, Marcus Adams Exhibition

The Royal Photograph Collection is currently staging a tour around England with an exhibition of photographs by royal photographer Marcus Adams. The exhibition is open at Harewood House in Yorkshire (former home of George V’s daughter, Princess Mary) until June 17th, and there is also an opportunity to explore the exhibition online.

There are obviously numerous photographs which have not been available to the public before and the exhibition will surely appeal to everyone interested in the Royal Family, particularly in this Jubilee Year!

The curator of the exhibition, Lisa Heighway, has also written a book to accompany the exhibition:

Thursday 24 May 2012

An Interview with Frances Dimond

Alongside her many other achievements, Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to be photographed, and the numerous images of the Queen and her descendants provide such a lovely insight into the family as well as presenting a visual history of the time.

Frances Dimond, former Senior Curator of the Royal Photographic Collection at Windsor Castle, author of Developing the Picture: Queen Alexandra and the Art of Photography, and co-author of Crown and Camera: The Royal Family and Photography 1842-1910, obviously has an extensive knowledge of these photographs. I am delighted that she kindly agreed to answer my questions regarding her books, and has allowed me to place the ‘interview’ here as I know many of the visitors to this blog will find this so interesting!

What inspired you to compile the books and how did you decide which photographs to include?

"Crown and Camera" was designed as an extended catalogue to an exhibition of the same name, which was shown at The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace in 1987-8. It was the first exhibition to be held there which was entirely devoted to historic photographs and I was asked to curate it. I chose as wide and as representative a selection of photographs from the Royal Photograph Collection, dating from 1842-1910, as I could. As regards "Developing the Picture", I requested permission to write it, having always been interested in Queen Alexandra and her photographs and seeing that the subject might make a nice book. I was also trying to develop the picture that people had of Queen Alexandra, which seemed to be rather limited and not very accurate.

I think you pointed out that in the early years of her reign, Queen Victoria was reluctant to be photographed. Later, however, there are numerous photographs of her. Did her attitude to photography change? And if so, why?

I don't remember saying that Queen Victoria was reluctant to be photographed, although, being shy, she may have been a little diffident about it at first She certainly sometimes didn't like the way the photographs turned out. As time went on, however, she realised that photography was a very good tool to enable people to get to know how the Royal Family looked - and to buy copies of photographs of them as souvenirs. Being photographed became a regular duty, which she accepted and fulfilled.
Animals feature frequently in paintings of the Royal Family during Queen Victoria’s reign. Were members of the family equally eager to photograph their animals?

Members of the Royal Family did photograph their animals, which often appear in snapshots. Queen Victoria had a series of albums of her dogs, which were done by professional photographers.

 Queen Alexandra was clearly very interested in photography. Which other members of the family shared her passion?

 I think pretty well all the Royal Family tried their hand at photography - some more than others. Queen Alexandra is probably the best known - but also included were King Edward VII (as Prince of Wales) and their three daughters. Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, was a keen photographer as a boy, Princesses Helena and Beatrice took photographs, as did Princess Helena's elder daughter, Princess Helena Victoria. Queen Mary as a young woman took photographs, the Duchess of Connaught took photographs- in fact, it is difficult to know who did not.
 During Queen Victoria’s reign, was it a common practice for her children and grandchildren to send photographs of themselves to her, and among themselves? If so, do you know whether these photographs were kept and treasured even during the war years when the family was divided?

Queen Victoria kept a series of 44 albums of her descendants, from 1848 to almost the end of her life. There are also many portrait photographs of British and foreign related Royalties, which were sent to succeeding monarchs, although not kept in such a systematic way.

 Of all the photographs in your books, do you have a particular favourite, or a series of favourites?

I think my favourite photographs are those relating to Queen Alexandra - and especially a rather unexpected and dramatic sea view, which she took and which is on Page 140 of "Developing the Picture". It is uneven, slightly rough and unusual - and I think she must have liked it herself, to have included it in the album in spite of this.

Thank you very much Ms Dimond!

Friday 18 May 2012

Coming soon...Shattered Crowns: The Sacrifice

The Sacrifice is the second novel in the Shattered Crowns trilogy, following the royalties of Europe from 1913 to the Treaty of Versailles. The Sacrifice covers the the period from the outbreak of war to the Russian revolution (1914-1917), during which time the Emperors of Austria, Russia and Germany realise that this is not a war for territory or even honour but is rather a means of destroying their autocracies to replace them with secular ideologies and international economic control. As Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas, Emperor Franz Josef, Archduke (later Emperor) Karl and Queen Marie of Roumania face the horrors of war and suffer for their people, they are also confronted by their own personal and family tragedies.

I did not find this book easy to write because the subject matter is so horrific but I trust I have been able to capture these characters as accurately as possible, and have perhaps dispelled some of the myths surrounding their role in the First World War.
The first book in the trilogy: Shattered Crowns: The Scapegoats is already available on Amazon and in various bookshops

This book will be available next month and, to celebrate its launch, I have now reduced the price of my earliest novels (The Counting House and The Fields Laid Waste) on Kindle to a minimum!