Collecting Russian porcelain eggs

With Easter just around the corner, Caroline Wheater goes on a voyage to discover the history of Russian porcelain eggs

Russian Porcelain eggs
Published: March 19th, 2022 at 9:00 am
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Collecting antiques can be a lifelong journey and so it was for renowned folklore expert, Dr Venetia Newall, who hatched a taste for decorative eggs at a young age. By the end of her life in spring 2017, she had collected over 2,000 examples, from enamel to papier mâché to porcelain. They spanned several centuries and were kept in large, glass-fronted display cabinets. She’d also written an authoritative book, An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study, all about the history of egg-giving around the time of the spring equinox.

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‘Dr Newall was fascinated by the egg as a symbol of renewal and new life, celebrated in Christianity, particularly in the Russian Orthodox church, where eggs were gifted at Easter,’ explains Woolley & Wallis ceramics specialist, Clare Durham. ‘She was interested in the social history of the tradition that is thousands of years old.’

It was this interest that led the collector to the ornamental eggs of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, considered the finest Russian producer of porcelain. ‘These hollow eggs were commissioned as state gifts and tokens of esteem by the Romanov family to present to ambassadorial staff, visiting dignitaries and royal palace servants.

Russian Porcelain eggs
A sang-de-boeuf glaze porcelain Easter egg made at the Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory

The eggs in the collection date from the 1880s onwards and some bear the Romanov monograms and ciphers’ adds Clare. This July, 100 years on from the violent end meted out to the Romanov dynasty by the Bolsheviks, their royal name has as much cachet to collectors as ever.

In her role as a folklorist and author, Dr Newall travelled extensively. She may well have bought some of her eggs in Russia or elsewhere on the Continent, or hunted them out in Britain if they’d been brought back as gifts. The eggs in the collection vary in size - some the size of a hen’s egg, others an ostrich, and a couple are decorated with a transfer print, but most are beautifully hand-painted.


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Originally, all of them would have been tied with ribbons so that they could be hung from small branches in a vase, or placed on a stand in a display cabinet. ‘It’s highly likely that our own royal household has a Russian porcelain egg or two tucked away somewhere,’ says Durham.

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Established at the order of Empress Elizabeth I, the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, as it was originally known, was founded in St Petersburg in 1744, for the purpose of producing porcelain for the Russian royal palaces and court. The founder, Dmitry Ivanovich Vinogradov, was instructed by Elizabeth to use clay made entirely of ‘Russian earth’.

Russian Porcelain eggs
An Imperial Porcelain Factory Easter egg finely decorated with butterflies, the other with spring green stripes

This decree was reversed by Tsar Nicholas I in the early 19th century, however, to allow imported kaolin from Limoges to be added to the secret clay recipe to make larger, more hard-wearing ceramics. The factory famously created the Yacht, Arabesque and Cabinet porcelain services for Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, which put the factory on a par with Meissen and Sèvres.

By the end of the 19th century it was one of the leading manufacturers in Europe. After transfer to state ownership in 1917, the factory became famous for its propaganda plates and figures of the 1930s and 1940s, which are very collectable today, and have been copied by plenty of fakers.

Of the Russian eggs in the collection, there are several highlights redolent with history. These include the striking dark blue egg dating to the late 19th or early 20th century that is gilded with the cipher of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of the last tsar, Nicholas II and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who met her end at the hands of the Russian revolutionaries in 1918.

Russian Porcelain eggs
This ocean blue presentation Easter egg is gilded with the cipher of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II

A particularly poignant trio is the three snowy white eggs featuring gilded monograms for Tsar Nicholas II, and those of his daughters Grand Duchess Maria and Grand Duchess Olga. Again these date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Maria and Olga were little girls.

Not the priciest egg, but one that will be interesting to collectors, is the sang-de-boeuf glazed egg, speckled with turquoise striations, dating from the late 19th century. This egg marks the creation by the Imperial Porcelain Factory of a new and fashionable oxblood-coloured glaze, which reflects similar advancements in the British pottery industry.

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The most valuable in the group goes to three exquisitely hand-painted eggs featuring Archangel Michael and two portraits of an ermine-robed St Alexander. As the Newall Collection proves, Fabergé is not the only egg at the antiques table.

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