A People Passing Rude
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4.  Russian Icons Through British Eyes, c. 1830-1930

Richard Marks

The plot of Nikolai Leskov’s famous short story, Zapechatlennyi angel (The Sealed Angel), centres on an icon of a Guardian Angel, painted in the 16th century by the Stroganov school and the most venerated of a large number of icons in the possession of a group of priestless Old Believers employed to build a bridge under the direction of an Englishman, James Jameson. In this tale Jameson and his wife develop a sympathetic interest in ancient icon-painting. Leskov first published The Sealed Angel in the January 1873 issue of the Russian Messenger.1 Later the same year, An Art Tour to Northern Capitals of Europe by Joseph Beavington Atkinson appeared. Atkinson was an art critic who inter alia wrote two books on English painters. His attitude to the religious art in general, and icons in particular, which he encountered in Russia oscillated between the unsympathetic and the downright hostile. This is a sample:

Here in the cathedrals of the Kremlin […] I observed, what I had long noted in Munich, that the modern art, which aims to be true in its drawing and grammatical in its construction, has much less spell over the multitude than the so-called miraculous pictures, though coarse and common as sign-boards. One of such works, the Holy Virgin of Vladimir, said, of course, to have been painted by St. Luke, and now absolutely black, and with features obliterated, receives, as one of the most ancient images in Russia, countless kisses and genuflexions. Here is an instance where Mr. Ruskin’s ‘lamp of sacrifice’—a precept fine in humanity but false in art—is made to burn most brightly […] No reasonable being will contend that this is art: nothing further need be said, for this one example represents the whole.2


Fig. 4.1 Mother of God of Vladimir icon (before 1918). Kremlin Museums.


Fig. 4.2 Mother of God of Vladimir icon, after cleaning and removal of oklad. Tretyakov Gallery.

Here we have utterly divergent assessments of British attitudes to Russian icons in Victorian times expressed simultaneously by a Russian novelist and an English critic. Which of them most accurately reflects British perceptions of these objects at the time? 1873 marks almost the halfway point in the period this paper covers—the 100 years between c.1830 and 1930. The rationale behind this date-span is that it post-dates the Enlightenment, which in respect of western responses to Russian icons—and Orthodoxy as a culture—has attracted scholarly attention;3 the terminus ante is the exhibition of Russian icons held at the Victoria and Albert Museum at the end of 1929 and the book on the subject published soon afterwards under the title Masterpieces of Russian Painting. Together they mark a seminal moment in British experience of icon-painting.4 (Figs. 5, 6) To cover a century invites generalisation, and it is impossible to do more than open up the subject to further and more detailed research.

Until the end of the period under consideration, to all intents and purposes Russian icons could only be experienced in Russia. A rare instance of an icon being brought to England is the 18th-century St Nicholas icon presented in 1834 to Christ Church College Oxford by William Fox-Strangways, later 4th Earl of Ilchester, a noted collector of early Italian paintings who had served as an attaché at the British Embassy in St Petersburg.5


Fig. 4.3 St Nicholas icon (18th century), Christ Church College, Oxford.

Those who travelled in Russia and left records of their impressions were for the most part drawn from the upper strata of society: diplomats and aristocrats like Fox-Strangways, gentry, clergy and army and naval officers. Into the last category falls Captain C. Colville Frankland RN, who visited Russia in 1830-1. His comments on the icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir in Moscow are very similar to those of Beavington Atkinson forty years later:

This cathedral boasts of a Virgin… painted by St Luke […] This black ill-looking idol is decorated with a superb solitaire, valued at 80,000 roubles: the frame containing her ladyship’s portrait is estimated at 200,000 more. Money badly spent, thought I. There are so many holy pictures of Saints, Martyrs, etc. here, miraculous as well as ludicrous, that I cannot attempt to name them.6 (Fig. 4.1)

Much the same tone is evident in the observations of Edward Pett Thompson, who travelled in Russia in 1848. Whilst acknowledging the splendour of the iconostasis in the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin, his description of the Mother of God of Vladimir icon was followed by this dismissive remark:

The number of these miraculous pictures in Russia is quite inconceivable, and the readiest faith is bestowed on them although the priests, like their heathen brethren of old, themselves prepare the fraud, to which it is impossible that they can be dupes […].7

Thompson had aesthetic as well as religious objections to the visual manifestations of the Orthodox faith:

[…] the Greek church prostrates itself before pictures which are a libel on humanity, and much more on a saint. I can imagine fanaticism bowing before the sublime conception of a Thorwaldsen, or worshipping the representations of a Murillo or a Raphael, but I cannot conceive the genuineness of even mistaken devotion when its objects are either a caricature or a burlesque […].8

The skepticism evinced by Frankland and Thompson was consonant with the critical stance taken by western observers of the Enlightenment and even earlier, notably Giles Fletcher (1591) and Samuel Collins (1671)—the latter describing Russian icons as ‘very pitiful painting, flat and ugly, after the Greek manner’.9 Collins’s dismissive remarks about the quality and nature of Russian painting were echoed a century later by the Rev. John Glen King, who served as Chaplain to the British Factory in St Petersburg, in his The Rites and Ceremonies of the Greek Church in Russia:

It might be expected that valuable paintings should also make a part of the riches of a church, in which religious pictures are not only an indispensable ornament, but are necessary in its worship […] but though the number of these pictures is so great, and though religion was the cause which called forth such excellency and perfection in painting and sculpture in popish countries […] yet the same cause has not been so lucky as to produce one good painter or one capital picture in Russia: on the contrary these are the most wretched dawbings that can be conceived, some of them notwithstanding are said to be the work of angels.10

The aesthetic sensibilities of King were framed by the conventions of contemporary taste, expressed within an Anglican theological context, as the book’s dedication (to George III) makes clear: ‘One reflection of great moment […] arises from the similarity between the burthensome ceremonies of the Greek and the Romish church […] whence every protestant may learn to set a just value on that reformation which is established in his own’.11

Whether clerical or lay, those British commentators who made observations on the quality of Russian icon-painting were (like Collins and King) nurtured within a Protestant ideology opposed to imagery and devotional gestures associated with it. Even in the case of Beavington Atkinson, who was writing from the point of view of an art critic, his strictures were as much religious as aesthetic.

Such attitudes were not confined to Russia. As in the Enlightenment, the antipathy towards the visual manifestations of Russian religious practices and beliefs applied to Eastern Christianity as a whole. The discourse was that of a superior faith which deemed the culture of Orthodoxy in its various manifestations to be ignorant and idolatrous and hence belonging to the world of the Other.12 Here, for example, is the dismissive comment of the Rev. John Hartley, who travelled in the newly independent Greek state and the Ottoman Empire for the Church Missionary Society in 1826 and 1828: ‘These objects of religious regard [i.e. icons] are, invariably, most wretched performances, destitute of all taste and beauty’.13 The archaeologist/explorer Austen Henry Layard, although well-disposed to the Nestorian Christians he encountered in present-day Iraq, took the same line as Hartley when it came to their religious images: ‘[…] the hideous pictures, and monstrous deformities which encumber the churches of Mosul’.14

Not everyone though, even in the early 19th century, danced to this negative tune. The Rev. Robert Pinkerton, who visited Eastern Europe and Russia on behalf of the British and Foreign Bible Society, published in 1814 a description of Russian churches, their frescoes, iconostases and principal icons which was largely free from value-judgments, apart from a passing comment that they were ‘overloaded with decorations’—and a social distinction. At the end of a lengthy exposition by Metropolitan Platon on Orthodox theology, which comprises the major part of the book, Pinkerton comments that the illiterate peasants were unable to comprehend the dogma on icon veneration, ‘[…] observing the idolatrous ideas which thousands of them actually entertain about the pictures and powers of departed saints’.15 Robert Curzon, later 14th Baron Zouche, who travelled extensively through the Ottoman Empire during the 1830s, while asserting that Byzantine and Coptic art lacked the ‘purity and angelic expression so much to be admired in the works of Beato Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, and other early Italian masters’, also acknowledged that ‘the earlier Greek artists in their conceptions of the personages of Holy Writ sometimes approached the sublime’.16

From the middle of the century a positive attitude becomes more widespread, a by-product of the emergence of the ritualist movement within the Church of England. In 1850 John Mason Neale, one of the founders of the Cambridge Camden Society and a High Churchman, published A History of the Holy Eastern Church; although only a brief section is devoted to a description of an iconostasis, the tone throughout is anything but hostile.17 Just over a decade later appeared Lectures on the Eastern Church; its author, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster, was less of a ritualist than Neale but shared his interest in Orthodoxy. Like Neale, his work spanned the Orthodox world, but he had observed the Russian church at first-hand during a stay in Moscow. Prefacing his remarks with a Russian proverb he saw displayed at a residence of Metropolitan Platon (‘Let not him who comes in here carry out the dirt that he finds within’) did not inhibit Stanley from indulging in ethnic superiority when it came to defining the nature of Russian Orthodox religious practice: ‘[…] the great Empire of which we are speaking, if it has not been civilised, has unquestionably been kept alive, by its religious spirit’.

Notwithstanding this exercise in Otherness, Stanley invokes neither superstition nor idolatry in his account. He observes that icons are at the core of the Russian faith and sees them as didactic as well as sacred: ‘[…] a passion for pictures, not as works of art but as emblems, as lessons, as instructions, is thus engendered and multiplied in common life beyond all example elsewhere’. He also underlines the place of miracle-working icons like the Mother of God of Vladimir in Russian history and identity: ‘And when we remember that some of these pictures have beside their interest as the emblems of truth to a barbarian and child-like people, acquired the historical associations involved in the part they have taken in great national events, it is not surprising that the combination of religious and patriotic feelings […] should have raised their veneration to a pitch to us almost inconceivable’.18 This more enlightened approach is evident in the second edition of Curzon’s Visits to Monasteries in the Levant, published in 1865. By then he had read Alphonse Didron’s translation of the Painter’s Manual by Dionysios of Fourna; the result was the inclusion of a passage in the Introduction which showed greater familiarity with the conventions governing Orthodox iconography. Curzon understood the devotional rather than the purely aesthetic appeal of (Greek) Orthodox images:

They are all painted in the stiff conventional manner which tradition has handed down from remote antiquity. No one who has had the opportunity of improving his good taste by a careful study of these ancient works of art can fail to appreciate and reverence that high and noble spirit which animated the pencils of those saintly painters, and irradiates the composition of their sublime conceptions with a dignity and grandeur which is altogether wanting in the beautiful pictures of Rubens, Titian, Guido, Domenichino, and other great artists of more mundane schools.19

Most of the British commentators discussed so far were men of the cloth and their books were primarily intended for a pious readership, hence the interest in icons as religious artefacts. Already, however, by the middle of the 19th century the taste for foreign travel had given rise to the expansion of the guidebook genre aimed at a wider public. The most enduring and prominent of these was the series of red handbooks produced by the publishing house of John Murray (whose imprint included Visits to Monasteries in the Levant)—the authors of which were almost entirely drawn from outside the ranks of the clergy.20 The firm published a handbook for Russia as early as 1839, edited by Thomas Denman Whatley and with information on Russia supplied by Layard, who had visited the country in the previous year. In 1848 the first edition of the Handbook for Northern Europe appeared, under the editorship of Captain W. Jesse. The Russian section was largely confined to St Petersburg, Moscow and their environs, but as communications improved with the construction of railways, in subsequent editions more places became accessible and were included (although the focus remained on the two main cities).

As with the entire series, the Handbook for Northern Europe has a factual description of the principal historical, architectural and artistic attractions. Icons are rarely specifically listed, except for those on the iconostases of the most important churches and those deemed to be miracle-working, including of course the Mother of God of Vladimir with its ‘dark, almost black’ face.21 (Fig. 4.1) Several expanded, revised and up-dated editions were published from 1865 onwards, all by Thomas Michell, FRGS, an attaché at the British Embassy in St Petersburg. The later versions incorporated material provided by others, but as Michell points out in the 1868 edition, it was ‘the result of personal travel and observation during a residence of many years in Russia’.22 As with all of the series, the later editions are more impersonal, with the eschewing of negative value-judgments found in the earlier volumes, such as the characterization of the frescoes in the principal church of the Donskoi monastery as ‘miserable productions’.23 They are often more detailed, as in the case of the description of the Mother of God of Vladimir icon, where the reference to the opaque face is replaced by a brief account of its origins in Constantinople and subsequent history in Russia. Observation in conjunction with familiarity with Russia’s historical treasures is exactly what the Handbooks comprise. Although they rarely attract scholarly attention, their significance in disseminating information on a little-known country in an easily digestible form should not be overlooked; for long they were a sine qua non for British travellers.

Notwithstanding the Handbooks, there is little evidence that Russian icons, any more than Byzantine or post-Byzantine ones, made any impact on Victorian Britain. The Rev. William Sparrow Simpson, an antiquary and historian of Old St Paul’s Cathedral, published two articles in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association for 1867 and 1869. They were not, however, concerned with painted icons but with what he labelled ‘Russo-Greek portable icons of brass’, in other words the small cast-metal icons which were made in vast quantities during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially by Old Believer communities.24


Fig. 4.4 Cast-metal and enamel Old Believer cross (19th century). Private collection

Sparrow Simpson’s interest in these artefacts came about as a result of the Crimean War, when a number of them found their way to England, either taken from the bodies of dead Russian soldiers by their British counterparts or from prisoners of war held in Lewes gaol. Although fifty years previously the Rev. Pinkerton had noted that the Vyg Old Believer community was a centre for the production of cast-metal icons, and although they had been mentioned in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1802, Sparrow Simpson’s articles (as far as I am aware) were the most detailed studies of Russian icons to appear in England to date.25 They consist principally of catalogue entries for 29 examples mainly in his possession plus a few in other British collections, compiled with the assistance of a member of the staff of the Russian Embassy.

The other late 19th-century British publication which covered the pre-Petrine period was also principally concerned with metalwork, but not cast icons. This is Russian Art and Art Objects in Russia, one of the South Kensington Museum Handbooks, written by Alfred Maskell and published in 1884. As the Introduction observes, ‘In the whole range of catalogues and handbooks published in English treating of the arts of all countries and of all periods, the mention made of Russian might perhaps be summed up in a score of pages’.26 The book is primarily a guide to the collection of reproductions of goldsmiths’ work and jewelled ornaments in the South Kensington Museum, but also provides a very well-informed, factual chronological survey of Russian art from pre-history onwards, including icons and their function as devotional objects. There is a detailed account of the interiors of the Dormition and St Michael cathedrals in the Moscow Kremlin; the emphasis is less on the icons as paintings but on their gold and silver covers, which Maskell and until quite recently, many others, considered to be a comparatively recent development.27

Inevitably Maskell’s reference points were Italian Renaissance painters, but like Curzon he understood the conventions which governed icon-painting: ‘As a rule, the conception of ideas was diametrically opposed to the sentiment of the Italian School, nor was there any room for the genius of a Raphael. His beautiful faces would have amounted to little short of rank heresy’. He was also aware that distinctive styles of icon-painting were associated with Moscow, Novgorod and the Stroganov family and was even familiar with the work of Semen Ushakov.28 Although in general he was not impressed by the kind of painting practised in the 16th and 17th centuries, he allowed that there were exceptional icons of the Mother of God, ‘full of tender grace and beauty’, and recognized that in subject-matter Russia did not slavishly follow Byzantine iconography; he even praised the quality of contemporary icons for sale at the Trinity-Sergei monastery.29

What begins to emerge in the observations of Curzon, Maskell and even the Murray’s Handbooks is the treatment of icons not merely as works of Orthodox devotion but as art objects, even if Beavington Atkinson rejected them as such. A highly pertinent factor is that only from the middle of the century, and as a by-product of the Slavophile movemement, was there a burgeoning of interest within Russia itself in the preservation and study of ancient church art in general and icons (Byzantine as well as Russian) in particular. In 1846 the Russian Archaeological Society was founded, followed in 1859 by the establishment under Alexander II of the Imperial Archaeological Commission, in 1863 by the Society of Lovers of Religious Education and a year later by the Society of Early Russian Art in Moscow. A key moment was the founding in 1895 of the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, which in the following decades amassed large and important holdings of icons, a process which accelerated after 1917. These came not only from churches but also from private collectors, above all the scholar Nikolai Likhachev; in Moscow Pavel Tret’iakov, like other wealthy Old Believers, also had icons amongst his enormous art acquisitions. Outside St Petersburg and Moscow local archaeological societies were formed and regional museums established.30

Apart from their being largely unknown and inaccessible, a major obstacle to the study and appreciation of ancient icons which undoubtedly coloured British attitudes was their condition. Either the painted surfaces were largely hidden by the oklads, rizas and other embellishments or, as Captain Frankland and Beavington Atkinson noted, they had become opaque as their linseed oil varnish darkened, or were concealed beneath later layers of painting. From the middle of the 19th century new methods evolved for cleaning and removing repainted layers to reveal the original.31 To what extent British observers were aware of these developments is uncertain, as nothing to match Maskell’s book was published in English until 1916—and that was in a general survey of Russian arts by Rosa Newmarch, a feminist, poet and specialist on music. This, like The Soul of Russia, edited by Winifred Stephens, which appeared in the same year and was sold in aid of the Fund for Russian Refugees, was no doubt prompted by Russia’s role as an ally of Great Britain in World War I, an event which had a dramatic impact on the historiography of the Russian icon.32 Although both publications had something to say about icons, the subject was scarcely treated as mainstream.

The October Revolution in the following year was to prove a landmark in the history of Russian icon-painting. Both the old regime and the Orthodox Church were accused by the new Soviet government of neglecting (and misusing) its artistic treasures and from the outset church buildings, together with their valuable and historic contents, were subject to nationalisation. A decree was issued on the Recording and Protection of Ancient Church Monuments and the Commission for the Preservation and Identification of Monuments of Ancient Russian Painting (Narkompros) was established; similar provincial and district commissions followed. Led by the painter, museum director, art critic and historian Igor’ Grabar’, the Commission embarked on a series of expeditions to churches and monasteries, in the course of which many major new discoveries were made.33

Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution very few, if any, of the most important early icons, especially those like the Mother of God of Vladimir deemed to be miraculous, had been touched. In Soviet ideology, they were now liberated and treated as monuments of Russian artistic achievement. A major cleaning campaign was undertaken by the Commission’s team of restorers, led by the icon-painter Grigorii Chirikov; in 1924 the Commission became the Central State Restoration Workshops. The policy was not merely to remove accretions of dirt, but also successive layers of painting in order to expose the original. The result was the revelation of numerous hitherto unknown masterpieces, above all perhaps the famous Trinity icon by Andrei Rublev and the Mother of God of Vladimir, the latter shown to be Byzantine in origin and of the 12th century.34 (Figs. 4.1, 4.2) Both were star attractions in the exhibition Methods of Restoring and Preserving Monuments of Early Russian Art, Architecture and Fine Arts held in Moscow in 1920. This was followed 6 years later by another Moscow exhibition, at the State Historical Museum, on Early Russian Icon-Painting.35


Fig. 4.5 Russian Ikon Exhibition poster, Victoria & Albert Museum (1929).

These exhibitions, plus growing awareness in western European circles of the work of the researchers and restorers, prompted the Soviet government to organize the most important display of icon-painting yet seen outside Russia. This toured Brussels, Vienna, Berlin and other German cities in 1929; the venue at the end of the year was the Victoria and Albert Museum under the title ‘Russian Ikon Exhibition’.


Fig. 4.6 General view of the Russian Ikon Exhibition, Victoria & Albert Museum (1929).

Subsequently the exhibition travelled to the United States. Almost 150 icons were shown, together with a selection of metal oklads and other elements which had been removed as part of the cleaning process for the painted surfaces; there was also a section devoted to the techniques used by the restorers. The exhibits ranged in date from the 12th to the early 19th centuries and included major artefacts drawn from the Central Restoration Workshops and museums in Moscow, St Petersburg and provincial centres. Masterpieces such as the Rublev Trinity or the Mother of God of Vladimir, which it was not feasible to lend, were represented by high-quality copies painted by the foremost members of the Restoration Workshops.36 The selection of exhibits and the catalogue were prepared under the direction of Igor’ Grabar’ and his colleague Professor Aleksandr Anisimov, a past student of Nikodim Pavlovich Kondakov (1844-1925), the founder of modern art-historical scholarship on icons.37 As might be expected, the discourse of the catalogue was no longer framed in terms of Orthodox belief and worship, but firmly located within the current formalist methodology of art history—with its emphasis on connoisseurship and the concept of a national style which was deemed to have attained a pinnacle of excellence in the 15th century through Rublev’s inspiration.38

While the London exhibition and its catalogue were primarily the work of Grabar’ and Anisimov and their associates, two British figures were involved: Sir Martin Conway (1856-1936) and Sir Ellis Hovell Minns (1874-1953). In his varied career Conway was a mountaineer and explorer, politician and museum curator, as well as the founder of the photographic archive at the Courtauld Institute of Art which bears his name. He was not primarily an academic, although he held the Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Cambridge between 1901 and 1904 and published a number of books on art. One of these, entitled Art Treasures in Soviet Russia, appeared in 1925 and included a section on icons which drew attention to the achievements of the Central State Restoration Workshops. Conway was chairman of the committee for the Victoria and Albert Museum icons exhibition and wrote the Introduction to the catalogue; presumably he played a significant part in securing the exhibition for Britain.39

Sir Ellis Minns, Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Pembroke College, was a member of Conway’s exhibition committee and translated the catalogue entries. A genuinely academic polymath whose best-known work is his monumental Scythians and Greeks (1913), he played a crucial role in fostering interest in Russian icon-painting. Minns’s direct activities were confined to translating Russian texts, but as a reviewer noted, he was ‘the first introducer to this country of the art of old Russia’.40 Minns’s first and most substantial contribution in this capacity came in 1927 with the publication of The Russian Icon written by his lifelong friend Kondakov.41 He did more than render the author’s text into English: his own annotations, which sometimes diverged from the views of the author, are testament to his own expertise in the field. The following year saw the publication of his revision of the English translation of Anisimov’s monograph on the icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir.42

The Russian Icon and Our Lady of Vladimir for the first time made available the fruits of Russian scholarship to English-speaking audiences. They were quickly joined by a third major publication, in which both Minns and Conway were again involved. Within a year of, and inspired by, the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition there appeared Masterpieces of Russian Painting. In the words of the editor, in this handsomely produced and illustrated book, ‘the art historian and the amateur have the first opportunity that has been offered to them of forming some idea of what, with all its limitations both of subject and treatment, must yet be accounted a highly important chapter in the history of art’.43 Masterpieces in every sense is a much more profound work of scholarship than the exhibition catalogue. The latter is little more than a booklet, with very few illustrations and catalogue entries comprising a summary description, in which the most substantial element is Grabar’s six-page essay.44 By contrast, Masterpieces is of quarto size and with no fewer than sixty plates, many full-page and in colour. The text too is far more substantial.

As with the catalogue this was a Russo-English collaboration. Anisimov and Grabar’ respectively contributed an outline history of icon-painting in Russia to the late 17th century and an account of the work of the Central Restoration Workshops; members of the latter provided the material for the descriptions of the illustrated icons, which are far more detailed than those in the exhibition catalogue. Conway wrote an overview covering much the same ground as both Anisimov and Grabar’; Minns on the other hand, while no text appears under his name, provided advice to the editor and read the proofs. In terms of profile the most significant contributor was the foremost British art critic of the day, Roger Fry.45 Fry had a long-standing interest in Russian art, but this exhibition brought him into contact with an aspect he had never previously encountered. His essay, entitled ‘Russian Icon-Painting from a Western-European Point of View’, focuses on identifying the underlying aesthetic values of Russian icons, which he saw as different from their Byzantine and western counterparts. For Fry, like Curzon before him, their qualities were transcendent and also abstract and remote, unconcerned with rendering the external world: ‘the painters of Russia […] were bent exclusively on the inner vision which the contemplation of divine beings and sacred histories aroused within them’.46 He was nevertheless alive to the painterly qualities of decorative inventiveness and harmonious use of colour as well as the significance of facial expressions, especially ocular, as agents of meaning.

The Russian Ikon Exhibition and Masterpieces of Russian Painting were a celebration of the achievements of Russian scholars and restorers after the 1917 Revolution. Overlooked, ignored or suppressed were the distinctly less positive features of Soviet policy. Although briefly acknowledged by Grabar’, the icon cleaning and restoration carried out prior to 1917 were downplayed.47 Secondly, the speed at which icons were treated and the craft-based methodologies employed in the years immediately after the Revolution resulted in irreversible damage in some cases; it was only with the establishment of the Central State Restoration Workshops in 1924 that x-rays, scientific analyses and microscopes came into use and conservators rather than former icon-painters were trained to adopt minimal interventionist methods of treatment.48

If criticism of the cleaning of icons after (as well as before) 1917 has the benefit of hindsight (and would also apply to western practices common at this time), this does not apply to the scale of destruction of church buildings and artefacts in the aftermath of the Revolution. As we have seen, the most important monuments and works of art were preserved through appropriation. Subsequently, and as a result of a severe famine in the Volga region, all church valuables were forfeited and, despite the efforts of national and local museums, much was lost. Contemporary Western observers were aware of these events. In his chapter in Masterpieces, Sir Martin Conway alluded to confiscations but accepted at face-value what he was told, namely that the vast majority of icons and other works of art were neither of value nor importance and that in any case many had been returned to their churches. He also defended the Soviet regime on the grounds that its treatment of ancient Russian art compared favourably with that of its predecessors. Less sympathetic was an article by Klepinin which appeared in the Slavonic and East European Review in 1930.49 In contrast Grabar’ remained silent on the subject in both his Masterpieces chapter and in the Russian Ikons Exhibition catalogue. Undoubtedly a raison d’être of the exhibition was to demonstrate the positive aspects of Soviet policy in the hope that destruction would be overlooked.50

There was also another hidden agenda to the exhibition. The cash-strapped government hoped to use it as a showcase for the sale both of the facsimiles and the original icons to western collectors. Early in 1930 word reached Minns of this plan and he immediately drew attention to it in print.51 This attempt had tragic consequences for one of the key figures in the preservation of Russia’s ancient art and Grabar’s co-organizer of the exhibition. Aleksandr Animisov had maintained his contacts with the émigré community of scholars grouped around his old mentor Nikodim Kondakov in Prague, which after his death formed the Seminarium Kondakovianum; this institute’s publication in 1928 of his Our Lady of Vladimir translated by Minns aroused the ire of the Soviet authorities. Before the exhibition came to London Anisimov was charged with profiting from sales of icons while it had been travelling in Europe; he was stripped of his posts and arrested in October 1930. The final charges did not mention icon sales, but included having extensive contacts with foreigners and émigrés. There followed an investigation of the Central State Restoration Workshops in which Chirikov and others, but evidently not Grabar’, came under suspicion. Sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, Anisimov was sent to the notorious labour camp (and former monastery) of Solovki, where he helped in the museum before being transferred to the White Sea-Baltic Canal camp and eventually executed in 1937.

He was not the only member of the team involved in the Russian Ikon Exhibition to fall victim to Stalin’s terror: Olsuf’ev, a co-compiler of the catalogue and co-contributor to the descriptions of the icons in Masterpieces, also perished.52 Anisimov and Olsuf’ev were but 2 of the thousands of victims of the anti-intellectual and anti-religious repression which was already underway while the exhibition was perambulating around Europe and England. Of this the British figures involved in promoting the exhibition and encouraging interest in Russian icon-painting were blissfully unaware.

When all is said and done, while the Russian Ikon Exhibition and the flurry of publications in the late 1920s provided a more scholarly understanding of Russian icons than hitherto, they did not generate a wider interest within the United Kingdom. The cause continued to be espoused by Tamara, the Russian-born wife of David Talbot Rice, Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University and a noted Byzantinist.53 A steady stream of publications by leading scholars, notably Viktor Lazarev, with good-quality colour reproductions and English translations has flowed in from Russia since the 1970s and 80s. During these decades London was the centre of the auction market for Russian icons and it remains the domain of a few specialist dealers. Nonetheless, the Victoria and Albert Museum icon exhibition was the most significant display on the subject in Britain until the 1990s when Gates of Mystery and The Art of Holy Russia, both major loan shows, were held in London.54 While a few scholars, notably Robin Cormack, Robin Milner-Gulland and the late Lindsey Hughes, have continued to fly the flag, Russian icon-painting as an academic subject continues to reside outside the canon of art history within the United Kingdom. In some respects, though, the wheel has come almost full circle: what began primarily as an interest largely confined to Anglican clergymen now has widespread popular appeal for the devout, as is evidenced by the quantity of reproductions of Rublev’s Trinity and the Mother of God of Vladimir and other icons to be found for sale in cathedrals and shops purveying religious items—and also in use as devotional images in churches other than Orthodox.


I am indebted to Tony Cross for his very helpful comments on this text. Also to Wendy Salmond who kindly read a draft and provided some valuable corrections.

  1   Nikolai Leskov, The Sealed Angel and Other Stories, ed. and trans. K.A Lantz (Knoxville, TN, 1984), pp. 5-72.

  2   John Beavington Atkinson, An Art Tour to Northern Capitals of Europe (London, 1873), pp. 243-4.

  3   Larry Wolff, The Enlightenment and the Orthodox World (Athens, 2001).

  4   Russian Ikon Exhibition (Victoria & Albert Museum, 18 November-14 December 1929); Ancient Russian Icons (Victoria & Albert Museum Exhibition Catalogue, 1929); Michael Farbman (ed.), Masterpieces of Russian Painting (London, 1930).

  5   I am indebted to Dr Georgi Parpulov for bringing this icon to my attention.

  6   Captain C. Colville Frankland, Narrative of a Visit to the Courts of Russia and Sweden in the Years 1830 and 1831, II (London, 1832); extract published in Moscow. A Travellers’ Companion, selected and intro. by Laurence Kelly (London, 1983), p. 121.

  7   Edward Pett Thompson, Life in Russia: or, The Discipline of Despotism (London, 1848), p. 272.

  8   Ibid., p. 273.

  9   Samuel Collins, A Survey of the Present State of Russia and Giles Fletcher, Of the Russe Common Wealth, in Marshall Poe (ed.), Early Exploration of Russia, I (London, 2003), p. 88 (see also pp. 410, 411, 421-2).

10   John Glen King, The Rites and Ceremonies of the Greek Church, in Russia (London, 1772), p. 33.

11   Ibid. (dedication page); for British taste in this period, see Francis Haskell, Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France (London, 1976).

12   Wolff, Enlightenment; Robin Cormack, ‘“A Gentleman’s Book”: Attitudes of Robert Curzon’, in Robin Cormack and Elizabeth Jeffreys (eds.), Through the Looking Glass. Byzantium through British Eyes (Papers from the 29th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, London, March 1995) (Aldershot, 2000), pp. 147-59.

13   John Hartley, Researches in Greece and the Levant (2nd edn London, 1833), p. 55.

14   Austen Henry Layard, A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh (London, 1851), p. 143.

15   Robert Pinkerton, The Present State of the Greek Church in Russia (Edinburgh, 1814), pp. 22, 231.

16   Robert Curzon, Visits to Monasteries in the Levant (London, 1849), pp. 299-300. For Curzon, see also Ian Fraser, The Heir of Parham: Robert Curzon 14th Baron Zouche (Harleston, 1986).

17   John Mason Neale, A History of the Holy Eastern Church (London, 1850), pp. 191-202.

18   Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church (London and Oxford, 1861), pp. viii, 341, 362, 365.

19   Robert Curzon, Visits to Monasteries in the Levant (2nd edn, London, 1865), p. 34; see also Cormack, ‘“A Gentleman’s Book”’, p. 158.

20   I am indebted to Tony Cross for information on the early Murray’s handbooks to Russia. For the series in a wider context see John Vaughan, The English Guide Book c.1780-1870 (Newton Abbot, 1974), esp. Chapter 2.

21   Handbook for Northern Europe, II (new edn, London, 1849), p. 544.

22   Handbook for Travellers in Russia, Poland and Finland (2nd revised edn, London, 1868), p. vi.

23   Handbook for Northern Europe, II (new edn, London, 1849), p. 557; Vaughan, English Guide Book, p. 47.

24   W. Sparrow Simpson, ‘Russo-Greek Portable Icons of Brass’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, XXII (1867), pp. 113-23, idem, XXV (1869), pp. 179-85. For these artefacts see Neizvestnaia Rossiia. K 300-letiiu Vygovskoi staroobriadtsesskoi pustyni (State Historical Museum exhibition catalogue, Moscow, 1994), pp. 37-58; Richard Eighme Ahlborn and Vera Beaver-Bricken Espinola (eds.), Russian Copper Icons and Crosses from the Kunz Collection: Castings of Faith (Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology, LI, 1991).

25   Pinkerton, Present State, p. 331.

26   Alfred Maskell, Russian Art and Art Objects in Russia (South Kensington Museum Handbook, London, 1884), p. 2.

27   Ibid., p. 159.

28   Ibid., pp. 169, 203.

29   Ibid., pp. 167-9, 187.

30   The literature on this subject is immense. See for example, Olga Etinhof, ‘Pyotr Ivanovich Sevastianov and his activity in collecting Byzantine objects in Russia’, in Cormack and Jeffreys, Byzantium Through British Eyes, pp. 211-20; idem, Vizantiiskie ikony VI—pervoi poloviny XIII veka v Rossii (Moscow, 2005); Gerold Ivanovich Vzdornov, Istoriia otkrytiia i izucheniia russkoi srednevekovoi zhivopisi: XIX vek (Moscow, 1986); idem, Restavratsiia i nauka: ocherki po istorii otkrytiia i izucheniia drevnerusskoi zhivopisi (Moscow, 2006), esp. pp. 11-56; Kari Kotkavaara, Progeny of the Icon: Émigré Russian Revivalism and the Vicissitudes of the Eastern Orthodox Sacred Image (Åbo, 1999), pp. 124-96; Aleksandr Evgenevich Musin, Vopiiushie Kamni (St Petersburg, 2006), esp. Chapter 2; Liudmila Likhacheva, ‘The Medieval Collection of the State Russian Museum’, in Roderick Grieson (ed.), Gates of Mystery. The Art of Holy Russia (exhibition catalogue, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992), pp. 309-13.

31   Vzdornov, Istoriia otkrytiia; idem, Restavratsiia i nauka; Evgenii Nikolaevich Trubetskoi, Icons: Theology and Color (1917; Crestwood, NY, 1973), pp. 41-3, 93-4; Olga Lelekova, ‘Icon Restoration and Research in Russia’, in The Art of Holy Russia: Icons from Moscow 1400-1660 (Royal Academy of Arts exhibition catalogue, London, 1998), pp. 87-92 (esp. p. 87).

32   Rosa Newmarch, Russian Arts (London, 1916); Winifred Stephens (ed.), The Soul of Russia (London, 1916), pp. 65-8. For Newmarch, see Philip Ross Bullock, Rosa Newmarch and Russian Music in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century England (Farnham, 2009).

33   Vzdornov, Restavratsiia i nauka, pp. 57-88; for Grabar’ see ibid., pp. 307-26; Kotkavaara, Progeny, pp. 157-8; Lelekova, ‘Icon Restoration’, pp. 88-90.

34   Vzdornov, Restavratsiia i nauka, pp. 89-136 and on Chirikov, pp. 161-76; Lelekova, ‘Icon Restoration’, pp. 88-90; Lindsey Hughes, ‘Inventing Andrei: Soviet and Post-Soviet Views of Andrei Rublev and his Trinity Icon’, Slavonica, IX (2003), pp. 83-90 (esp. p. 85); Aleksandr Ivanovich Anisimov, Our Lady of Vladimir (Prague, 1928).

35   For a review of the 1920 exhibition, see N. Levinson, ‘The Restoration of Old Russian Paintings’, The Slavonic Review, III (1924-5), pp. 350-5 (this article was first published in Russian in Russkoe Iskusstvo in 1923).

36   For the exhibition, see note 4 above and Vzdornov, Restavratsiia i nauka, pp. 111-7; see also L.A. Olsufiev, ‘Russian Ikons at South Kensington’, Burlington Magazine, LV, no. 321 (Dec. 1929), pp. 284-9. For the reception of the exhibition in the United States, see Wendy R. Salmond, ‘How America Discovered Russian Icons: The Soviet Loan Exhibition of 1930-1932’, in Jefferson J.A. Gatrall and Douglas Greenfield (eds.), Alter Icons. The Russian Icon and Modernity (Pennsylvania, 2010), pp. 128-43.

37   Much has been written on Kondakov: see Viktor Lazarev, N.P. Kondakov, 1844–1925 (Moscow, 1925); Nikodim Pavlovich Kondakov 1844-1925 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, 2001); Vzdornov, Restavratsiia i nauka, pp. 291-306; Kotkavaara, Progeny, pp. 143-51, 212-24 and passim. For Anisimov, see Irina L. Kizlasova, Aleksandr Ivanovich Anisimov (1877-1937) (Moscow, 2000); Vzdornov, Restavratsiia i nauka, pp. 139-60 and Shirley A. Glade, ‘Anisimov and the Rediscovery of Old Russian Icons’, in Gatrall and Greenfield (eds.), Alter Icons, pp. 89-111.

38   Ancient Russian Icons (Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition catalogue).

39   William Martin Conway, Art Treasures in Soviet Russia (London, 1925).

40   D.S. Mirsky in his review of Kondakov, The Russian Icon in The Slavonic Review, VI (1927), pp. 471-4 (p. 471); see also the obituaries of Minns by Elizabeth Hill in idem, XXXII (1953), pp. 236-8 and Ethel John Lindgren in Man, LIII (1953), pp. 172-4.

41   Nikodim Pavlovich Kondakov, The Russian Icon (Oxford, 1927); Minns also wrote an appreciation of Kondakov in celebration of his 80th birthday, ‘N.P. Kondakov: The Father of Russian Archaeology’, The Slavonic Review, III (1924), pp. 435-7.

42   Anisimov, Our Lady of Vladimir.

43   Farbman, Masterpieces, no pagination; see also the review in the Burlington Magazine, LVII, no. 332 (Nov. 1930), pp. 247-8.

44   Igor Grabar, ‘Ancient Russian Painting’, in Ancient Russian Icons, pp. 5-10.

45   Andrei Rogachevskii, ‘Samuel Koteliansky and the Bloomsbury Circle (Roger Fry, E.M. Forster, Mr and Mrs John Maynard Keynes and the Woolfs)’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, XXXVI (2000), pp. 368-85; see also Frances Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life (London, 1980).

46   Roger Fry, ‘Russian Icon-Painting from a Western-European Point of View’, in Farbman, Masterpieces, p. 36.

47   Grabar, ‘Ancient Russian Painting’, p. 6; idem, ‘The Scientific Restoration of Historic Works of Art’, in Farbman, Masterpieces, p. 96.

48   Idem, ‘Scientific Restoration’, pp. 95-105; see also Lelekova, ‘Icon Restoration’, pp. 88-92; Vzdornov, Restavratsiia i nauka, pp. 89-136.

49   Masterpieces, p. 18 (see also Conway’s remarks on p. 3 of the Ancient Russian Icons catalogue); Nicholas Klepinin, ‘The War on Religion in Russia’, Slavonic and East European Review, VIII (1930), pp. 514-32.

50   Kotkavaara, Progeny, pp. 156-8.

51   Ibid.; Ellis Hovell Minns, ‘The Exhibition of Icons at the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Slavonic and East European Review, VIII (1930), pp. 627-35 (p. 635); see also Glade, ‘Anisimov’, p. 100 and Salmond, ‘How America Discovered Russian Icons’, pp. 129-32.

52   Shirley A. Glade, ‘Dispelling the ‘Fog of Half-Forgotten History’’, The Russian Review, 63 (2004), pp. 130-3; idem, ‘Anisimov’, pp. 100-4; Kizlasova, Anisimov. For Anisimov’s last years see also Dmitry S. Likhachev, Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir (Budapest, 2000), pp. 125-7. For Olsu’ev see Vzdornov, Restavratsiia i nauka, pp. 177-214.

53   Tamara Talbot Rice, Icons (London, 1959), idem and David Talbot Rice, Icons. The Natasha Allen Collection Catalogue (Dublin, National Gallery of Art, 1968).

54   Gates of Mystery (1992); The Art of Holy Russia (1998) (see above, nn. 30, 31).