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Home | Russian Art | Icons and other artefacts in the British Museum

Icons and other artefacts in the British Museum

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British Museum is the first national public museum in the world, having celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003.

British museumBritish museumIt was founded in 1753 by an Act of British Parliament. From the very beginning the Museum committed itself to the service of general public by granting free admission to all ‘studios and curious persons’. The establishment of British Museum is linked to the name of the renowned collector and naturalist Sir Hans Sloan (1660-1753) who bequeathed his whole collection of more than 71 000 objects to King George for the nation in return for a payment of £20 000 to his heirs. Sir Hans Sloan’s collection was complemented in 1757 by King George II who donated to the newly established Museum the ‘Old Royal Library’ of the sovereigns of England. Since its opening day on 15 January 1759 the British Museum occupies the same site in the Bloomsbery area of London, albeit the museum saw great expansion in its exhibition areas and public service. According to the Museum’s on-line guide its visitor numbers have grown from around 5 000 a year in the eighteenth century to nearly 6 million today. Access to the Museum is still free of charge.

Russian collections. Russian art in the British Museum can be grouped into three main categories: Russian icons, Russian and Soviet porcelain, and Russian and Soviet prints and drawings.

Collection of Russian icons at the British Museum consists of 72 items dating from the fifteenth through to the early twentieth century. They are all accessible through the British Museum on-line catalogue under the name ‘Russian icons’. Each entry has an image and detailed description (in English). According to the on-line history of the collection  ‘it was formed spontaneously via acquisition and gifts, mostly made during the period of the Second World War”. However, the first icon to enter the British Museum collection was a small, ‘domestic’ Icon of the New Testament Trinity, which had been donated in 1920 when Russia was in the middle of the civil war struggle. Despite its relatively small size, the collection is valuable as it represents all periods of Russian icon painting, with the exception of the pre-Mongol period of the 12th and 13th centuries. One of the collection most treasured pieces is the ancient Icon of St George – a rare iconographic type from the beginning of the 15th century. (source: Y. Bobrov (ed. by C. Entwistle), A catalogue of the Russian icons in the British Museum, © Trustees of the British Museum)

St George
St George, beginning of 15th c. © Trustees of the British Museum

Russain and Soviet porcelain. The British Museum possesses fine collection of Russian porcelain produced in the Imperial and Soviet periods. Of a particular value are the pieces of so-called «propaganda porcelain» [«agitfarfor»] produced in 1920s in the State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd. The primary aim of creating such pieces, as it appears perfectly obvious from their design, was to  spread and promote the ideas of the New Soviet state. Known before the October Revolution as Imperial Porcelain Factory, it was founded by Empress Elisaveta and was the first factory to produce porcelain in Russia. The porcelain peaces produced by the Factory after the October Revolution were created using blanks made in the pre-revolutionary times. Therefore such pieces have 'doubble' dating in the catalogues, including the on-line catalogue of the British Museum.

Such is the case of the decorative porcelain dish «From heroic military deeds to labour heroic deeds and from labour heroic deeds to military heroic deeds» desighed and painted by Vasilii Timorev in 1920 on a blank made in 1892.

Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

Other propaganda porcelain pieces from the British Museum were created by Serghei Chekhonin, Rudolf Vilde, Vitaly Vlasoff, Maria Lebedeva, Mikhail Adamovich and Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya.

Russian prints and drawings. The British Museum collection of Russian and Russia-related prints and drawings embraces the period from 18th to 20th cc. and amounts to an impressive 1645 items. Among others it includes: a collection of Russian pre-revolutionary satirical popular prints [lubki] and Russian religious engravings; series of prints by Jean Baptiste Le Prince, produced in 1764 and featuring genre sciences from Russian life; an album by anonymous author of portraits and caricatures illustrating Russian and foreign diplomatic circles, including portrait of Baron Gekkeren, foster-father of George Dantes; prints by Elizaveta Kruglikova, Anna Ostorumova-Lebedeva, Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, Konstantin Bogaevsky, Marc Chagall, Leonid Pasternak (spelled in the British library on-line catalogue as Leonid Pasternac), Vladimir Favorsky, Vadim Falileev, Aleksei Grekov, Nikolai Kuprianov; drawings by Giacomo Quarenghi, Karl Briullov, Ivan Aivasovsky, Maria Bashkirtseva (Marie Bashkirtseff), Philip Malyavin, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, David Bomberg; a portfolio containing 12 wood-engravings of views of Moscow by Alexandr Pavlov (beginning of 20th c.); lithographic illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy by Olga Petrova (1974). A curious inclusion into this extensive collection is a forgery drawing made in style of Leon Bakst featuring supposedly theatrical costume design. This drawing in bodycolour on paper, heightened with silver over charcoal and coloured chalks bears the inscription ‘Bakst’ and had been identified as a fake and donated to the museum as such. (source of information: The British Museum on-line catalogue, © Trustees of the British Museum).

All items from and information about Russian collections can be assessed through a very well documented on-line catalogue at: