Russia, Manufacture of Tula, late 18th-early 19th century
Steel, chased and gilt bronze, enhanced with brass and pewter
- Former Alphonse de Rothschild (1827-1905) collection
- Count Charles-André Walewski collection
This polished steel, chased and gilt bronze, brass and pewter casket is decorated with garlands and flower falls. It has an oval cover with a handle and, on the reverse, a polished steel mirror in a frame. It is flanked by handles and it rests on four flattened ball feet, the interior liner is missing, probably originally mounted on a rack.
The Tula Manufacture
Comparable to the work of a jeweller, this casket is a refined example of the objects created in the 18th century by the Tula Manufacture. In the south of Moscow, the city of Tula exploited early on its geological situation. The iron deposits on which the city is based enabled it to exist economically and quicky surpass its role as a producer of weapons of war, hunting, duelling and ceremonials. Established in 1712 under the leadership of Peter I the Great (his reign from 1682 to 1725), the manufacture reached its peak thanks to the exceptional know-how of its craftsmen. It then extended its production to furniture and artworks since the the 1740s under the reign of Elizabeth Ist (her reign from 1741 to 1762) when the need for weapons decreased, a consequence of the end of the war against Sweden. Objects such as candlesticks, caskets and moneyboxes came out of the manufacture’s workshops as well as furniture with traditional shapes.
The specificity of Tula’s artworks lies in the use of different materials on the same object. These polished steel pieces of high-quality are encrusted with a multitude of “facet-cut steel diamonds” to which are added relief inlays, chased on the surface. On a single piece, up to six different metals could be combined: steel, copper, brass, tin, bronze and gold. Tula’s objects thus concentrate a high degree of technical mastery and artistic refinement.
The price of the objects coming out of Tula’s Manufacture was proportional to the complexity of the work and the time spent in their creation: at the time, these objects were thus qualified as “rarities and preciousness”. Hence only members of the imperial family and the aristocracy were able to acquire them. Empress Catherine II of Russia (her reign from 1762 to 1796), a convinced lover of the decorative arts and fervent protector of national production, completed her collection with these treasures of modernity that she presented annually in her palace in Tsarskoye Selo, located near St. Petersburg.
The craze for Tula pieces continued during the reign of Alexander I (his reign from 1801 to 1825). These pieces, presented today at the Hermitage Museum, are considered to be key works of the former Gallery of Treasures of the Winter Palace.
The Tula Manufacture thus embodies the artisanal perfection and the daring of the Russian identity affirming its place in 18th century Europe. The know-how of locksmiths’ masters contributed to the influence of the nation of the Tsars across the old continent, in particular through diplomatic gifts.
The aversion of Paul Ist for his mother, making him hate everything she appreciated, the manufacture gradually lost its support in the last years of the 18th century. But it was above all the Napoleonic wars and the change in taste that got the better of this exceptional production in the first years of the 19th century.
Antoine Chenevière, Splendeur du mobilier russe, 1780-1840, édition Flammarion, Paris, 1988, p. 248.
Emmanuel Ducamp (dir.), Pavlovsk, les Collections, Paris, Alain de Gourcuff, 1993, p. 92.
Jacques Kugel, Trésors des Tzars, la Russie et l’Europe de Pierre Le Grand à Nicolas Ier, Paris, Kugel, 1998.
Alain Renner, Mobilier de métal de l’Ancien Régime à la Restauration, Paris, éditions Monelle Hayot, 2009.