The stunning Neoclassicism style chair was acquired by the Rundāle Palace Museum on 5 May 1981, purchased in Riga from R. Ostapkovičs. It was made in 1783 following the design of architect Charles Cameron (1745-1812) and was initially situated in St Petersburg in the Green Dining Room in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. This is evidenced by inscription on the seat frame and a label in Russian – ЦАРСКОСЕЛЪСКАГО ДВАРЦОВАГО ПРАВЛЕНIЯ (Tsarskoye Selo Palace Administration).
Tsarskoye Selo was refurbished in the 1770s following the directive of Empress Catherine II. The Catharine Palace with a residential compound, which comprises the Green Dining Room, was constructed in 1773 by the architect Vasily Neyolov (1722-1782). Catherine II coveted after a new and contemporary palace interior, which would incorporate characteristics of architecture from Ancient Rome and Greece. It is not a coincidence the palace’s decorative finish and interior design was entrusted to Charles Cameron.
During the mid 18th century extensive archaeological excavation was carried out in Italy, mainly Rome, Pompeii and its surrounding area, revealing ancient towns. Antique culture astonished with its architecture: pillars, capitals, fresco paintings, grotesques, vases and urns. Scientists, architects, artists and representatives from other industries all over Europe paid attention to these findings. The interest was so widespread it resulted in books being published about antique culture and its architecture with in-depth descriptions, measurements and draughts. Neoclassicism – a new architectural and art style based on Greek and Roman samples was born and Charles Cameron was also enthralled by it. In 1768, he travelled to Italy to manage archaeological excavation works and to obtain precise measurements and draughts for preserving the architecture of ancient culture. He was particularly interested in the ancient Roman thermae.
In 1772, after he had returned home, Charles Cameron published a book ‘The Baths of the Romans’. This book had a profound effect on the Empress of Russia Catharine II who followed cultural developments across Europe with vigour and interest. Hence in 1779 Charles Cameron, an expert in antique architecture and art, was offered work in St Petersburg, Russia. The Empress admired Cameron’s knowledge and artistic taste and entrusted him with interior design for the new rooms at Tsarskoye Selo. Charles Cameron paid meticulous attention to the interior’s architectural solutions and decorative wall finishes. He used various techniques and materials in his interiors. Alongside this work he laboured on designs for a new palace, park and pavilions in Pavlovsk, drew sketches for Tsarskoye Selo park development and supervised construction works at all his projects.
Charles Cameron spent the rest of his life in Russia and was bestowed an honorary title – Her Majesty’s Architect. Therefore, his sketches are often signed with the abbreviation: Cameron AMI (Architectural Majestique Imperial).
The furniture set for the Green Dining Room in the Catharine Palace was commissioned and made to Cameron’s design at I. Charlemagne’s furniture factory in St Petersburg. The set consisted of white chairs, their woodcut details accentuated in pale green, backrests and seats upholstered with dark green silk fabric. In total, 25 chairs were manufactured, including two chairs that were made exclusively for the proprietors of the palace and were thus a different size. The chairs were made in Neoclassicism style and complemented the interior of the Green Dining Room, they were understated and yet elegant.
Only a few chairs from this furniture set have remained to this day in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. However, a photograph from 2007 reveals that the decorative finish of these chairs no longer resembled Charles Cameron’s original conception.
The Green Dining Room in the Catherine Palace suffered two fires. On both occasions, all rooms were restored to the design of Charles Cameron. Alas, the same cannot be said about furniture. After the fire in 1820 the chairs were re-painted white and upholstered with pale green silk with a French name Gros de Naples. This type of silk was first manufactured in the 16th-17th century in Naples, Italy, hence its name. The silk fabric is dense, elastic, evenly dyed. Naples silk became very popular in Russia in the beginning of the 19th century and was widely used for making clothes, hats and footwear, as well as furniture and interior design. The Catherine Palace Museum’s catalogue published in 1918 stated that after the fire in 1863 the chairs were painted white-pink with green details and re-upholstered.
The greatest damage inflicted to the rooms designed by Charles Cameron was during the Leningrad Blockade from 1941-1944. The palace was completely vandalised and pillaged, looters carried away not only paintings and other art objects but also furniture. It is likely the chair acquired by the Rundāle Palace Museum in 1981 was also misappropriated at the same time.
The chair in its acquired condition remained in the collection of the Rundāle Palace Museum until 2006 when research finally commenced and the first test areas revealed layers of paint. The original paintwork – white with woodcut details accentuated in pale green was recovered underneath four layers of paint, some of which were added during the restoration works following the fire of 1820 and 1863.
The chair was restored in 2016. It was a prolonged and labour-consuming process: new wooden insets were used to repair the damaged and lost woodcut details, the backrest and seat were re-upholstered with new a filling and silk fabric, the more recent paint layers were mechanically removed and areas with paint loss primed and toned.
Presently the chair is featured in the decorative art exhibition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’.
Author: Baiba Leitlante,
Restorer in the RPM Scientific Restoration Department