*Pic: Cody … Elizabeth Balletta’s cream tulip-eared French Bulldog now in the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Part IV. Fabergé Hardstone French bulldogs from Imperial Collections. It is all in the ears. (Part 1)
Photographs: 1902. The ‘Charity Exhibition of Fabergé Artistic Objects, Old Miniatures, and Snuff Boxes’, von Dervis Mansion, 28 English Embankment, St Petersburg.
On the completion of renovations Vera Nikolaievna, widow of Baron Paul Pavlovich von Dervis, opened her home to the public with a charity exhibition in aid of schools under the patronage of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of the Tsar Nicholas II.
This original photograph shows the two Imperial vitrines, or showcases, containing items contributed by the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. In the rear cabinet on the second shelf from the top there is a hardstone statuette of what appears to be a fully grown bulldog sitting on its haunches. This cabinet contains the property of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the Danish princess who married Tsar Alexander III. Her daughter the Grand Duchess Xenia, the mother of Prince Yusupov’s future wife, is recorded as lending hardstone animals to the exhibition. If this is a bulldog portrait it could be the English Bulldog with cropped ears in the photograph of the two children or the dog belonging to her late husband’s brother Vladimir, which it closely resembles; both in Part II.
There are five known hardstone miniature portrait sculptures made between 1908 and 1914 that accurately depict French Bulldogs belonging to members of the Imperial family. These miniature sculptures can be dated and an owner suggested by the shape and form of the dog’s ears.
Cody … Elizabeth Balletta’s cream tulip-eared French Bulldog now in the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Museum states:
“Lapidary artists in the Fabergé workshops employed a wide range of semi-precious stones to create exquisitely carved animal sculptures. Their selection, and the manner in which the stones were employed, depended upon the design and in many cases imitated patterns and hues found in nature. Some of the animals, including this bulldog, were actual portraits of living creatures that were prized pets. Both the name and address of the dog represented here, Cody, Av. Bosquet , are inscribed on an applied gold plaque secured to the dog’s be-jewelled collar. This ornament also features a diamond-studded buckle, a polished gold bell in the front, and a ring at the back for a leash. Cody’s arresting eyes are cabochon rubies set in gold and his body is made of tan-coloured agate. The ears are slightly darker in colour and the skin folds, fur, and posture are highly naturalistic.
The sculpture of Cody was a gift to actress Elizabeth Balletta from Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich. Ms. Balletta, who performed for many years at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, was a favourite of the Grand Duke who often purchased gifts for her from Fabergé and Cartier. After twenty-five years of acting, she settled in Paris at Avenue Bosquet 9, the address inscribed on the collar.
Many of Fabergé’s carved animals are of poor quality from Idar-Oberstein, Germany. In 1908 production was moved to the Imperial Peterhof Lapidary Works in St. Petersburg and with the arrival of two very gifted lapidary artisans P. M. Kremlyov and P. Derbyshev the standard of carving improved dramatically. Derbyshev had been sent by Fabergé to Paris to train under Lalique, Kremlyov had graduated from the Yekaterinburg Art School and specialised in stone carving. Fabergé could now produce, in house and under the firm’s control, bespoke animal hardstone portrait sculptures of outstanding quality.
Elizabeth Balletta must have been gifted this statuette of Cody by the Grand Duke Alexei before his death in November 1908. After his death it is highly unlikely that the Imperial family would have agreed to make an individual payment that would allow the delivery of a hardstone image of her puppy to the Duke’s former mistress.
The pet English Bulldogs of the Russian imperial family had specifically been cream/fawn in colour with cropped ears. Elizabeth Balletta and the Grand Duke Alexei’s dogs are the first with proper Bouledogue Francais tulip-ears.
That the statuette relates to a puppy, then living, at Elizabeth Balletta’s Paris address is confirmed by the engraved address on the collar. I suggest that the actress, or more probably the Grand Duke, gave the bulldog puppy the most unusual name Cody after his friend Buffalo Bill Cody with whom the duke had shot his first American buffalo in January 1872. It is of interest that the details of this buffalo hunting expedition are carefully recorded in his surviving Journal, now in the Yusupov papers, and that Buffalo Bill Cody and his show came to Paris and Europe in both 1904 and 1905.
The Grand Duke’s buffalo hunt of 1872 with Buffalo Bill Cody and General George Custer, during his visit to America at age 22, was a much remembered highlight in his later life. On completion of the hunt the Grand Duke gave Buffalo Bill a fur coat and expensive cuff links. The Indian Chief, Spotted Tail, gave the Grand Duke a wigwam, a bow and arrows.
A newspaper report and photograph of the buffalo hunt with General Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody 1872.
General Custer and the Grand Duke became firm friends, Custer continued with Alexei on the rest of his American trip, and the two corresponded until Custer’s death in 1876. On his return to Russia, in memory of his adventures, every year Alexei organised a special entertainment to give attendees an experience of the ‘American Old West’.
In 1903 Col Cody brought his Wild West Show to London where his Grand Ducal buffalo head cuff links were stolen. The Show toured Paris in April 1904 for 2 months and again in 1905, throughout Europe. Undoubtedly, the Grand Duke Alexei, and Elizabeth Balletta, both living in Paris in 1905, would have met with Cody and visited his show. Cody an unusual name for a dog was named in his honour, it is, therefore, not unreasonable that the Grand Duke’s dog was in turn called Custer.
This tulip-eared French Bulldog portrait is almost certainly the one referred to in Fabergé’s account for: A hardstone figure of a dog, unpaid by the Grand Duke Alexei on his death in 1908. The account for 800 roubles was settled by order of the recently widowed Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, who inherited part of Duke Alexei’s enormous estate through her late husband, his brother, the Grand Duke Vladimir. The Grand Duchess owned during her life at least three French bulldogs, of which one may have been portrayed in a small hardstone statuette.
This, seeming twin to Cody, allows for a second hardstone figure of a dog, this time in petrified wood wearing an enamelled collar in the Romanov heraldic colours of black, white and gold. The collar is important. In the photograph of the Grand Duke Alexei (Part II) his then bulldog with French tulip-ears is wearing a similar Romanov collar. I suggest that the Grand Duke, when he saw how much pleasure both the puppy and the statuette of Cody had given his mistress, ordered another portrait of another puppy, Cody’s brother, that he in turn named Custer. The fact that the image was later sold by Fabergé in London not Russia suggests that this statuette was returned to the firm on the Grand Duke Alexei’s death, by his late brother’s wife and that it was deemed more acceptable that it should be sold abroad.
I suggest it was obtained under the authority of the executors of the Grand Duke Alexei’s estate in 1909 by Fabergé in lieu of the outstanding debt of 800 roubles. It was later offered in 1914 by the House of Fabergé to the King of Thailand. The King, as Crown Prince, had visited Russia before sending his son to be educated under the care of the Emperor. On his return to Thailand this son, Prince Chakrabongse, arranged for the London branch of Fabergé to stage a special exhibition of their stock in Bangkok in November 1908. With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 business in luxuries throughout Europe collapsed and the Romanov bulldog puppy was taken to Siam for sale in July 1914, the last such selling trip by the House of Fabergé. Siam was a country as-yet unaffected by the conflict that was instantly destroying the Fabergé business. The King decided against the purchase and the figure was returned to the London shop and given the London inventory number 23914, which is scratched into the foot, prior to its sale in 1916.
The statuette’s Romanov connection may have been known to Mrs Marie Mango the daughter of the former Greek-born Turkish ambassador to St Petersburg, Karatodori /Karatheodori Pasha, who left St Petersburg in 1908. She may have recognised the understated significance of the Romanov colours portrayed on the collar, providing her with a perfectly good, if unspoken, reason to purchase this once Royal object, for the then high price of ninety pounds in November 1916, during the darkest days of the Great War. Her husband, John, was the son of Anthony Mango of the Greek shipping company, The Foscolo Mango Steamship Company. Anthony ran, from London, a branch of the family business shipping coal out of Cardiff and Newcastle to the Middle East. The sale, by the firm of Fabergé London, to Mrs Mango on the 21st November 1916 was virtually the final entry in the firms London ledgers which closed some six weeks later, on 9 January 1917, the remaining stock being sold to Lacloche Freres.
The onset of the Depression in 1929 caused The Foscolo Mango Steamship Company business to implode, for empty ships cost a lot to run. The statuette was purchased from the Mango family by Wartski and sold to Sir Bernard Eckstein. Eckstein, a famous collector and old Etonian, who had inherited the family’s South African Rand fortune enabling him to purchase the bulldog in the aftermath of the Great Depression. He died, unmarried, leaving a large part of his collection to the British Museum. On his death the Fabergé statuette was sold at Sotheby’s, together with his Imperial Winter Egg, in February 1949. The Winter Egg now belongs to the Qatari royal family who purchased it in Christies New York in 2002 for $9.6 million.
At the Sotheby’s sale of 1949 the puppy was again repurchased by Wartski before being sold to the then leading British film actress, Valerie Hobson.
Valerie Hobson, like many film stars of the time had both breeding and class. Valerie was spotted lunching with her mother at Claridge’s by Oscar Hammerstein who, having previously seen her on stage, went over to her table and offered her a part in his show at Drury Lane. She almost immediately became a superstar with her performances as the resourceful double agent in The Spy in Black, the haughty Estella of Great Expectations and the shrewd widow in Kind Hearts and Coronets, films that gave her the funds to make the bulldog purchase.
Hobson accepted the lead role of Anna, the governess in the musical The King and I at Drury Lane and starred for 18 months before retiring in 1954. She stood resolutely by her husband, John Profumo, The Secretary of State, after his affair with Christine Keeler and the bulldog was sold back to Wartski on her death in 1998.
Wartski then sold the bulldog to Lord Thomson of Fleet, the businessman and newspaper baron whose principal interest was collecting the decorative and fine arts. His passion for exceptional works of art never faded, nor did his generosity in handing over his collections, as they were formed, to the principal Canadian public art galleries. Thomson had acquired the bulldog from Wartski just before his death in June 2006. The statuette was again repurchased by Wartski and sold to a Russian collector, living in London, who exhibited his superbly chosen collection at Wartski’s between 23 November and 4th December 2010 where it is item 41 in the illustrated catalogue.
I have recently arranged the purchase of Custer from Wartski who have now owned him five times over the last sixty years and sold him to a client in the Far East, giving me cause to write this series of articles.