Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Gold Toilet Set in Empress Alexandra’s Bedroom

During the reign of Empress Anna Ivanova (1730-1740), the Augsburg craftsman, Johann Ludwig Biller, was commissioned to make a gold toilet set of 47 pieces.

In Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘The Romanovs 1613-1918’, he described Empress Anna Ivanova’s reign as terrifying with her caprices and cruelties. From the 1750s, Imperial brides used the toilet set for the ceremonial dressing of hair and jewels.

Photograph (below) of Empress Anna Ivanova's Gold Toilet Set

After the death of Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1828, the toilet set was deposited in the Diamond Room in the Winter Palace.

On March 18th, 1839 the Minister of the Court sent a letter to the Chief Marshal that Nicholas I ‘has deigned to command the gold toilet set … to move to Her Majesty’s bedroom …’ Officials transferred both Anna Ivanova’s set and Catherine the Great’s 61 piece toilet set as the order did not specify which set was to be placed in the bedroom.

Hau’s 1859 watercolor of Empress Alexandra’s bedroom with Anna Ivanova’s gold toilet set visible on the left.

In March 1867, Empress Marie Alexandrovna agreed to the temporary use of the gold toilet set by her daughter-in-law Marie Feodorovna in the Anichkov Palace. On January 6th, 1868, the Empress ordered the immediate ‘delivery of the set to the Winter Palace’ for the marriage of Duchess of Leuchtenberg. After the wedding, the set was placed in the Diamond Room again.

Prince A. Vasilichikov, the director of the Imperial Hermitage, requested persistently for the removal of gold toilet set from the Winter Palace to the Hermitage’s Jewelry Gallery. In January 1882, he spoke personally with Alexander III during an Imperial Ball about the issue and on February 24th, 1882, he received official permission.

Photographs (below) of Empress Anna Ivanova’s Gold Toilet Set in the Hermitage Museum

It is difficult to comprehend why it became the custom for Imperial brides to use the toilet set; a symbol of the terror Empress Anna Ivanova and Ernest Biron unleashed on the country. Was the animosity Nicholas I had for his grandmother Catherine the Great the reason when he had the opportunity to change the old tradition in 1839 rather than allowing the use of Catherine’s 61 piece set?

In Rachel Corbett’s ‘You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin’, I was intrigued to discover that Alexander I stayed at the Duc de Biron’s mansion at 17 rue de Varenne in Paris. Was the Duc a descendant of Anna Ivanova’s Biron? Did the friendship between Alexander and the Duc influence Nicholas I?


  1. All very interesting! Another detail of Hau's watercolor? On the wall at left, behind the door and looking glass, is a portrait of the Empress' daughter Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, painted by Winterhalter, circa 1856. The portrait, like Winterhalter's portrait of her sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna, née Cäcilie of Baden, appears to be lost - both are still well-known from lithographs.

    I just recently put up a blog post on Winterhalter's portraits of the Romanov ladies, so this is all - terrifically - fresh in my otherwise addled brain! : )

  2. Thank you very much for the identification of Winterhalter's portrait of GD Olga. I hadn't come across archival info on it and had wondered if to search Robertson portraits.

    Your blog post is superb on Winterhalter. The 'very poor copy of the painting seen above right' in Empress Marie's dressing room is fantastic to finally see!

    Have you seen the new 2016 book 'High Society: The Portraits of Franz Xaver Winterhalter' by Aurisch,etc?

    1. Thanks so much, Joanna! I'm not 100% sure that the original of the little "poor copy" portrait of Olga is a Winterhalter, but it sure looks to be. And, yes, I do have that book. Twice over; the first copy arrived slightly dinged and, somehow, in the process of returning it I ended up with two copies. Funny. It's lovely to have, at any rate, and a nice addition to the Ormond book, the only other major publication on the artist that I know of, and which is thirty years old at this point! : )

    2. Have you checked Stuttgart archives for GD Olga?

    3. I was reading recently of the loss of Winterhalter paintings from a fire in Langenburg fifty years ago.

  3. The link to Stephilius post on Winterhalter's portraits:


  4. Joanna.
    Great post! What extravagant and lovely things to have had (dreams), where is the toilet set now do you know?
    No matter how many times I've looked at Hau's paintings I'm still amazed when I see something or something is pointed out to me e.g the toilet set, how much detail he put into those pictures! I honestly would never have known what those items sitting on the table were unless you haven't done this post, so thank you.
    Ghostie x.

  5. Thank you very much Ghostie. It's amazing with the watercolors and later photographs to discover individual items and what they were used for in the rooms. I am still awed that I found out about the baskets for pillows!

    Both the Anna Ivanova and Catherine the Great toilet sets ( what remains of the total) are in the Treasure rooms of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg today.

  6. Ooooo you found out what the big V shaped baskets were for, that's great! Interesting that they were used for pillows, I wouldn't have thought that, but they had to have a specific use for why were they in the rooms. Did you end up finding out whatthe'cynical' item was that was in the picture of the Grand Duke's bedroom?
    Ghostie x.

  7. Nothing definite yet on the GD's bedroom piece!

  8. What Room # is this?