Peter The Great at the Battle of Poltawa
This large tapestry depicts Peter the Great defeating the Swedish army at the Battle of Poltawa in 1709, the turning point in the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden for control of the Baltic Sea. On his return from France in 1716-17, Peter established a state tapestry factory in St Petersburg, bringing with him two groups of French craftsmen from the Gobelins and Beauvais manufactories to run the workshop and train Russian apprentices in the art of weaving. The French excelled in the art of tapestry weaving and the Gobelins in particular was unsurpassed for its imaginative and sumptuous pictorial designs. It was at the St Petersburg manufactory that this tapestry was woven and presented in 1765 as a gift from Catherine the Great to the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, on the completion of his three-year spell as English Ambassador to Russia. Buckinghamshire had been appointed to negotiate a treaty between the two countries and although this failed, he was popular at the Russian court and well-liked by the Empress, who was said to be enamoured by his charms. The Earl was less impressed with Russia, leaving vivid accounts of arduous travel, court entertainments and scandals. On one memorable trip to Moscow he described travelling along ‘the most detestable roads in the universe, covered with snow’, only to arrive, ‘. . . in a most wretched, ruinous house, furnished with no fixtures nor any movables but rats and bugs.’ Returning to England in 1765, Buckinghamshire began remodelling Blickling Hall, the family seat in Norfolk, creating two new rooms to house the gifts and perquisites he had received as Ambassador. Work on a new Drawing Room took four years to complete and the tapestry almost fills the entire west wall of the room, now known as The Peter the Great Room in its honour.
Tapestry, wool and silk, 7 warps per cm, Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltawa, Saint Petersburg Manufactory, after a design by Louis Caravaque, 1764. In the centre of the tapestry is an over-life-size representation of Peter I, Tsar of Russia (Peter the Great) in the pose of a triumphant general, riding a rearing chestnut horse and looking out at the viewer, an upraised sabre in one hand. Over his head hovers an imperial eagle holding a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory, in its beak. Behind the Tsar a battle rages between Russian forces, wearing blue-grey uniforms, and the army of Charles XII of Sweden. In the left background the river Vorskla and the fort of Poltawa can be seen. The elaborate borders are formed of a band of leaves and flowers between decorative strips imitating carved and gilded wooden frames. Superimposed onto this are the coats of arms of all the provinces of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great, with the arms of Russia in the centre of the upper border, a cartouche with an inscription describing the battle in the centre of the lower border, and military standards at each corner.
The subject of the tapestry is Peter the Great’s victory at the Battle of Poltawa in 1709, the turning point in the Great Northern War between the Russian Empire and Sweden for control of the Baltic Sea. The inscription in the lower border translates as follows: ‘A representation of the famous battle between Russian and Swedish troops in the presence of the high command and his tsarist majesty of all Russia Peter the First … over his Swedish royal majesty Charles XII that took place not far from Poltawa on the 27th day of June, 1709’. The upper border has in the centre the Russian coat of arms: a shield showing Saint George killing the dragon superimposed on a black double-headed eagle, and surmounted by a closed imperial crown. Elsewhere the borders carry the arms of the Russian provinces in the eighteenth century: Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Kazan, Astrakhan, Siberia, Pskov, Smolensk, Estonia, Livonia, Karelia, Tver, Yugra, Perm, Vyatka, Volga Bulgaria, Nizniy Novgorod, Chernigov, Ryazan, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Beloozero, Udoria, Obdorsk, Kondia, Ieria, Kartalinia, Geirgia, Kabarda, Circassia, Riga and Ingermanlandia, which later became the province of St Petersburg. The tapestry was woven in St Petersburg in 1764, at the manufactory established by Tsar Peter I on his return from a trip to France in 1716-17. As Catherine II later remarked: “Peter in establishing the state tapestry factory could have had no other intention than by means of this splendid craft to embellish, develop and multiply all the arts which could serve the glory and advantage of the Russian Empire.” (Polovtsoff and Chambers 1919, p. 111). Two groups of French craftsmen were brought to Russia by Peter to man the workshop: the first, under the architect Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste le Blond (1679-1719), included weavers from the Gobelins, and the second, under Philippe Béhagle II (the son of Philippe Béhagle I, the director of the Beauvais workshop from 1684-1711) came from Beauvais and included dying technicians as well as weavers. A third group of weavers may have come from Flanders. Part of the original contract stipulated that the French weavers must train Russian apprentices. Most of the French weavers had returned home by 1720 with the exception of Béhagle, and the high warp workshop was then headed by Ivan Kobyliakov with the low warp workshop under Michel Atmanov. Initially the St Petersburg manufactory wove copies of French designs. The first original design was ‘Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltawa’, designed by the Gascon painter Louis Caravaque, one of the artists who came to Russia with le Blond in 1716. Peter the Great had reputedly tried to attract first Hyacinthe Rigaud then Jean-Baptiste Oudry and Jean-Marc Nattier, but when these artists declined he had to settle for Caravaque. Caravaque remained in Russia until his death in 1754, painting portraits, stage sets and tapestry cartoons. ‘Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltawa’ was first woven in 1722, with another weaving produced in 1723 by Béhagle and Kobyliakov. These tapestries mark the high point of the St Petersburg workshop’s production in its early years (Leningrad 1975, pp. 34-5, 250, and figs. 5-9). Nonetheless Peter was reputedly not entirely satisfied with the initial products of his manufactory, and its activities soon slowed, although they did not cease entirely. The manufactory was revived during the reign of Catherine II who made it an independent enterprise in 1764. In 1766 Dimitri Lobkov was the director, and was assisted by Jean-Baptiste Rondet, from the Gobelins, and Esprit Serre from Stockholm. In this period the lack of new cartoons led to the production being dominated once again by copies of French designs, and weavings after paintings, mainly portraits. The ‘Peter the Great’ tapestry at Blickling was a notable exception, being based on the cartoon made by Caravaque for Peter the Great some 45 years earlier. The tapestry is signed and dated in the lower right corner of the main field ‘Р. Б’ САНК.Т ПЕТЕРЗБУРГЕ / 1764 ГОДУ’ (‘At St Petersburg 1764’). There is evidence that a second weaving of the tapestry was made at around the same date, or perhaps begun but not completed, as fragments from a border identical to that on the Blickling tapestry survive in the State History Museum in Moscow (Moscow n.d. p. 44; Leningrad 1975, p. 256 and figs. 85-87). Although the event is not directly recorded, early sources indicate that the tapestry was presented as a gift by Catherine II to John, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire in 1765 on the completion of his three-year spell as English Ambassador to Russia. Buckinghamshire had been appointed in 1762 with the aim of negotiating a treaty between the two countries, and although he failed in this he was, by his own account, popular at the Russian court and well-liked by the Empress (Buckinghamshire 1900-02, passim). On his return to England in 1765 Buckinghamshire began remodelling Blickling. He created two new rooms on the north side of the house which were designed to house the gifts and perquisites he had received as Ambassador. Work fitting out a new Drawing Room, now known as the Peter the Great room, began in 1778 and was completed in 1782. The tapestry was set into the west wall of the room, which it almost fills, and portraits from Allan Ramsay’s studio of George III and Queen Charlotte (nos. 355506, 355507), which the Earl of Buckinghamshire had taken with him to St Petersburg, were installed in the same room (these were later replaced by portraits of Buckinghamshire and his wife by Gainsborough, nos. 355540, 355541). A bill from the joiner Solomon Hudson dated 26 June 1782 includes ‘One very large frame to Drawing [room] for Tapestry – 60 s. 6 at 5 pcs … 15.2.6’. Hudson also charged for three large mirrors and their frames with carved coats of arms to go on top, and two Maratta frames for the portraits of the King and Queen (North Norfolk Record Office, NRS 19180 33 E7). The neighbouring State Bedroom was designed to house the Canopy of State that had accompanied Buckinghamshire’s diplomatic mission, which was converted into a state bed (no. 354320) (Maddison 1988). In 1784 François and Alexander de la Rochefoucauld visited Blickling with their Polish tutor Maximilien de Lazowski. Lazowski noted that “The present Lord Buckingham[shire] has created and furnished a superb drawing-room on a big scale, noble and beautifully proportioned: I mention this room only to tell you that it has one wall of tapestry given to him at the time of his embassy at St Petersburg by the Empress. It shows Peter the Great on horseback and in uniform at the battle of Poltava: the portrait has a natural grandeur. It is worked in the manner of the Gobelins tapestries, and although one couldn’t say it was well made, as precisely drawn and coloured with the accomplishment of the best tapestries, it must be admitted that it is superb; and one can’t imagine how such a craft has managed to take root under a sky and in a climate so sombre and among a still barbarous people.” (Scarfe 1988, p. 201). Lezowski’s closing remarks on the character of the Russian people leave us in no doubt that he is a Pole. The 1793 inventory of Blickling lists in the ‘New Drawing Room’ the ‘Peter the Great Tapestry – gilt frame’. The tapestry also appears in subsequent inventories of the house. (Helen Wyld, 2012)
Probably given by Catherine II, Empress of Russia (1729-1796) to John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire (1723-1793) in 1765; thence by descent to Philip, 11th Marquess of Lothian (1882-1940); bequeathed by him with Blickling Hall and its contents to the National Trust.
Blickling Hall, The Lothian Collection (The National Trust)
Marks and inscriptions
Lower right of main field: Р. Б’ САНК.Т ПЕТЕРЗБУРГЕ / 1764 ГОДУ
Makers and roles
St Petersburg , workshop Louis Caravaque (?Marseilles, 1684 – St Petersburg, 1754), designer
Heinz, 1995: Dora Heinz, Europaïsche Tapisseriekunst des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Vienna 1995 Joubert et al., 1995: Fabienne Joubert, Amaury Lefébure and Pascal Bertrand, Histoire de la Tapisserie en Europe, du Moyen Age à nos jours, Paris 1995 Scarfe 1988: Norman Scarfe (ed. and trans.), A Frenchman's Year in Suffolk: François de la Rochefoucauld, Woodbridge 1988 Maddison 1988: John Maddison, ‘Blickling Hall, Norfolk – III’, Country Life, 31 March 1988, pp. 128-31 Leningrad 1975: Russian Tapestry. Petersbourg Tapestry Factory, Leningrad 1975 Polovtsoff and Chambers, 1919: A Polovtsoff and V Chambers, ‘Some Notes on the St. Petersburg Tapestry Works’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 35, no. 198 (September 1919), pp. 110-16 Moscow n.d.: Carpets and Tapestry in the Collection of the State History Museum, Moscow n.d. Buckinghamshire 1900-02: The Despatches and Correspondence of John, 2nd Duke of Buckinghamshire, Ambassador to the Court of Catherine II of Russia, 1762-65, 2 vols., London 1900-1902 Lothian 1905: Report on the Manuscripts of the Marquess of Lothian, preserved at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, London 1905