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The marriage of Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna

Prince Alfred (1844-1900), later Duke of Edinburgh

Prince Alfred ©

Our exhibition, Russia, Royalty & the Romanovs explores the relationships between Britain and Russia and their royal families including the marriage of Queen Victoria’s son to the daughter of the Russian Emperor.

Many of the rich and varied works of art on display are unique – some commissioned as grand diplomatic gifts, others as intimate personal mementos between the royal family and the Romanovs, and they bring to life the shared patronage of artists and craftsmen from both countries.

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Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna’s engagement

Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, became engaged to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Russian Emperor Alexander II on 11 July 1873. His mother had misgivings about the match, which she wrote about in her diary:

 

Felt quite bewildered. Not knowing Marie & realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts & feelings are rather mixed, but I said from my heart "God bless them", & I hope and pray it may turn out for Affie's happiness.

Queen Victoria's Journal, 11 July 1873

 

The Wedding

A few days before the wedding, on 18 January, the Queen wrote about this painting she received of her future daughter-in-law.

Marie, Duchess of Edinburgh, Grand Duchess of Russia

Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia ©

 

The face is very pleasing & very like the photographs, so that I should think it must be a good likeness.

Queen Victoria's Journal, 18 January 1873

The marriage took place, at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 23 January 1874, and directly united the British and Russian royal families for the first time.

Queen Victoria was unable to attend the celebrations, and remained at Osborne House, but clearly felt the day was important. Her Journal mentions that her future daughter-in-law's painting was surrounded by a wreath of orange blossom (a traditional wedding flower) tied with bows of the Russian colours.

Watercolour sketches from the wedding

Eager that his mother did not miss the highlights of the occasion, Prince Alfred appointed artist Nicholas Chevalier to record the day for her in a series of watercolour sketches portraying the Orthodox and Anglican services. One of the terms of negotiation relating to the marriage was that the Grand Duchess could continue to practise her Orthodox faith. Aware that Queen Victoria would never have experienced an Orthodox wedding ceremony, Chevalier produced a sketch of this service with two slips that could be moved to help illustrate the different parts of the ceremony, including the groomsmen holding nuptial crowns over the heads of the bride and groom, a procession around the lectern and a blessing. Alfred explained to the Queen 'by using the little additional strips you will be able to follow different parts of the ceremony'.

Queen Victoria was clearly taken with the idea of the unfamiliar Orthodox ceremony and its atmospheric setting in the soft candlelight of the Winter Palace's Cathedral. She chose to commission an oil painting of the moment, which was delivered to Windsor Castle the following year and hung in the Grand Corridor before being moved to Buckingham Palace in 1901.

The Marriage of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, 23 January 1874

The marriage of Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna ©

A study of the dress worn by the Tsesarevna for the marriage of the Grand Duchess Maria to Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh

A full-length study of the dress worn by the Tsesarevna. ©

You can now see the painting in our exhibition Russia, Royalty & the Romanovs

Chevalier's finished painting illustrates the bridal couple bathed in winter light as the snow settles at the window of the Cathedral.

Wedding outfits

Chevalier recorded the elaborate costumes of the wedding party in a series of preparatory sketches for the oil painting. The Grand Duchess, who became the Duchess of Edinburgh, wore a silver and gem-set sarafan, a traditional dress worn by all Russian imperial brides for their wedding, paired with the traditional kokoshnik headdress.

Queen Victoria's lady-in-waiting Lady Augusta Stanley wrote in a letter to the Queen that the Duchess's head 'must have ached with the immense weight of jewels, the necklace of diamonds….the most beautiful I ever saw'.

The Duchess's sister-in-law Tsesarevna Maria Feodorovna wore 'a gown of gold-embroidered satin and train of sky-blue velvet'.

The Bal Polonais at the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, 23 January 1874

The formal polonaise dance was led by the Emperor, with as his partner, the bride, the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. ©

Banquet

After the ceremonies, a banquet was held for 700 guests, before a ball was staged in the splendour of the Throne Room of the Winter Palace. Over 3,000 people attended the ball and Chevalier's sketch of the event shows dancers parting to form a passage for the bride and groom and other members of the British and Russian royal families.

To see all of these drawings and paintings close-up and explore the relationship between Britain and Russia and their royal families through the works of art in the Royal Collection, visit our exhibition, Russia, Royalty & the Romanovs, at The Queen’s Gallery until 28 April 2019.

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