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Russian Imperial Style - Part 1

Recreating the Pavlovsk Winged Sphinx Chairs

Pavlovsk Sphinx chair in woodIn 2001 Pallasart ordered a number of replicas of furniture from Russian Imperial Palaces to be made by wood carvers and gilders that worked in the palace museums of Tsarskoe Selo.

The Russians can carve wood like no one else.  They have been carving wood for at least two millennium. The mediaeval Russian wooden churches built with just axes are legendary.

Left: chairs from our China carvers, made in 2011. They have been crafted entirely by hand. Since each chair is handmade their are slight variations in all the parts.

These carvers and furniture makers worked in the tumbled down ruins of an 18th century baroque building attached to Rastrelli's blue and white Catherine Palace.  Passing through huge carved wooden doors you'd navigate a bit of a maze to arrive in their 'lair'. Entering their workshops was to step back in time. Every inch of space was filled with models, fragments of broken Imperial furniture, wood, tools. photographs and drawings.

Above: Chairs made in 2011

These guys were a Russian national treasure - they had been trained in the old, pre-revolutionary techniques of furniture making.  They made things without power tools,  crafted locks by hand, and used finishes that were unchanged since the 18th century.  During the Soviet period the system employed these people with their obscure skills.  After the Second World War they were called upon to restore the palaces that had been damaged by the German during that conflict. Our carvers were the third generation since the revolution and they had been trained by their fathers and grandfathers. I had been working with these craftspeople since 1990.  In 2001 we decided to palace a big order to sell both online and through our Dallas showroom.

Above: Side view of the Winged Sphinx Chairs - from an original at Pavlovsk.

It was very difficult to work with the Russians on this order.  Being craftspeople — really artists — under the Soviet system they had never had to worry about work schedules or where their next paycheck would come from.  We could not get anything produced on time.  It didn't matter how much we paid, each wood carver would carve every chair separately, like they were creating an individual work of art.  Each chair took months to carve.  After it was completed we would finish them and gild the chairs.

No one in the world does gilding like the Russians.  In the Soviet period the country produced its own gold and there was lots of it to spare.  The state provided the Romanov palaces with oceans of gold for the restoration of their gilded baroque carvings and furniture.  The Russians generally do oil gilding — not water gilding.  On furniture water gilding is impractical, it is easily damaged and hard to repair.  You can put on multiple layers of gold on a piece of furniture with oil gilding.  If you make a mistake it is simple to repair it.  Items that are water gilded are less susceptible to wear.

Anyway, we were unable to produce many of the pieces we wanted.  We made magnificent replicas of the French Jacob chairs from Maria Feodorovna's bedroom at Pavlovsk and the Eagle chairs from the Grecian Hall.  We also made copies of the famous Sphinx chairs from the study of the same palace.  All were incredible works of art, but you never knew how long you would have to wait.

Sphinx chair - original by Voronikhin at Pavlovsk

Above: Front view of the 2011 chair - please ignore the horrible fabric!  This is how the Chinese shipped the first order to us.  We replaced it with French tapestry.  The original chair was covered in Beauvais tapestry fragments of a dog and flowers.

Despite the prices we had to charge, there were many orders for the chairs.  Regretfully, with the supply of the chairs so uncertain we were unable to accept these orders and halted production in Russia.  I won't even get into the logistics of shipping from Russia at the time.

First attempt by the Chinese CarversLast year we decided to make the chairs again and ordered models from one of our suppliers in China.  At first they had a difficult time reproducing the Russian Imperial "Empire" style. On the first two attempts the heads did not look European and the Chinese craftsmen could not duplicate the delicacy of the carving in the wings.

We had our best sculptor-modeler come in (he is a brilliant copier of neoclassical, Roman and Greek styles) and he made clay models of the various parts of the chairs.  The woodcarvers then made exact replicas of his work.

Left: First attempt of the Chinese carvers to duplicate the faces of the Winged Sphinxes.

The results in the third attempt were wonderful - I will even use the word PERFECTION.  In some respects they were better than the Russians had done.  We made a few changes to the original design by the Russian architect Voronikhin.  First we made the chairs for modern body sizes.  When we first started making copies of Russian furniture in the 90's we made the mistake of producing replicas that were the exact 18th century size.  They were too small and unusable.  So, we made the new Sphinx chairs oversized, so you can really use them and sit on them.  It is amazing how comfortable they are.  We also made them from a Chinese wood that is dense and heavy — an oak-like wood (we still don't know its exact name).  The Russians carved them from linden wood.  Our new chairs are much stronger and massive.

Model of the new headRight: The special model in clay created by our master neoclassical sculptor.

Another change has been the ornament in the top panel.  We could not find a good photograph of the curved top so we replaced the interlaced wreathes on the original with a design on a similar chair from the Hermitage Museum.  Lastly we used a different color.  Voronikhin had intended the chairs to look like they were made from green patinated bronze with gilding.  The green color had darkened to black on the original chair so we made them black and gold.  The result is rich and beautiful.

Our Chinese factory is very fast.  They can complete any order up to 12 chairs in six weeks.  The quality of the chairs is amazing.  It is essential to order all the chairs you want at one time, as there can be a variation in each order. The shipping can be very fast — around 6 days using DHL and the cost for shipping is around $300 a chair.  You can ship them less expensively by surface transport, but this can take up to six weeks or more.

The chairs are $2900 each.  If you would like to get more information on them just give me a call at 512 469-7454 or send me an email at boba@pallasweb.com.  We have lots of additional pictures.  We also take custom orders so please let us know what your project requires.

Bob Atchison

A side view of the Pavlovsk chairs