Treasures of the Royal Courts at the V&A: Tudor, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars

The Tudors were the trendsetters of their age, with eye-popping displays of opulence that make Hollywood look dull
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On guard: large carved Dacre Beast, rare survivors of a tradition of English Renaissance heraldic ornament
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Fashion today is led by celebrities, from footballers to singers and film stars. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, under Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I, it was led by royalty.

The word lavish goes nowhere near summing up the almost unthinkable opulence of those Tudor (and, later, Stuart) style setters, in their living quarters and clothes, all designed to work together in an eye-popping, awe-inspiring display. The jewel-encrusted king or queen moved through the sumptuous interiors of palaces, surrounded by wealthy courtiers who did their best to copy the royal look.

* Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudor, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars is at the V&A from March 9 to July 14. Visit vam.ac.uk

The V&A's forthcoming exhibition, Treasures of the Royal Courts, evinces this wealth with a flamboyant display of furnishings, textiles, clothing, portraits, valuable miniatures, jewellery and armour. Highlights include the enamel and onyx-cameo "Barbor" jewel of Elizabeth I; the "Dolphin" silver basin made in 1635; a hand-coloured map of Muscovy done almost 500 years ago, and Shakespeare's first folio, from 1621.

There are also 20 large pieces of English silver from the Kremlin's collection, which were sent as gifts from the English monarch to the ruling Tsar. They include a 60cm-tall "watch pot", a leopard ewer, and a magnificent fruit dish, its border chased with boars. If the silver had stayed in England, most of it would have been melted down to fund our civil wars.

On average, Henry VIII moved court 50 times a year, and once 81 times. Wherever he went, the court went with him like a cumbersome shadow, lugging huge tapestries, bed-hangings and soft furnishings, to make even a battle tent feel like a palace. Velvet or embroidered cushions made hard furniture bearable and cosy, while solid gold and silver dishes, linens, napkins and eating irons went, too.

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Decorative tin eggs, £3.50 in the V&A shop
Monarchs did not rough it. Some favoured items were too heavy to move, including a rare pair of stone lions known as the Kynge's Beestes, just two of Henry's beloved heraldic animals that he liked to see dotted around his palaces, or placed strategically in his gardens to enjoy from the windows.

Much of Henry's hoard was pillage from the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 and 1539. But, after this, the manufacture of precious items ordered by the court became more international. The strength of personality of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I created a style that was and still is instantly recognisable as English, in (for example) floral motifs of marguerites, dog-roses and pinks, or heraldic symbols. But there were also many foreigners making luxury items, who brought their own style to the work.

Those famous tapestries of Henry VIII were often Flemish. At Henry's death, 2,450 of them, many from Flanders, were in the inventory. At Greenwich's Royal Almain Armoury, which made the fashion-following armour of Henry VIII, some of which is on show, German metalworkers predominated (the name Almain was a corruption of the French word for Germany, Allemagne).

And it is foreign portrait painters, such as Hans Holbein, Marcus Gheeraerts and Anthony van Dyck, whose pictures give us the most sophisticated window on this vivid and rich world. An exception is the Englishman Nicholas Hilliard, from whose studio in Gutter Lane came a stream of exquisite miniatures, several of which are on display.

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Get the look: Tumblewood fabric, from a collection at the Silk Gallery, at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour (dcch.co.uk)
The exhibition puts a spotlight on the relationship between the English court and the Russian one, based in the Kremlin and ruled by a Tsar (from the word Caesar). In 1553, a diplomatic and trading alliance was set up between these two great powers after one of three English ships that tried to reach Russia made it to the northern port of Archangel. Its navigator, Richard Chancellor, travelled on to the Kremlin and, following this successful diplomatic mission, the Muscovy company was formed, to which Ivan IV (the Terrible) granted a tax-free trading monopoly.

Both courts understood the importance of ritual and display. The new alliance not only created a two-way street for gifts of astonishing value — including huge displays of gold and silver plate sent from England to the Kremlin, along with animals, armour, clocks and rich cloth — but it also opened a valued trade route onwards to Persia and China, which lay beyond Russia.

For England, this brought coveted Turkish woollen carpets and silk Persian ones. From Russia itself came highly prized dark furs such as black fox and sable, along with swords and knives, gemstones and falcons. Even, in 1662, the first pelicans in England, a gift for Charles II, settled down in St James's Park and started breeding. Their successors are still there.

Along with the pelicans, real survivors of a vanished world, this is a good moment to contemplate not only the esteem in which England held itself and its skills, but also its openness to the contribution of talented foreigners.

* Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudor, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars is at the V&A from March 9 to July 14. Visit vam.ac.uk

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