These magnificent vases were presented by Tsar Nicholas I to John Lambton, the Rt. Hon. 1st Earl of Durham during his tenure as Ambassador Extraordinary to Russia in 1836. The Earl is remembered as a great politician and statesmen who thrived on the challenges presented to him over the course of his career. Author of the famous Reform Bill of 1832, contributor to the establishment of Canada as an independent nation he was even favourite to replace Grey as Prime Minister in 1833.
The custom for presenting porcelain vases to important personages was initiated by Nicholas I. The recipients were often members of the Royal Houses of Europe, some of whom are outlined in Lady Londonderry’s journal of 1832: The King of Prussia, the King of Saxony, the Duchess of Saxe-Weimer, the Prince of Oldenburg and Prince Charles of Prussia. The vases bestowed on important political and royal foreign dignitaries could be viewed not only as an indicator of the Tsar’s generosity, but also of the great artistic and economic wealth of Russia. In this instance, the extremely lavish and impressive gift of the vases are a sure indication of the high regard the Tsar had for his Ambassador.
The choice of Lambton as Ambassador to Russia was perhaps not an obvious one. His politics earned him the nickname ‘Radical Jack’ which given Tsar Nicholas I’s more conservative reputation could have put considerable strain on the diplomatic relationship. However as Sir John Colville noted in “Those Lambtons!” the Earl “was always punctilious in matters of protocol and could exude enormous charm when he so wished”. Fortunately he displayed this charm when first meeting the Tsar at Kronstadt in 1832. He successfully petitioned the Tsar for help in diffusing the Belgian Crisis.
Following the resignation of Grey in 1834, and despite popular support, the Earl had no real pretensions to accept the role of Prime Minister. On the contrary he welcomed the opportunity to return to St Petersburg as Ambassador in 1835. He served a glittering two year term during which he was awarded the Russian Orders of Saint Andrew, Saint Alexander Nevsky, Saint Anne and the White Eagle. He sent home invaluable accounts of Russia’s military strength, helped persuade the Tsar to alleviate the oppression of the Poles and generally improved diplomatic relations between England and Russia.
The vases stayed in the family for almost a hundred years. However, from 1928-1929 and within the space of six months, the twin brothers, the 3rd and 4th Earls died. Crippling death duties enforced the sale of many treasures from the family seat, Lambton Castle. The sale organised by local auctioneers Anderson & Garland took place over fourteen days. As is evident from the copy of the original sale catalogue, illustrated (fig.1), the vases were in fact mis-catalogued as having been manufactured by Sèvres porcelain factory, by many considered to be the finest porcelain factory in the West. It is unlikely the auctioneers previously handled similar vases produced by the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, but they appreciated the workmanship was of superlative quality. Many of the most important lots in the sale were purchased by an American collector and have not been seen on the market since.
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