Catherine the Great of Russia's Frog Service

There are some unlikely sources of information for Garden History Research! The Empress Catherine the Great wanted a dinner and dessert service of 944 (some sources say 952) pieces for her new palace at Chesme – a ‘small’ triangular Gothic Revival building set in marshy ground. The Finnish onomatopoetic name was Kekerekeksinen, possibly inspired by the croaking of the resident frogs, and so each piece was adorned with a green enamel frog. Catherine was a great Anglophile and in 1773 commissioned Josiah Wedgwood and his partner Thomas Bentley to produce the set embellished with 1,222 different ‘views of Ruins in Great Britain, country seats of the nobility, gardens, landscapes and other embellishments’. This provides a rich source of contemporary views of many gardens and their buildings.

Frog service plate, the state hermitage museum, st. petersburg, 9113.

Frog service plate, the state hermitage museum, st. petersburg, 9113.

Despite using existing engravings, as well as specially commissioned paintings by Samuel Stringer and others, by June 1774 Wedgwood was still 150 drawings short. He then had a daring idea and displayed the pieces already finished to the Nobility and Gentry in his Greek Street showroom. The ploy worked brilliantly and those whose property had not already been included were keen not to be left out. The Marchioness de Grey, wife of the 2nd Earl of Hardwicke, sent an urgent message to her daughter Lady Amabel Polwarth who was a talented artist – ‘I want very much to have some of Our Views of your Drawings find a place in it’. The drawings Lady Amabel submitted of the two contrasting garden buildings at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire are of particular interest to Garden Historians since one has disappeared completely and the other was in need of restoration. Lancelot Brown had used them to complement each other – Hill or Prospect House was in the Classical style, while the Tower was built as a Gothic ruin. The Chinese Bridge was made of wood and so has been replaced many times. The dessert plate illustration has allowed the National Trust team to restore the view to one which Brown and the Hardwicke family would recognise, in particular by restoring the Tower in 2014 which has corrected the earlier, 1980s version.

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