What happened when John Cayley got his wig caught in the chandelier

Matthew Reisz

  • By the Banks of the Neva: Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in 18th-Century Russia by Anthony Cross
    Cambridge, 496 pp, £60.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 521 55293 1

‘Never, even in the Thames,’ a British traveller to Kronstadt wrote in the early 19th century,

did I observe a more extensive or denser forest of masts. It was gratifying to find that they were nearly all belonging to our country, and of course so many practical testimonies to our wealth, reputation and enterprise. Besides the crews of these vessels, every second person we saw was English; the beach, quays, streets and taverns (their keepers and servants also of the same nation) were crowded with them, bustling to and fro with the characteristic hurry of commercial business, and occasionally, it must be confessed, dealing out to each other, or to strangers unluckily in their way, some of the choicest flowers of nautical eloquence. This is not an occasional, but on the contrary, a constant scene all the months in which, from the absence of the ice, the Gulph of Finland is open to traders; so that the place might be taken for an English colony.

The fortress and town of Kronstadt, which protected the young St Petersburg from Swedish attack, are usually thought to have been founded a year after the city itself, in 1704. It is safe to assume that no installation of comparable strategic significance in Britain has ever been taken for a Russian colony. In an earlier book, On the Banks of the Thames, Anthony Cross attempted something like a comprehensive account of ‘Russians in 18th-century Britain’. Their profile was modest. Cross started with Peter I’s celebrated visit of 1698. Of around four hundred compatriots who followed in his footsteps, most enrolled as students, although there were also naval recruits, apprentices to shipbuilders and instrument-makers, and others (like British businessmen in today’s Japan) who looked enviously at the latest technology as displayed in industrial centres, mines, canals and factories. Even at the end of the century Grand Tourists would come here to marvel at ‘le pays de la richesse, de la sécurité et de la raison’, keen to acquire new perspectives on estate management or landscape gardening. But although there was an Orthodox church and an embassy (or at least a townhouse for the ambassador) in 18th-century London, we can hardly speak of a Russian community.

St Petersburg was quite different. When Peter the Great repaired to a little cabin near his western border and dreamed of a new ‘European’ city rising up from the swampland before him, he had little choice but to import skilled manpower on a scale which makes comprehensive treatment impossible in a single volume. Instead Cross offers ‘chapters from the lives and careers’ of the traders, doctors, clergymen, craftsmen and artists, who formed ‘a sort of transplanted City of London in miniature’. A commercial treaty exempting British merchants from the requirement to billet soldiers made them attractive to landlords. Often they rented houses on what became the English Embankment, with ‘balconies large enough to drink Tea on’. Few made any concessions to their surroundings: ‘Furniture, meals, establishments,’ wrote a chaplain, ‘everything is English – even to the chimney fire. Here where wood is in such plenty, the Englishman fetches his coal from home.’ Only a small minority attempted to learn Russian and a bilingual guide to the basic vocabulary was obliged to point out that ‘’tis a Language of great use in this country: & without it one labours under a great many inconveniences here.’ Even travellers who had left England to escape scandals or criminal charges tended to take a dim view of the Russian people, especially the servants, possessed, in one view, of ‘everything which attends Ignorance, that is Ingratitude, Dirt and Sauciness; they are, in my opinion, far inferior to a well-taught Bear.’

Russian criticisms of English indolence are rare, although it is mentioned in Catherine the Great’s decree regulating building at her summer residence of Tsarskoe Selo: ‘It has been noted that the English workmen arrive late for work and depart early and moreover celebrate not only their own but also our festivals.’ Anglophilia was more common and proved a great commercial boon for the English community. ‘The Russ are so excessively fond of everything which comes from England,’ a Scottish gardener remarked, ‘that the Rascals of Traders in the Market will swear that many things manufactured in Russia are Angliskoey (that is English) purposely to advance the price.’ Nationalists mocked the aristocracy’s taste for English dogs and horses. And no fewer than four different establishments called themselves The English Shop, one of them advertising an astonishing variety of goods – from fans to flannelette, stockings to sealing wax, buckles to blankets, and muslin to coffee machines.

English food and drink became the height of fashion. A British ambassador in Catherine’s reign speaks of the popularity of Burton ale, a visiting cleric claims he has ‘never tasted English beer and porter in greater abundance’. We even hear about the subscription ball, where

Country Boamkin, as they call Country Bumkin, is a very favourite dance, tho’ they make it quite different from the dance so called in England. The supper is very elegant, but so much in fashion is everything English that Beefstakes, Welsh Rabits & Porter is the most fashionable meal. I myself saw the Duke of Capriola, the Neapolitan Embassador, in his red heeled shoes, very busy at a great Beef stake, a dish I dare say he never tasted in Italy. Those dishes are as fashionable among the ladies as the Gentlemen; the former, tho’ they do not eat many sweetmeats at Supper, pocket them & apples without Scruple.

Beneath a veneer of respectability, leading figures in the British colony set up their own versions of Peter’s Most Drunken Synod, in which members acquired blasphemous or obscene titles such as ‘staff-surgeon’ or ‘cuntpeeper’, wore leeks in their hats for childishly naughty revels and received blessings on the lines of ‘May your P & p’ – i.e. Prick & purse – ‘never fail you.’ Offenders against the rules were punished by having their penises smeared with egg yolk and oats and then exposed to the mercy of two hungry ducks. A merchant called Robert Nettleton was awarded the rank of ‘archimandrite’ in a club called the British Monastery, although he also allowed his house to be used for divine service and was actively involved in petitioning George I for assistance in building an English church. Indeed, few seemed to expect high moral standards from clerics or from the clergymen-tutors who accompanied young bucks on their Grand Tours; one reports a conversation at dinner, in which he was asked ‘first who were the best w– in Petersburg, and soon afterwards whether I was in orders’.

If the British were a prominent feature of city life, they were even more conspicuous in the Navy. Legend has it that ‘the grandfather of the Russian fleet’ was a dilapidated little boat found by the young Peter I on the Romanov estate of Ismailovo. This may indeed have been English, perhaps even a gift from Elizabeth I to Ivan IV, but Peter first sought tuition in the shipyards of Amsterdam. It was only when the Dutch failed to instruct him ‘in the Mathematical Way’ he required that he repaired to England, ‘and there, in four Months Time, finish’d his Learning, and at his Return brought over with him two Master Ship-builders, John Deane and Joseph Noy’. In England, he sailed constantly, witnessed a mock battle in Portsmouth, saw a new bomb vessel demonstrated at Deptford and drank liberally with many a sea captain. (At Deptford, he may also have fathered the landscape painter Alexander Cozens, nominally the son of a famous shipbuilder.) According to a contemporary English source, Peter ‘often declared to his Lords, when he has been a little merry, that he thinks it a much happier Life to be an Admiral in England, than Czar in Russia’.

Within a hundred years of Peter’s stay in England, a powerful Russian Navy had been created out of almost nothing. The first real triumph was in 1719 and ended with the capture of three Swedish ships, although in the early days ‘the war at sea was not one of great set battles but rather of skirmishes and raids and pursuits; it was frequently more of a struggle with the elements and an effort, all too often unsuccessful, to avoid sandbanks and rocks.’ Peter’s successors rather let things slide and when Catherine the Great reviewed her fleet in 1765 she was not impressed: ‘Il faut avouer qu’ils ont l’air de la flotte pour la pêche des harengs, qui part d’Hollande tous les ans, et non en vérité d’une flotte de guerre, pas un vaisseau ne tient son rang.’ Her reforms led to a series of notable victories against the Turks and Swedes in the 1780s and 1790s. Admirals Samuel Grieg and Sir Charles Knowles played a key role in this process. Grieg showed particular courage and presence of mind when he was called on (with only an adjutant and orderly to help him) to calm a group of sailors rampaging about the short measures and watered-down vodka provided by the state monopoly. Knowles had served fifty years in the Royal Navy and was approaching seventy when he was headhunted, with an appeal that ‘a proper plan was much wanted for the better Construction, Equipment, Discipline and future preservation of the Russian navy.’

Bad patches in Anglo-Russian relations during this period meant that the loyalty of the admirals was sometimes questioned on both sides and Grieg once felt obliged to assure the British Ambassador ‘in the name of all his countrymen, that if the Empress should require of them to serve in a manner hostile to us, they would, to a man, quit her service’. Curiously, the British Government remained blindly convinced of the Russian Navy’s ‘complete unfitness for battle – attributed to every aspect of building and maintenance and manning’ – at the very time when British guidance was making the country into a formidable and potentially threatening naval power.

On a smaller scale, British doctors, craftsmen and artists were also a notable presence in 18th-century Russia: people like the physician Thomas Garvine, who got involved in a Russian embassy to Peking in response to a request from the Chinese Emperor for a good doctor and some aphrodisiac drugs, or Dr James ‘Rhubarb’ Mounsey, who was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts for his efforts in acquiring and cultivating medicinal rhubarb (imported to Europe via Russia from Tibet, Mongolia and China). Cross describes the remarkable saga of the Hertford Quaker, Dr Thomas Dimsdale, who inoculated Catherine against smallpox. His fame spread and later, at the express command of George III, he was asked to perform the same service on Chief Omiah, brought from the South Seas by a captain on Cook’s second circumnavigation. He was then summoned back to Russia to attend to the tiny Grand Dukes Alexander and Constantine. The Empress was not the easiest of patients, much given to sallies about the ignorance and incompetence of doctors, but there seems to have been genuine respect and affection between her and Dimsdale. He even offered to travel to Russia for a third time to inoculate two of the Grand Duchesses in 1785, although he was by then 73 and almost totally blind after a cataract operation.

In 1772, Catherine announced her conversion to English ideals of landscape gardening in a letter to Voltaire: ‘J’aime à la folie présentement les jardins à l’anglaise, les lignes courbes, les pentes douces, les étangs en forme de lacs, les archipels en terre ferme, et j’ai un profond mépris pour les lignes droites, les allées jumelles. Je hais les fontaines qui donnent la torture à l’eau pour lui faire prendre un cours contraire à sa nature ... en un mot, l’anglomanie domine ma plantomanie.’ A decade later, an English gardener pronounced her ‘gravel-mad’; another mocked up ‘instant gardens’ during her great progress through her ‘New Russia’ in the Crimea; a third imported Derbyshire spar for her grottoes. Many of her other commissions were clearly political. She gave instructions for a bas-relief on the theme of ‘Armed Neutrality’ and a painting of her grandsons, one (as part of her long-standing ‘Greek Project’ to take control of Constantinople) with Constantine’s standard nonchalantly draped around his shoulders. She also bought a bust of Charles James Fox, who had earned her intense admiration during the Russo-Turkish war for a speech opposing Pitt’s plans for intervention against Russia. She placed the statue in a colonnade between Cicero and Demosthenes, who are depicted in English cartoons as fleeing in terror from their new companion. Later, with Fox’s support for Poland and the French Revolutionary cause, she was heard to complain that she would ‘throw a veil over his bust, if it would not look like an imitation of the French, and that she would even sell but that it was not worth while, for that she could not get thirty roubles for it’.

Cross has written a cosily English book, full of revealing detail and lively anecdotes about social gaffes and cultural clashes. I am glad to know about consul John Cayley, who was presented to Catherine at the Winter Palace and unfortunately got his wig caught in the chandelier, ‘so that, when he bowed (and that he did very low), there were at least two feet between his bald pate and the suspended periwig, and he could not on rising get his head into dock again.’ Another good moment is provided by Baroness Dimsdale’s unbecoming behaviour at court: ‘instead of half kneeling to kiss the hand held out to her with so much grace, she flew towards the poor empress like a tigress and almost smothered her with hugging and kissing.’ But the sequence of stories and character sketches glides over some more fundamental questions about the ways in which Russia was being transformed.

Even in 1789, at a time of considerable tension between the two countries, a certain Anthony Brough could argue:

There is no nation on the records of history that has so rapidly risen from the state of darkness and barbarism to a great height of splendour and civilisation, as the Russians have done during this century. The causes of this rapid and wonderful change have been many; but I would venture to affirm, that her intercourse with Great-Britain has been the greatest ... [Peter] knew that the interest of Russia depended on her connexion with England; he came in person to our Court, to cement the friendship that already existed between the two nations ... the great plans he formed, she [Catherine] has executed.

Cross does not endorse such statements, but neither does he examine them sufficiently. In Russia there has always been intense controversy about St Petersburg and everything it represents. For some, its creation was an enlightened attempt to open up a benighted Russia to Western influences; others see it as an empty cosmopolitan show-piece which cut the Russian people off from their deepest roots. Turgenev, for example, was strongly critical of Anna Karenina, because he felt Tolstoy had got the balance wrong between the values represented by Moscow and by St Petersburg. In his ‘Guide to a Renamed City’, Joseph Brodsky looked back to its founder:

When a visionary happens also to be an emperor, he acts ruthlessly. The methods to which Peter I resorted to carry out his project could be at best be defined as conscription ... a subject of the Russian crown had a somewhat limited choice of being either drafted in the army or sent to build St Petersburg, and it’s hard to say which was deadlier. Tens of thousands found their anonymous ends in the swamps of the Neva delta, whose islands enjoyed a reputation similar to today’s Gulag ... The universal coercion exercised by the future Bronze Horseman united the nation for the first time and gave birth to the Russian totalitarianism whose fruits taste no better than did the seeds.

Even in the early Nineties there were disputes about whether Leningrad should revert to its original name of Sankt-Petersburg or become, in Solzhenitsyn’s Russified version, Svyato-Petrograd.

All this is to say that attitudes to St Petersburg, unlike attitudes to Manchester or Marseille, are grounded in deep national and political issues. Perhaps Cross feels that such controversies are grandiose or pointless; the city exists, the British played a prominent role there in the 18th century and it is natural to want ‘to rescue worthy men from unjust oblivion’. Yet the desire to sketch in ‘a sort of supplementary volume for the DNB – a DEBR, a dictionary of expatriate Britons in Russia, albeit only for the 18th century’ – gives his book an odd centre of gravity.