Grand Duke Michael Michailovitch of Russia (1861-1929),
Sophia Nicholaievna, Countess de Torby (1868-1927),
King Henry IV of France (1553-1610) and
his paramour Gabrielle d'Estree (1571-1599)

In this image, made in the tent in the gardens of Devonshire House, Grand Duke Michael of Russia – one of the famous ‘giant Romanovs’ - is seen with Sophie Nicholaievna, Countess de Torby – his morganatic wife and a granddaughter of the Russian poet Pushkin.

Their marriage in 1891 had brought about their exile from Russia, and it was said that Grand Duke Michael’s mother dropped dead from shock when she read the telegram announcing their union. The Grand Duke’s requests from various courts for a title for his wife achieved only an obscure title granted by Grand Duke Adolf of Luxembourg.

Exile did nothing for the Grand Duke’s bad temper – “Owing to his odd temperament, the Grand Duke could not be held responsible for his actions, but everyone was sorry for his wife.” The Grand Duke continued to believe that the government of Russia was plotting against him and over the thirty years he lived in England, it was said, neither his golf nor his knowledge of the English language improved.

The press of 1897 ignored the costume of the Countess and concentrated on that of her husband, made by Mr. Clarkson of Wellington Street. It was recorded that the Grand Duke wore a Henry IV costume of

“black and gold puffed with white satin, and strapped with gold embroidery; the cape was lined with white, and trimmed with gold cord and tassels; and a white ruff and black hat ornamented with gold braid and blue silk band, with order, were worn.”

The order referred to here was the French Order of Saint Esprit.

The relationship presented by the pair at the Ball appears to be a witty reflection upon their own morganatic marriage. Other guests, no doubt, would also have been aware of the anonymous and voyeuristic nude portrait of Gabrielle d’Estree and her sister the Duchess of Villars.

This image, taken on the night of the Ball, shows clearly the edges of the ‘baronial-style’ backdrop in the photographer’s tent.

Sa vertu l'abandonne, et son âme enivrée
N'aime, ne voit, n'entend, ne connaît que d'Estrée

Voltaire, La Henriade, Chant Neuvième (1723)


Click on image to enlarge
copyright V&A. Lady Ashburton 1897V&A Lafayette Archive
Negative number: L1423


copyright V&A. Lady Ashburton 1897V&A Lafayette Archive
Negative number: L3368a

The Grand Duke and Countess are seen here in Russian court dress – the costumes they wore to the coronation of King Edward VII



List of Sitters
All text copyright © Russell Harris 2011