Fabergé's most celebrated undertaking in Britain was the Sandringham Commission of 1907, when the firm modelled the menagerie of animals kept by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at their Sandringham estate in Norfolk. The firm produced wax models of the animals which were sent to Russia where they were carved in hardstone and mounted with gold and precious stones. The finished animals were then returned to London and sold to the King and Queen and members of their circle.
The King and Queen kept a variety of animals at Sandringham and the commission reflected their fondness for their Norfolk Estate. The King bought Sandringham House in 1863, when he was Prince of Wales, as a country home for him and his new wife Princess Alexandra. The Princess relished escaping the stresses of Royal life in London on the estate, and the surrounding countryside reminded her of her native Denmark. Its gardens and extensive wooded parklands allowed the Prince and Princess to indulge their love of the British countryside. The Estate was well stocked with wildlife and offered good sport for the future King's shooting parties.
In 1886 The Royal Stud at Sandringham was opened and began breeding racehorses. King Edward took great pleasure from stockbreeding and Sandringham gave him the scope to pursue his interest in animal husbandry. He established herds of Irish, Scottish and English cattle on the Estate's farm and strove to produce the very best of each breed. The King and Queen regularly attended and entered their animals into agricultural shows, often with great success. Alexandra was particularly devoted to dogs and kept a wide variety in kennels at Sandringham. In many of the photographs taken of her on the estate she is accompanied by a dog. Her private secretary noted that the Queen was "such a regular dog-worshipper that Her Majesty likes all dogs – Dogs of any breed or description".
Sandringham House was at the centre of the Edwardian social scene and the traditions established there by King Edward have been continued by all subsequent monarchs. King Edward and Queen Alexandra hosted frequent weekend parties at the house and after Sunday lunch, the King would proudly show his guests the stud, kennels, and model farm. Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, recalled his grandfather's tours began exactly at three o'clock, with the "punctuality of figures issuing from a Swiss clock".
The Sandringham commission arose from the demand for Fabergé gifts to give to the King and Queen. The studies produced were the perfect gifts for them, uniting their passion for the animals kept at Sandringham and the pleasure they derived from Fabergé's lapidary works (cutting, polishing and engraving gems and stones). Hardstone animal studies also met the Queen's requirement that presents to them should not be expensive. Given the extravagance of the Edwardian era, they were relatively modest and the materials used not intrinsically valuable. The cheapest cost only £8, 15s and, unlike a jewel or an object made purely from precious materials, could not compromise the King or Queen. Henry Bainbridge, Fabergé's agent in London, believed the 'art of royal present giving' rested on the gift costing as little as possible.
Fabergé had already supplied hardstone studies of customers' animals in Russia. A French Bulldog commissioned by Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich has been identified as a portrait study of a dog belonging to the Russian actress Elizabeth Balletta. In England, Bainbridge expanded on the idea of Fabergé's animal portraiture with Sir Ray Lankester, the director of the Natural History Museum. They discussed the possibility of creating a national collection of pedigree animal studies to be housed in the museum. The suggestion came to nothing but the idea remained in Bainbridge's mind – he still hoped a customer might "have one of their racehorses done, or a dog or two".
In his memoirs Bainbridge recounts telling Mrs. George Keppel (mistress of King Edward VII) of his hope to model patrons' animals, to which she replied, "Why not some of the favourite Sandringham animals for the Queen's collection", adding, "if the King gives his permission". In the transcript of a lecture given in 1937, Bainbridge gives a slightly different version of the origin of the commission in which the idea to approach the King was his. He told the audience he "knew someone" – probably Mrs. Keppel – "who was going to a party at Sandringham", and asked that person to make the request to the King. Regardless of its instigator, the suggestion was put to the King and Bainbridge received a telegram saying, "The King agrees". Excitedly, he boarded the next train to Sandringham and was met there by Frank Beck, the King's land agent, who presented him with a list, compiled by the King, of the animals to be modelled. Its contents took Bainbridge aback, since the King far exceeded the request to model a racehorse or one or two dogs; instead "the whole farmyard" was to be represented, including, "hens, turkeys, bulls, heifers, horses and even pigs". As he travelled back to London, Bainbridge was daunted by the prospect of fulfilling the royal order. He worried about the cost of the venture, whether hardstones of the right colouring could be found and how many artists would be required to sculpt the animals listed. He fretted it might turn into a "fiasco" and tarnish Fabergé's reputation with the King of England.
Fabergé was not overwhelmed by the prospect of the commission and sent an artist named Boris Frödman-Cluzel from Russia to sculpt the preparatory wax models of the animals at Sandringham. Frödman-Cluzel was born in St. Petersburg in 1878, his father was Swedish and his mother of French descent. He studied at the Baron Stieglitz School of Art and Design in St. Petersburg and later at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Like many of his contemporaries at the Baron Stieglitz School, after his training Frödman-Cluzel began to work for Fabergé. By February 1907 he was executing commissions for the firm and was involved in modelling horses for its military customers. As well as working for Fabergé, he independently entered his works into sculpture exhibitions.
The young Frödman-Cluzel is standing out as a wonderful animal sculptor…. his figurines of dogs and bulls as full of life as the figures of people and portrait sketches.
Frödman-Cluzel travelled to England in the summer of 1907 and later that year began work at Sandringham. On 20 December 1907, the St. Petersburg Bulletin noted that Frödman-Cluzel had won the favour of the King and, "spent a whole day in his company, shooting pheasants". In a letter home written on 24 December 1907, Frödman-Cluzel said he had been living at Sandringham for over a fortnight and working under the personal supervision of Edward VII, who he described as an "amiable and rare King" who "generously splashed" praise on him.
Having taken an interest in Frödman-Cluzel, the King ordered his wax models be shown to him when they were completed. According to Bainbridge, they were laid out for him to examine in the dairy at Sandringham on Sunday 8th December 1907. After lunch the King, followed by his guests, walked to the dairy. The week before had been cold and he wore a tight-fitting overcoat, a small cricket-like cap, and his favourite dog, the Norfolk terrier Caesar, ran between his legs. When the King reached the dairy steps he walked up them alone, leaving his guests milling outside. Bainbridge travelled to Sandringham to witness the event and was anxious about the King's reaction to the models. Having surveyed the models, the King sent for Bainbridge and asked him, "Will you please tell Mr Fabergé how pleased I am with all he has done for me… I think the work splendid".
Bainbridge was elated and wrote of the moment, "I have searched the chronicles, Rastrelli, Charles Cameron and Falconet in Russia, Rubens in England, even Cellini as he progressed from one city to another in all the glory of renaissance Italy, with the Medicis as near as can be at his beck and call, and I can find nothing which quite compares with the homely pageant on that Sunday afternoon, in the heart of England, where craftsmanship by Royal Command was given an opportunity, to display itself in a manner which those who were concerned in it can never forget".
The models were sent to Russia and Fabergé's lapidaries in St. Petersburg carved all but two in hardstone. Fabergé exploited Russia's immense mineral wealth to find suitable hardstones for the Sandringham carvings. The stones were chosen for their colours and markings to mimic those of the original animals. A dark specimen of obsidian, a volcanic glass found in the Northern Caucasus, was selected for the portrait of a Dexter bull – the perfect stone for representing the breed's rich, generally black-coloured coat. Its colour matches that of the Dexters' hide and the reflection of light from layers within the material gives it a lustrous appearance.
Some of the pieces in the Sandringham commission were mosaics made from a combination of hardstones. Franz Birbaum, Fabergé's workshop manager, noted that, from the process of selecting stones to mimic an animal's colouring, it was a small step to producing mosaic sculptures. Through mosaics, Fabergé's lapidaries were able to replicate the multicoloured hides and feathers of the farmyard animals. The technique of making mosaic studies is complex – the lapidaries were required to make internal joints to bring the stones together. Once they were assembled, they were secured by the use of fish glues.
The mosaic studies in the Sandringham collection are extremely well executed; the joins between the stones are seamless and the effect produced, highly naturalistic. Grey obsidian, figured cream coloured agate, white agate and purpurine were selected to mimic the colouring of a bantam cockerel. Its comb and wattle are represented in red purpurine, and the white agate was sparingly used under the wings to highlight the plumage of the bird. The animals were made under the supervision of Henrik Wigström, the last of Fabergé's three chief workmasters. He was entrusted with the firm's most prestigious ventures and in his workshop behind Fabergé's shop on Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg, the carvings were fitting with finely chased gold feet and their eyes set with gemstones. Rose diamonds were most often used for the animals' eyes, but in the Sandringham commission olivines and rubies can also be found.
The two Sandringham models not made in hardstones were instead made from silver – Persimmon, King Edward's prized racehorse, and a Borzoi hound named Vassilka were both cast in silver and mounted on hardstone bases. Vassilka was one of a pair of Borzois given to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra by Empress Marie Feodorovna and Emperor Alexander III of Russia. Borzois are large sighthounds with abundant wavy coats and long, slim legs. Silver was used for Persimmon and Vassilka because of the length of their legs, which, if carved in stone, would have been perilously fragile and unable to support the weight of their bodies.
The completed portraits of the Sandringham animals were returned to the London branch for sale to the King, Queen and their friends. On Thursday 29 October 1908 the King purchased the silver study of Persimmon on its nephrite base for £135. Others pieces from the commission had arrived in London at the same time and four days later the Queen bought four pieces; the obsidian carving of the Dexter Bull and three chalcedony ducks with gold feet costing £8, 15s each. The King added to the fowl collection on 22 November 1909 by buying two ducklings with gold legs, one in brown agate and another in white onyx. The Queen bought two more ducks, a yellow orletz carving on 11 January 1909, and a yellow chalcedony duckling on 29 October 1909. The ducks were joined in the Fabergé farmyard by the mosaic study of the bantam cockerel bought by the Queen on the same day for £13, 15s.
The project at Sandringham was not a commission of the standard type. The King had not instigated it, he had not paid for the animals in advance, nor was he under obligation to buy them. The studies were consequently available for members of the King and Queen's circle to acquire. Earl Howe bought the silver study of Vassilka on 5 November 1909 as a gift for the Queen. Fabergé also supplied a portrait of King Edward's favourite dog Caesar, carved in white onyx and wearing an enamel gold collar inscribed 'I belong to the King', identical to that on Caesar's actual collar. The study entered into Fabergé's stock in 1909 but was not completed and released for sale until the following year. In early 1910 it was still in St. Petersburg and its collar not inscribed. Bainbridge noted in his daybook on 4 February 1910, while visiting Fabergé's workshops, "King's Dog Caesar to enquire about the script on the collar". After its collar was completed, the study was sent to England where the Honourable Mrs. Greville bought it on 29 November 1910 for £35. This was two days before Queen Alexandra's birthday and the dog was given to her in tribute to her deceased husband, King Edward, who had died earlier that year on 6 May.
Not all the pieces from the commission were bought by, or for, the Royal Family. A mosaic study of a Norfolk Black turkey composed of obsidian, lapis lazuli and red jasper was bought by the French Comtesse de Bearn. The Comtesse was a regular customer of the London branch and acquired the carving on 20 November 1908 for £55, 10s. The sale to the Comtesse may have been in error, as the study was intended for the King and Queen. The turkey it depicted originated from nearby to Sandringham and was carved at the same time as Queen Alexandra's Dexter Bull. Fabergé made amends for selling it to someone outside the Royal circle by creating a near identical study. To adhere to the King's requirement there be "no duplicates", the wattle and comb of the second example were made from purpurine, a richly coloured red glass, instead of jasper. The replacement was bought by the Prince of Wales, later King George V, for the same price, on 15 October 1909 and given to Queen Alexandra for her birthday in 1909. On the same day, the Prince also bought a study of a clumber spaniel carved from white chalcedony named in the ledgers as 'Sandringham Lucy'. The study is one of Fabergé's most accomplished; it depicts the dog with its head lowered and its ruby eyes looking forlornly downwards. Clumber spaniels were kept at Sandringham, where they were used as gundogs for shooting parties held on the estate.
In addition to Persimmon, two other horses are identified in the London ledgers as forming part of the Sandringham Commission. King Edward bred Shire Horses and when he was Prince of Wales, established a Shire horse stud at Sandringham. The stud produced champions and the public sales of its horses were popular events in the heavy horse breeder's calendar. One of the finest Shire horses bred by the King was named Hoe Forest King and the year after Edward's death, he won first in class for stallions under sixteen hands at the Shire Horse Show. The King was fond of the horse and Fabergé produced a portrait study of him carved from orletz and mounted with sapphire eyes; it was sold to Queen Alexandra on 27 May 1909 for £73. The other horse was Iron Duke, the King's shooting pony. He was carved in orletz and, like Persimmon, mounted on a nephrite base to represent grass. He was bought by the Queen on 15 November 1909 for £70. Iron Duke is the last animal noted to be from Sandringham in the firm's London ledgers.
The animals served no other purpose than to please their new Royal owners. The Sandringham commission was the largest embarked on by Fabergé in London and demonstrates the close relationship between the firm and the British Royal family. The number of Sandringham animals modeled by Fabergé is impossible to fully determine, but about twenty are thought to have been made. The resulting portraits certainly pleased The King and Queen and virtually all of them remain in the British Royal Collection.