Events | May 6, 2014

Shapero Rare Books Explores Russian Peoples, Costumes and Traditions Through European Eyes

On the occasion of Russian Art Week (30 May?6 June 2014) Shapero Rare Books will explore how Europeans have perceived Russia, including its peoples, dress and traditions, through a focused exhibition of exceptional visual records and foreign accounts from the 17th to 19th century.

At the start of the early modern period Russians remained a mysterious ‘other’ to their western neighbors—whilst they looked like Europeans, their appearance and costumes in particular marked them as remote and distinctive. Progressively though, Russia became more widely understood through cultural exchange, warfare and travel, especially political and scientific expeditions. Whilst Russian high society sought to become westernised, its general population upheld their traditions, which attracted foreigner’s attentions and was increasingly documented. From exotic distractions to scientific ethnology, the exhibition will track this documentation through a fine selection of valuable illustrated books, watercolours and photographs.

At first Europeans had little accurate information about Muscovite society at their disposal—printing would not develop there until the end of the 16th century, literacy was little developed, and travelling to these distant, often hostile countries was difficult. By the middle of the 17th century, only a few travel accounts were available to Europeans; they were rapidly replaced by Adam Olearius’ Voyages tres-curieux & tres- renommez faits en Moscovie, Tartarie et Perse, a veritable bestseller which documented his diplomatic mission to sign a treaty with Tsar Michael of Russia. Our exhibition presents a fine example (1727) of this compendium, which served for many years as the West’s primary source of knowledge about Russia’s geography, language, peoples and sciences. Whilst approaching the country with the customary suspicions of a foreigner, he records being impressed by the technical aptitudes and intellectual curiosity of the Russians.

By the eighteenth century it was not only Europeans with a political background who chose to travel to, and study, Russia. The Dutch painter Le Bruyn arrived in 1701 and proceeded to make detailed and diverse visual records of his experiences. In our first English edition of his Travels into Muscovy, Persia and Parts of the East Indies (1737) there are more than 300 engraved subjects, including depictions of Russian people, and a famous 2-meter long panorama of Moscow.

The European Enlightenment penetrated Russia in the second half of the 18th century during the reign of Catherine the Great. Her appeal for scientific surveys of her Empire and peoples, led by Germans and French scholars, resulted in a more systematic approach to documenting the topography and ethnography of the country. It resulted in one of the most copied works ever produced: Johann Georgi’s Description de toutes les nations de l’empire russe (1776), the first book printed in Russia with hand-coloured illustrations. We will have a remarkably fresh example of the first French edition of this great work on display, put in context alongside several subsequent versions and interpretations.

Georgi’s groundbreaking work opened the way in the nineteenth century for yet more extensive ethnological works. We are proud to be able to show the two largest and most impressive of these, both first editions with beautiful coloured plates: Rechberg’s Les Peuples de la Russie (1812-3) and Pauly’s Description ethnographique des peuples de la Russie (1862).

To balance these authors’ scientific approach, the exhibition will show examples of persistent, simplistic depictions of Russians in their traditional costume—which continued to draw on their exoticism—such as photographs by the celebrated Scot William Carrick and the fine tourist memento Souvenir de Saint- Petersbourg. Russian Costumes (1828), published in St. Petersburg during Pushkin’s time.

Russian Peoples, Costumes and Traditions through European eyes

Shapero Rare Books 32 St. George Street London W1S 2EA


On view 30 May - 6 June 2014
Opening times: Monday - Friday 9.30 am - 6.30 pm