Miniature of the Month
The Snuffbox in Catherine Palace by Robert Dawson
Robert re-created the Snuffbox from contemporary photographs and a 19th century painting. The white glass walls are overlaid with ormolu, a gilding technique used in the 18th century. Hand-painted screen by Russian artisan Natasha, Blue lapis bowl by Stephan Wein.
Fueled by facts, conjecture and pure fascination, Catherine Palace is one of the most famous architectural structures in the world. The miniature by Robert Dawson is no different. Inspired by the legendary residence of the Russian czars, it was held in a private collection prior to its donation to the KSB Miniatures Collection in 2015. Since then, thousands of visitors have traveled to Maysville, Kentucky, for a glimpse into how Russian royalty lived—and how the talented English miniaturist brought the storied castle to life.
Robert’s journey to create Catherine Palace began in 2002 when he was commissioned by collector Carole Kaye to re-create the Russian castle in 1/12 scale. A year later, he found himself in St. Petersburg wandering the rooms of the great estate. “It got its distinctive fairy-tale appearance thanks to the hundreds of architects, painters and sculptors who realized the fantasies of its three mistresses: Empress Catherine I (for whom the palace is named), Peter and Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth Petrovna and later, Catherine II, known as ‘Catherine the Great,’” explains Robert. “It’s the perfect example of Russian Baroque, a style which was considered to have reached its peak in this building.”
Since the palace was massive in size, Robert, owner of The Modelroom, chose to replicate just the central bays and six of its many rooms. Much of his work was based on viewing the actual rooms and examining artifacts, historical records and photographs. He spoke with experts, historians and architects in his planning, but the room with the least details would prove to be far more interesting to him than he imagined—the SnuffBox, a small room once tucked away among the second-floor apartments which had been lost to wartime bombs.
The tiny room remains today one of the most talked-about rooms in the real palace despite the fact that the one-time private chamber of Catherine the Great has not yet been reconstructed. Did she make plans to overthrow her husband in this room? Is it where she had her true-or-not-so-true clandestine rendezvous or where she simply chose to get away from it all? No one knows for sure—not even its dimensions— but Catherine, herself, described the room as a “snuffbox,” in white, blue and bronze, writing “the white and blue is of glass, and the design is arabesque.”
Robert was able to locate a complete set of contemporary photographs and a tattered 19th century painting of the room from which to base his design. “The ‘Snuffbox’ was so named because of its diminutive size and exquisite decorations,” he says. “It was paneled in sheets of white and blue glass from the Imperial Glass and Crystal factory in St. Petersburg and embellished with eagles, medallions, garlands and friezes of gilded bronze. We were able to re-create the extraordinary white glass walls, overlaid with ormolu, an effect not seen since the room was destroyed in the war.”
Like the Snuffbox, many parts of imperial history have to be left to the imagination, but it’s all part of the allure. Robert immersed himself in provenance for the project, but was captivated envisioning the unknown, especially for Catherine’s most personal space. It’s a pastime many visitors to the KSB Miniatures Collection find themselves doing when viewing Catherine Palace.
Catherine Palace will be on display October 10th through December 31st, 2021. More rooms of the miniature can be seen here.