2020 February eNewsletter

February 20, 2020

We had our first Study Day of the year last week when I lectured on George IV – Art & Spectacle after which we spent the afternoon looking at the associated exhibition in The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. The exhibition continues to 3 May and it will reopen in a reduced format at Holyroodhouse Palace 16 October for six months. The exhibition is full of the most amazing treasures and it gives one a true sense of the opulent interiors which were created at Carlton House and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and the works of art they contained. It is one of the great tragedies of art history that both sets of interiors were either destroyed or altered substantially, with their fixtures, fittings and contents relocated to Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace in the course of the nineteenth century.

Buckingham Palace Rev 1000 x 500

Not many people realise that when HM The Queen steps onto the central balcony of Buckingham Palace on great royal occasions, the rooms immediately behind her are largely fashioned from items removed from the Royal Pavilion. It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who decided to sell the Pavilion in 1846 and early the following year cartloads of treasures were taken to London. Most were then incorporated into the new east wing of the palace, the one which looks out on The Mall. These rooms are never shown to the public. However, as this entire wing has been emptied to facilitate a major restoration of the services, the Queen has decided to return to Brighton many of those extraordinary items removed by her predecessor. Indeed, some of those contents are illustrated in their original rooms in an article in last week’s Country Life, published 12 February. Do look out for John Goodall’s article, ‘The Prince and his Pagodas’, as it is well written and lavishly illustrated.

Brighton Pavillion 1000 x 500


As some of you will know, we will be in the Brighton area for our annual tour based on the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, 3 – 7 August. Given the recent decision to loan back to the Pavilion so many stunning fixtures and works of art, we have decided to adjust the visit schedule so that we can take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity and we shall have a specially guided tour of the reconstituted rooms on the Wednesday morning, 5 August. Peter Hill, who will co-lead this tour with me, will now lecture on two of the operas, Mozart’s Die Entfürhung and Beethoven’s Fidelio on the Tuesday morning and on Handel’s Alcina on the Thursday morning. We have a few places left on this tour so do think about joining me for a memorable few days.

Slovenia 1000 x 500


The Austro-Hungarian Empire sheltered a great many different nationalities under its rule, not all of them happy to accept the Habsburgs. In the post 1918 world as that empire imploded giving rise to the creation of a host of new nations, not all prospered, especially those that subsequently fell under communism. One of the true success stories has to be Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia it has escaped the quagmire into which so many of its fellow Balkan neighbours descended in the 1990s. A Hidden Europe – Discovering Slovenia, 2 – 8 June introduces a country full of remarkable buildings, spectacular countryside and a sophisticated cuisine. The tour will be based in Ljubjana, pictured above, for six nights, an intact expression of all the charm memorably described by one of our previous guests as ‘old Habsburgia’ – homburgs and parasols will not be needed.

Villa Arvedi 1000x500


Much of northern Italy was also ruled by the Habsburgs, until the House of Savoy managed to expel them over several decades as the new Kingdom of Italy came into being. One such possession to change hands was the Veneto, its main cities of Venice, Verona, Padua and Vicenza endlessly inspected by Baedeker wielding grandees from Vienna and other Imperial cities. Today they have been succeeded by a similar group of intelligent and curious visitors, not a few of whom travel with CICERONI and this year we return to the Veneto for our almost annual tour Villas, Gardens, Opera & Wine: Verona & the Valpolicella, 6 – 11 July. As we plan to rest this tour in 2021 do consider joining us for what has always been a memorable few days in and around Verona. A city which has seen its fair share of history enacted within its ancient walls, the visit programme will include historic churches and fine museums. Without the walls handsome villas and gardens are guaranteed, in many of which our group, will be entertained privately by the owning families, such as at the Villa Arvedi pictured above. This year’s operas will include Verdi’s Nabucco and Aida, with the charming double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Paglicacci. A very special evening will be a Gala Opera Recital given by Placido Domingo as one of the included nights.

Udine PiazzaLiberta 1000 x 500


Friuli Venezia Giulia is the intriguing name given to one of Italy’s most enigmatic regions. Friuli is the border area which straddles Slovenia, Austria and Italy; Venezia refers to the territorial ambitions of the predatory Venetian state under the Doges; Giulia references the ancient Romans who conquered this area about the time of Julius Caesar. Unsurprisingly, all these influences have left a rich heritage across the region. So if you are tired of Tuscany, or can’t be bothered with Sicily this might be just the Autumn tour for you? Based for six nights in the delightful town of Udine, pictured above, Italy’s Secret: Friuli Venezia Giulia, 8 – 14 September will reveal each day more and more of the region’s history and culture as Romans, Visigoths, Lombards, Venetians and the inevitable Habsburgs all cross each other’s paths. And just when you think that’s enough history for one day, the region has the finest white wines of Italy and a cuisine dedicated to all the very best local ingredients.

Marble House Rhode Island 1000 x 500


‘Old Habsburgia’ is probably one of the few regions not quarried for ideas by all those architects and interior designers who fed the insatiable desire of the American ‘new rich’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for huge mansions echoing the styles of Europe’s ançien regime. Dazzling Impressions: Rhode Island’s Gilded Mansions, 6 – 13 October will be our only tour in the United States this year. Based in Newport, we have been fortunate to have expert guides from The Preservation Society of Newport County as mansion after mansion – The Breakers, Marble House as seen above, Kingscote – built for the Vanderbilt family and their social rivals will be included. Yale University is within easy reach so a visit to the Yale Centre for British Art is a must given its remarkable holdings.

St P Hermitage 1000x500

I’m now in St Petersburg at the start of a two week journey. It is a huge pleasure to have time to myself to revisit The Hermitage and other local museums, especially at this time of year when very few tourists are around.

Potemkin 1000 x 500

If you are coming here in the next month or two, do look out for two very exciting exhibitions: The Hermitage has mounted ‘Tis Potemkin Himself!’ focussing on the career of Grigory Potemkin, pictured above, the greatest and most powerful of Catherine the Great’s favourites. The emphasis is very much on his military career and the conquest of Crimea and one does wonder if the (unsubtle) intention is to bolster local Russian support for President Putin’s present adventures down on the Black Sea? It also has some remarkable works of art, not least the amazing presents which the Empress and her lover (possibly her secret husband) gave each other, above all the famous Cameo Service made by Sèvres and given to Potemkin. It closes 29th March.

Barge Haulers on the Volga 1000 x 500

The other ‘must see' exhibition is at The Russian Art Museum and is devoted to the greatest of all nineteenth century Russian ‘realist’ painters, Ilya Repin, which opened last October to mark the 175th anniversary of his birth. All the great ‘set piece’ history paintings are included, such as Barge Haulers on the Volga pictured above, but it is the small oil studies and preparatory sketches which are a revelation. It closes on 9th March so try to see it if you are here?

I am off to Moscow and points further east later this week, exploring for future tours to parts of Russia we have not included before. I had expected to encounter deep snow and temperatures up to -20 degrees, the norm for central Russia at this time of year, but I’m told to expect very little snow and temperatures hovering around 0 degrees. All going to plan I shall be in touch again in a few weeks.

All best wishes,

Tom Duncan

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