A Fabergé egg with a tiny diamond clasp in the shape of a snowflake and a miniature frog carved from Siberian nephrite jade are among more than 100 treasures on show in a exhibition at Polesden Lacey, the home of the Edwardian society hostess Dame Margaret Greville.
The objects – many of them gifts to Greville from royalty, aristocracy and heads of state – include a delicately carved jasper owl on a perch that is attributed to Fabergé for the first time. Four other objects are also confirmed as creations of the master craftsman.
They will be displayed along with rare ceramics and silverware, and masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest artists, in Treasured Possessions: Riches of Polesden Lacey, which opens on Monday.
Greville, the daughter of the fabulously wealthy brewing tycoon William McEwan, bought Polesden Lacey in Surrey, now a National Trust property, with her aristocratic husband Ronnie in 1907 as a place where the couple could host lavish weekend house parties.
Her parties were famous for guest lists that included King Edward VII and Queen Mary, Winston Churchill and other leading politicians, writers and cultural figures, European royalty and American socialites. Agog to inspect Greville’s latest acquisitions, they drank Bollinger in the imposing hall of the house, featuring a huge reredos reclaimed from a London church and tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries, before their hostess descended the grand staircase to greet them.
Greville was a collector, but many of the treasures on display were gifts. “It was a form of Edwardian social currency – the giving of gifts kept the social dynamics well oiled,” said Richard Ashbourne, an assistant curator of the exhibition.
The Fabergé frog was a present from Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich, a grandson of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Queen Mary brought an ivory chess set and a blue enamel and gold circular box when visiting with Edward VII.
The House of Fabergé was in its heyday, with its luxury creations desired by the world’s elite. Greville was a regular customer at Fabergé’s London shop, its first outside Russia, with ledgers showing she bought 31 items over several years.
John Benjamin, the Antiques Roadshow expert who advises the National Trust on Fabergé, said: “Mrs Greville had ample means and opportunity to acquire beautiful objets de fantaisie, notable for their virtuosity, wit and effortless charm.”
The highlights of the exhibition include a ruby and diamond brooch in the shape of an “E” worn by Greville at the coronation of Edward VII, a pair of pottery horse heads from early imperial China, and Staffordshire porcelain tulips. Among the paintings is The Paterson Children, a portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn bought by Greville in 1918 for £23,000 – the most expensive painting she acquired.
Greville had no children, and on her death in 1942 her jewellery was bequeathed to the Queen Mother, including the Greville tiara, now on long-term loan to the Duchess of Cornwall. She left Polesden Lacey to the National Trust.
“Margaret Greville inherited a passion for collecting from her father. Her fashionable collection provided a suitably lavish backdrop to her famous parties at Polesden Lacey,” said Ashbourne.
“Mrs Greville and her friends bought treasures for each other, including creations by Fabergé, to be displayed and discussed, or even regifted. Gift-giving was a key social ritual in Edwardian high society circles – as such, Mrs Greville’s collection was also a signifier of her intimacy and influence with the rich and powerful.”