In Dallas, a grand new mansion brims with malachite — a most royal stone — giving a certain palace in St. Petersburg a run for its rubles
by RICK BRETTELL | produced and photographed by NAN COULTER
No one who visits the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, wants to see only the masterpieces of Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Murillo, Canova, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. They want to see the Winter Palace, too, through which one enters to visit the Hermitage. Royalty never disappoints, and even the most diehard of Marxists kept the palace open for the people. The vast rooms of the Winter Palace — the throne room, the chapel, the state dining room — are so numbingly grand that almost everyone makes a beeline to the smaller Malachite Room, which is, to the Winter Palace, what the Amber Room is to the Summer Palace outside of the city.
The Amber Room came first, a gift to Czar Peter the Great from the King of Prussia but, soon after a fire destroyed much of the Winter Palace in 1837, the Russian neoclassical architect Alexander Briullov was asked to redesign the interiors.
His rooms are masterpieces of state stagecraft, but the most intimate, the most private, is the Malachite Room.
I will never forget walking through it with a Russian guide and a small group of Dallasites a few years after I left the Dallas Museum of Art. We marveled at the combination of intense green malachite veneers, the snowy white plaster, the gilt bronze and wood, the warm browns of the inlaid woods and the crimson in the silk and damask upholstery and draperies.
The effect was hypnotic, and we all yearned to step over the silk ropes and pretend that we were the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, the wife of Emperor Nicholas I, for whom the room was designed as an official drawing room in which to greet friends and dignitaries.
After all, in our minds, we were dignitaries. But we merely marveled at the green of the columns, pilasters, urns, table tops, boxes and vases — a color so intense that it seemed difficult to believe that it was all cut and inlaid by Russian and Italian craftsmen almost two centuries ago. The upholstery has been replaced many times in the intervening decades to retain its ruby brilliance. Not so the malachite.
We learned that the largest malachite mines then known in the world were in the Ural Mountains, and that the Russians imported Italian stone craftsmen who had, for centuries, used it in their pietra dura furniture.
I piped up that I remembered Italian painters grinding malachite to produce green pigment in the late Middle Ages. (Everyone was impressed.) But it wasn’t that information that mattered: It was that the technologies to veneer malachite were still alive, and that there was a market for luxury malachite objects worldwide, even today.
Although we in Dallas are not as rich as the czars or even as the princes and sultans of Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia, we are no slouches in the acquisition department. Since that visit, literally hundreds of malachite objects have migrated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. These pages are graced with photographs of just a few of these objects, gathered by one particularly enthusiastic collector for the grand Dallas home she shares with her husband. Many of them inhabit a malachite room that might impress even Empress Alexandra. What other city has a house with malachite cabochons in the floor, an entire malachite shower and hundreds of square feet of malachite veneer on furniture, sculpture, clocks and boxes?
The husband of said enthusiastic collector has a very ADD way of attempting to dissuade his wife from collecting even more.
“T. N. M. M!” he says to her. “There’s no more malachite!”
I secretly hope that there is.
CLICK HERE FOR EXCLUSIVE FEATURE, THE NEW ‘OLD WORLD’: Scholar Rick Brettell on good taste today — you may be quite surprised — plus the artisans who made this malachite-filled Dallas manor an eye-popping showcase of craftsmanship.
RICK BRETTELL is the Margaret McDermott distinguished chairman of art and aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and the founder of CentralTrak, the UT Dallas Artists Residency & Gallery.