Shadowbox: The Amber Room

The Amber Room of Peter the Great underscores the story of SHADOWBOX with subtlety and myth.

Godfrey Woolverham, one of my characters, is descended from the craftsman who created the Amber Room. And in laying the foundations of the novel, I created a gem of my own:

Royal Amber, a fantastic material more occult and obscure than ordinary Baltic amber, with rare and significant qualities.

Royal Amber is an invention, a fictitious treasure, but even ordinary amber takes a special place within the story of SHADOWBOX, and in the mythos of the Cuckoo Club beyond the pages of the novel.

One such place where Royal Amber exerts its influence is within the Amber Room.

Andrey Zeest's 1917 autochrome photograph of the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace, St Petersburg, RussiaThe real-life Amber Room is a chamber of shadows: a symbol of wealth and power, a marvel of craft and a WW2 enigma all rolled into one artefact. Stories of its loss – looting, under the UN definition – at the end of the Second World War, and its possible rediscovery decades later (most recently in the collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, an elderly Austrian), only serve to heighten the mystique.

Of course, the Amber Room is made of ordinary amber – six tons of the stuff. It’s a breathtaking accomplishment of craft and as dazzling a symbol of wealth as a Fabergé egg.

In 1832, while my characters swan around Paris and London, the Amber Room exerts a strange attraction all the way from St Petersburg.

You can find much the same historical information all across the first few pages of Google if you want to look for more on the Amber Room. Wikipedia is a good place to start, and the St Petersburg page.

Here’s a tickler:

The Amber Room, a dazzling construction of panels of the golden resin, backed with gold leaf and mirrors, was commissioned by Frederick I of Prussia.

Presented as a gift to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great in 1716, the room – made up of 100,000 pieces of intricately carved amber of varying golden hues – was installed in the magnificent Catherine Palace near St Petersburg.

A small chamber, the first suite of panels enclosed an area 11 feet by 11 feet.

The amber panels were crafted by Gottfried Wolfram, master craftsman to the Danish Royal Court, with amber masters Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turau from Gdańsk in modern-day Poland.

Gottfried Wolfram enters SHADOWBOX as an ancestor of one of my main characters. His connection to the Amber Room – and to Royal Amber, my fictitious gem – powers part of the story.

During World War II the chamber was looted by Germany and taken from Leningrad to Königsberg on the Baltic coast of modern-day Poland. Knowledge of its whereabouts was lost in the chaos at the end of the war.

Interestingly, Königsberg was the place from where the Teutonic Knights launched the Baltic Crusades in 1242. Not short of historical resonance, these places.

In 1979 efforts began to rebuild the Amber Room at Tsarskoye Selo, its first home in Russia. In 2003, after decades of work by Russian craftsmen, the reconstructed chamber was inaugurated in the Catherine Palace in Saint Petersburg.

And in SHADOWBOX the Amber Room tugs at the edges of the story with a magnetism borne of myth.


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Luxury, nearly 200 years ago.

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Shadowbox: Who’s Who in 1832

Speculative fiction often uses real persons and events to build a story around. Real lives, used fictionally within the pages of my novel, SHADOWBOX, include these real people who happen to have had interests close to the foundation of the Cuckoo Club. See if you can spot the clues.

The usual caveats apply.


Roderick Murchison

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, 1st Baronet KCB FRS (19 February 1792 – 22 October 1871), was an influential British geologist.

He wrote his first scientific paper in 1825 on the geology of south-east England. Turning his attention to Continental geology, he explored the volcanic region of Auvergne, parts of southern France, northern Italy, Tyrol and Switzerland with Charles Lyell.

He later explored further east as far as Russia, and Scotland. [He founded] a chair of geology and mineralogy at the University of Edinburgh.

The Murchison crater on the Moon and at least fifteen geographical locations on Earth are named after him.

By the time of the events in SHADOWBOX, Murchison would have been forty years old.


Charles Lyell

From Wikipedia:

Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet, Kt, FRS (14 November 1797 – 22 February 1875) was a lawyer and the foremost geologist of his day.

Born in Scotland, the eldest of ten children in a prosperous family, the young Lyell spent much of his childhood at the family’s other home in the New Forest, where his interest in the natural world was sparked. He studied at Oxford and after graduation took up law as a profession.

He traveled with Roderick Murchison to the Auvergne in southern France, and to Italy.

In 1832, Lyell married, and the couple spent their honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy on a geological tour.

This is the period where Lyell’s character makes a strong appearance in SHADOWBOX, as a travelling companion to Louis Beauregard in Paris, presenting a paper to a fictitious geological institute and planning his honeymoon’s rock-hunting.

The character in the novel is a few years younger, however, than Lyell was in real life in 1832, and his professional status takes a back foot to the role he pursues as Louis’s friend and (somewhat irritated) mentor.

In real life, Lyell’s interests ranged from volcanoes to prehistoric archaeology. He was also a strong influence on Charles Darwin.

Places named after Lyell include:

  • Mount Lyell (California)
  • Mount Lyell (Canada)
  • Mount Lyell (Tasmania, Australia)
  • Lyell Land (Greenland)


Adolphe d’Archiac

There’s a surprise d’Archiac in my short story, THE BROKER OF FAREWELLS, but Étienne Jules Adolphe Desmier de Saint-Simon, Vicomte d’Archiac (September 24, 1802 – December 24, 1868), was a French geologist and palaeontologist, a Parisian and a young man in 1832.

This is actually Auguste Michel Lévy, another eminent French geologist

He served as a cavalry officer until 1830, when he retired at the age of 28, and devoted his attention to geology. His earliest scientific works from 1835 describe the Tertiary and Cretaceous formations of France, Belgium and England, especially the distribution of fossils geographically and in sequence.

In 1853 the Geological Society of London awarded him the Wollaston Medal. In 1857 he was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and in 1861 he was appointed professor of paleontology in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

While suffering from severe depression he committed suicide by throwing himself into the River Seine on Christmas Eve , 1868.

There’s no record of his having such an enchanting marriage as I provide for him in SHADOWBOX, nor of any adventures with Louis Beauregard.


Robert SMIRKE

From Wikipedia:

Smirke was born in London on 1 October 1780, the second son of the portrait painter Robert Smirke; he was one of twelve children.

In 1801, accompanied by his elder brother Richard he embarked on a Grand Tour which would last until 1805.

[On his return to London] in 1805 Smirke became a member of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Smirke was a pioneer of using both concrete and cast iron… He used large cast iron beams to support the floors of the upper galleries at the British Museum.

He was knighted in 1832, and lived at 81 Charlotte Street, London.

During the events of the novel, Smirke is a visitor at Murchison’s house in the West End of London. I have no idea whether the pair ever actually met.


Gottfried WOLFRAM

This is the real-life person with whom I took most liberties within SHADOWBOX.

Gottfried Wolfram was a Danish amber craftsman. His name appears in connection with the Amber Room of Peter the Great, as one of the designers and one of the three craftsmen who built the original chamber for the Prussian king Friedrich I.

General online searches only throw up titbits.

In 1701, Friedrich IV, the king of Denmark, recommended the Prussian king Friedrich I that his court carver and amber polisher Gottfried Wolfram should make an amber room. – http://stpetersburgrussia.ru/Pushkin/amber-room

And

Gottfried Wolfram was a master craftsman who had been employed by the Danish court to fashion exquisite and ornate miniatures from ivory and other precious materials and had made chess sets, jewel caskets and even some small items of furniture from amber. – The Regency Redingote

While Gottfried Wolfram doesn’t appear in person, his fictional grandson is one of the main characters. I have no idea whether the real-life amber carver had any family, what they were called, or whether any of them arrived in London prior to 1832.

They did in SHADOWBOX.

Amber carver of Leningrad


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: First Light On Paris.

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