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September 21, 2023

Rare Color Photographs of the Interiors of the Alexander Palace in 1917

A rare and unique set of Autochrome color photograph plates, taken by Alexander Zehest in 1917 of the interiors of the Alexander Palace, including both the Parade rooms and the personal rooms of the Imperial Family.

The Autochrome process was a rare and difficult one, invented by the Lumiere Brothers of France in 1903 and marketed in Europe and the US starting in 1907. The autochromes, 140 in total, were made in 1917 by the military photographer Andrei Zeest, who was invited by the art historian George Loukomski, Head of Tsarskoye Selo Inventory Commission. The Alexander Palace interiors were photographed in August-September, soon after the Tsar’s family left for exile.

Now that a comprehensive restoration of the palace approaches, the detail-rich autochromes become one of the most important resources for the museum workers, restorers and historians. Particularly noteworthy are the views of the Playroom of Tsarevich Alexei, previously unavailable, and Alexandra Fiodorovna’s greenery-decorated Maple Study or Drawing-Room and the Palisander Reception Room with a vase holding a Hortensia put there by the Tsarina herself.

The plates were at auction in Paris in June 2012. A close friend of the work of the Alexander Palace Time Machine, Mr. Mike Pyles, contacted Bob Atchison, offering a most generous gift of $25,000 toward the purchase of the plates for the APTM websites. Bob declined the gift personally, insisting that the plates go to the Alexander Palace Museum. Mr. Pyles readily agreed. The Museum staff were already aware of the impending sale of the plates. With Mr. Pyles promised gift in hand of $25,000 toward their purchase, the Museum was able to secure the photographs, which ultimately sold for 53,000 Euros!

The Mauve Boudoir

The Mauve Boudoir

The Imperial Bedroom

The Imperial Bedroom

The Pallisander Room

The Alexander (Alexandrovsky) Palace – generally considered the favorite home of the last Imperial family of Russia, and where they spent the first five months of their captivity after the start of the Revolution – was commissioned by Catherine the Great for her favorite grandson, the future Alexander I, on the occasion of his marriage. It was built to the design of Giacomo Quarenghi and constructed between 1792 and 1796. After his accession in 1801, Alexander chose to reside in the nearby, larger Catherine Palace and gave the Alexander Palace to his brother, the future Nicholas I, for summer usage. From that time it was the summer residence of the heir to the throne; even after coming to the throne, Nicholas I was very attached to the building, though his successors less so. Several members of the family would die while in residence, and the future Nicholas II was born there in 1868.

It was Nicholas and his wife, the Empress Alexandra, who would make the biggest impact on the palace, and the home life they established there has become an enduring part of their legend. With a growing, close-knit family, the Empress devoted much energy to the redecoration of the private rooms. Designed in a mix of late Victorian, Art Nouveau, and an Edwardian neoclassicism, the rooms were always filled with flowers, the tables and shelves laden with art objects and framed photographs. Though the renovations would be much criticized by the Empress' detractors for being middle class and insufficiently “Imperial”, the rooms as they were then had a feminine charm and, most importantly for her and her family, were pretty, cozy, and practical.

Soon after the Imperial family was transported to Siberia in August of 1917 the palace was turned into a museum; it continued as such until the beginning of the Second World War. Tsarskoe Selo was occupied during the war, and the palace was used as headquarters for the German military command. In the German's retreat, when so many other Imperial residences were burned - including the adjacent Catherine Palace - the Alexander Palace, though looted and heavily damaged, was spared destruction. The real destruction came after the war, when most of the historic interiors vanished, the rooms altered to make up plain exhibition halls for a proposed museum to Pushkin. When that plan came to nothing, the building was turned over to the use of the Soviet Navy. At the end of the twentieth century, with Perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Empire, and an increasing interest in Russia's last Imperial family, the Navy was finally induced to vacate. A museum dedicated to the family was soon instituted and important restoration work began immediately – the structure was in a precarious state – and continues to this day. In 2015 the museum was closed to the public for a major renovation, a multi-year project to include, among other things, the recreation of the private rooms of the Nicholas and Alexandra.
Alexandra’s Formal Reception Room

The Pallisander Room

The Maple Room

Small Library

Semi-Circular Hall

Portrait Hall

Maple Room

Tsar’s Reception


The Billiard Hall

Large Library

Mountain Hall

Portrait Hall

Billiard Hall


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