Peter the Great on the banks of the Thames

Tsar Peter was uncommonly tall, but I didn’t know he was this much taller than me.

When I stood beside his statue, the top of my head reached only to the top of his forearm.

But the statue exaggerates.  It makes him about nine feet high.  He was only six feet eight inches, which was enough to put him head-and-shoulders above almost all the Russians and Europeans of his time.  (I used to be six-five, according to my army record, but I’ve shrunk.)  Peter was not proportionately massive (nor am I): his head, hands, and feet were small and his shoulders narrow.  His strange physique and facial tics may have been due to a minor form of epilepsy.

In any case he was “Great” not because of his size but for the usual reason of being a despot and conqueror.  He added to the size of the Russian empire, made it a player in European politics, and welcomed European science and technology.

In 1697 he set off on his “Grand Embassy,” an eighteen-month tour to the Netherlands, England, Germany, and Austria.  He went incognito, like the caliph Haroon in the Arabian Nights, but it was difficult to pretend not to recognize the fellow with the fake name, towering height, and large retinue of courtiers and servants.  He failed to build an alliance against the Ottoman Turkish empire, but his other purpose was to bring practical knowledge back to Russia, and he learned a lot by taking lessons and by working with his own hands.  In Manchester he made observations about city design which he could apply in his new capital, St. Petersburg; and he learned about shipbuilding by working as an apprentice in the docks at Deptford by the Thames.

Deptford is the district just west of Greenwich, separated from it by a tidal inlet which is the mouth of a tributary called the Ravensbourne.  Much about England of that age is known from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.  Evelyn lived in Deptford’s grandest house, Sayes Court, close to the dockyard; he wrote treatises on horticulture, and delighted in creating a formal garden.  He moved away to Surrey in 1694, and Peter, when he arrived in 1698, lodged in Sayes Court with his retinue, who did a lot of damage to it.  On one of their drunken revels after work, the courtiers or the navvies, I’m not sure which, used a wheelbarrow, with Peter in it, to ram through one of the garden’s perfect holly hedges.  Evelyn, hearing of it, was furious.

I first learned of this incident from one of the “collection-type” books I used to keep in a guest bedroom: the Oxford Book of Anecdotes.  I can’t find it now, as I want to do for a digressively-related anecdote, which I hope I can remember correctly.  Two people (I think one of them was the composer W.S. Gilbert) were arguing about Shakespeare; one of them said Shakespeare’s verse is full of far-fetched obscurity.  “What do you mean?  Give me an example.”  So the anti-Shakespeare man quoted a piece of typical Shakespearean diction:

“I’d as lief be thrust through a quick-set hedge as cry plosh to a callow throstle.”

“That’s not obscure at all,” said the pro-Shakespeare man.  “It’s obvious what it means: the speaker is a kindly person, he’s saying that he would rather be pushed through a thick hedge than frighten a baby thrush.   – Which play does it come from, by the way?”

“No play – I just made it up.”

To get back to Petr (pronounced Pyotr) Alekseevich (“son of Aleksei”) Velikiy (“Great”) Romanov (of the dynasty that ruled Russia from 1613 till the fall of the last tsar in 1917 – though all of those who followed Peter, except one of his ill-fated and short-lived children, were not actually in the male Romanov line):

His statue is the chief feature of a pleasant paved space on the rounded corner of the Ravensbourne-Thames confluence.

The background is one of the apartment blocks that line this part of the river, but we can’t complain about that, because the company donated the bit of land.  Mikhail Shemyakin was commissioned to make the sculpture, which was probably intended for the tercentenary of the 1698 episode but was unveiled in 2001.

Actually it’s a sculptural group: on Peter’s left is an empty throne, and on his right a dwarf, four feet high and almost as broad, and dressed as elaborately as the tsar.  Peter shared, to an obsessive degree, the interest of the time in freaks of nature, “curiosities”; he had a collection that included animals and stillborn children with deformities.  Seventy dwarfs attended the wedding he staged for his favorite dwarf, Jakim Volkov.  So Jakim is presumably the jester in the sculpture.

He holds in one hand a tiny ship, and in the other a globe, apparently a celestial one, and on his shoulder is a miniature cherub blowing a trumpet.  Peter holds in his left hand a pipe, and in his right a long narrow-aperture telescope, as if about to raise it and study the shipping on the Thames.  The sculpture group is set on a stepped dais of mottled marble, around whose sides are inscriptions in English and Russian, and low-relief plaques representing what look like meals.  To left and right are cannons.  Often, flowers have been laid at Peter’s feet.

He also had an “Arab” or “Moor” or “Negro,” actually an ex-slave who may have been from Nubia or a different region of North Africa, and who became known as Hannibal, as I learned when I met one of his descendants, Ali Hannibal, in Iran.


4 thoughts on “Peter the Great on the banks of the Thames”

  1. I am v curious about other “anti-Shakespeareans”, being one myself, mainly for the reason given in the anecdote. Am i in the good company of W.S. Gilbert or the non-celebrity?

    1. Yes, I’m pretty sure it was Gilbert (William Schwenk Gilbert, librettist of the of Gilbert and Sullivan light operas) who made up the mock-Shakespearean line.

  2. What a wonderful ramble, thank you (although I am glad there wasn’t another tempting link in the anecdote about Dr. Hannibal; I have bookshelves to polish and books to reshelve today, and I’ve finished my tea so it’s time to get to work). I’m especially grateful for a photo of the elusive (and allusive) Mr. Ottewell himself. Is that Tilly, enthroned?

    I expected you were going to mention Peter Alekseyevich’s visit to Versaille, and Vladimir Vladimirovich’s. There, I’ve done it for you.

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