Hermitage Museum

The new outstation of St. Petersburg's

The big event of this city's winter art season is the opening, on November 25, of the Hermitage Rooms, the new outstation of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum. The first of two such undertakings—the second, in partnership with the Guggenheim Foundation, will open in Amsterdam in 2006—the Rooms are the crowning triumph of entrepreneur-patron Lord (Jacob) Rothschild, who, with the help of the British government, has managed to transform one of London's grandest 18th-century buildings, Somerset House on the Strand, from a down-at-heel complex of (mostly government) offices into one of the capital's most important art venues. It already boasts the pictures of the famous Courtauld Collection and the extraordinary mosaics and gold and silver objets de vertu gathered by the British-born American businessman Sir Arthur Gilbert. Treasures of Catherine the Great, the first exhibition in the new Rooms—which have been designed in the style of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace and will feature a large monitor linked in real time to a camera looking across that city's Palace Square—is an evocation of the life of the empress (1729-96), perhaps the greatest and most passionate art collector of all time. On view are medals and jewelry, portraits and porcelain, clocks and furniture, all either commissioned or collected by her from across Europe and from China—as well as a rotating "visiting masterpiece" from the Hermitage's vast collection. Objects to look for: A wig made for Catherine entirely out of silver thread; a remarkable carved chair by the Scottish architect Charles Cameron; pieces from the Sèvres "Cameo" service and the Wedgwood "Green Frog" service; and two recently discovered (and vanishingly rare) Chinese silver-filigree toilet sets. On view at the Hermitage Rooms November 25 through September 23, 2001. Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA; 44-20-7845-4630; www.hermitagerooms.com.; fax 44-20-7845-4637.