Regions of Excellence: The Steel of Tula, Russia

March 16 2010, 9:17am

Tula is an industrial city in Russia, most famous for it’s production of applied arts in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The craftsmen of Tula became renowned for their production of objects in steel following Peter the Great’s relocation of the Imperial State Armoury to the town in 1712. The workshops of Tula began to manufacture domestic objects in steel soon after moving to the town, adapting the experience and techniques acquired in the creation of fine quality arms. The master craftsmen of the town worked either in the imperial workshops, from where they could also undertake their own commissions, or in private manufactories, such as those of Demidov, Nikita Mosolov and Feodor Batashov. The output ranged from furniture to decorative boxes and down to items as small as buckles and buttons. Tula State Arms Museum, which includes the Imperial Factory's early output. A steel encrusted center table circa 1780-85 from the Tula Imperial Armory, now in the Metropolitan Museum, “belongs to a small group of furniture embellished with silver inlay, ornamental etching, and gilded applications that summarizes nearly all the techniques practiced by the Tula craftsmen.” The steel beads, or “heads,” are cut like diamonds, and the polished faceted surfaces certainly sparkle as such. Russian steel-mounted center table in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One object in the Carlton Hobbs collection almost certain to have come from a Tula manufactory is a steel casket with firing mechanism. The austere linear exterior of the piece conceals a series of complex mechanisms, locks and switches which culminate in the pair of hidden pistols designed to fire when the box is opened incorrectly. If the box is locked, the lid will open to 20o before triggering a mechanism which releases the two spring loaded end ribs to the front of the exterior thus revealing the barrels of the two pistols which are set within the sides of the box. If loaded the pistols will then fire on the unwitting intruder. Unusual steel casket with firing lock mechanism. Carlton Hobbs LLC. The radical nature of the design compliments other decorative objects in steel produced by the Tula factory. The Russian aesthetic of the box is further enhanced by the fan shaped sides of the domed lid which are redolent of the architectural designs of Charles Cameron, court architect to Catherine the Great and contemporary of Robert Adam, with whom he shares many characteristics. The casket was featured in an online article from Popular Mechanics, as well as on the Dvice website. Interior of steel casket.

While furniture and decorative objects like the previous examples were made entirely of metal,  there also exist wooden examples that are embellished with steel mounts. A unique Russian mahogany commode, also in the Carlton Hobbs collection, has a strict neoclassical design in keeping with the inherently geometric aesthetic created by the faceted steel nuggets. Russian steel and gilt-bronze mounted commode. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

The success of the Tula steelworks during the eighteenth century was based in large part on the patronage of Catherine the Great, however Tula wares could be bought by visitors and other craftsmen. During the second half of the eighteenth century from the regular fair of Tula goods which was held each year on May 21st not far from the royal residence at Tsarsköe Selo. It seems likely that the commode was the work of such a craftsman who commissioned these mounts from a Tula metal worker. Detail of commode.