This month, Chorley’s auctioneers is to offer a rare gilt-bronze Chamberlain’s Key from the period of Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia between 1762 and 1796. It belonged to the eminent doctor Thomas Dimsdale (1712-1800), who developed the small-pox inoculation method in England (a precursor to what we now know as a vaccination). Dimsdale, a doctor as well as a banker and politician was bestowed the title of Chamberlain by Catherine the Great herself for his medical services.
A Chamberlain was a member of the aristocracy or clergy who would then automatically become a senior Royal official in charge of managing domestic affairs and often the financial aspect of the Royal household. The gift of a key showed the sense of trust and importance placed in them and Chamberlains wore them on view on their garments to demonstrate their right of access to the Empress’ private chambers. Initially they were working keys that fitted the door-locks of the Royal chamber rooms. In the 17th century they were silvered and in the 18th century, they became a purely symbolic, yet grander version in gilded bronze.
Having created the method of small-pox inoculation Dimsdale’s method was published in 1767 to great acclaim and went on to be published in a further five editions. During this period Dimsdale was invited to the Court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, who rather progressively for the time, had herself, her son Paul and over 140 members of the Russian Imperial Court immunised using Dimsdale’s method. Due to this being a resounding success, Dimsdale was generously rewarded with over £12,000 as well as receiving both the title of Chamberlain, as well as the title of Baron of the Russian Empire, which came with a generous pension. Catherine II had not been entirely sure of the success of the Dr Dimsdale who attended the court with his son Nathaniel, so she had arranged for them to be quickly extracted from the country (fearing potential backlash if matters didn’t go to plan) arranging for a relay of horses to speed them out of Russia, should the process not be successful.
The English doctor had been given unprecedented access to the Imperial Palace and Catherine’s „trust in her physician was so complete that she invited him away from the pressured public sphere into her private apartments in the Imperial Palace” (Ward, L., pp 136-138). His exceptional care of the Empress at the Russian Royal residence of Tsarskoye Selo after her inoculation, gave him daily access to her private apartments and the key being offered here at auction would have enabled him to demonstrate the Empress’ trust in him, as well as given him almost free rein in the Royal palace. Such was the esteem with which he was held by the Empress, Dimsdale made a further visit to Russia in 1781. This camaraderie instigated a book on the work of Thomas Dimsdale with Catherine the Great, which was published under the title of: ‘The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great defied a deadly virus’ by Lucy Ward in 2022.
Dimsdale’s key, which was very ornate, is believed to have been produced by the Imperial Tula workshops, which were founded in 1712 by Tsar Peter the Great (Emperor of Russia from 1721-1725). They were renowned for producing fine objects in metal, such as armour, through to exquisite furniture and ornate domestic items such as this key. It features a head in the form of the crowned Imperial double-headed eagle and cipher of Catherine II, which sits on a foliate-entwined fluted shaft.
It was given to the current owner’s father in the 1920s by his grandmother Ethel Gordon Fenwick (née Manson), to encourage him to enter the world of medicine, whilst in hospital as a boy. Ethel Fenwick played a major role in the history of nursing in the United Kingdom, lobbying parliament for the registration of nurses in the UK and once successful, she became the first nurse to be registered in the United Kingdom. The key passed through the family to the current owner and is estimated to fetch £8,000- £10,000 when it is offered in Chorley’s auction of Fine Jewellery & Silver on Tuesday 27th June, 2023.
A similar key dated from the reign of Catherine II (1762-1796) can be found in the Hillwood Museum, and another similar key to this sold Christie’s, 18th April 2007, for $60,000.