Sir John and Prince Volkonsky

vpl 8916 Sir John Martin-Harvey and Prince Volkonsky fencing at the Fencing Academy 1926 Stuart Thomson

VPL 8916. Sir John Martin-Harvey (left) and Russian Prince Volkonsky (right) fencing at the Fencing Academy in Vancouver. 1926. Stuart Thomson.

Sir John Martin Harvey had a reputation as a Shakespearean actor on the stage and (later) as a silent film star in the U.K. and in the wider world, not least in Canada (when he was in Vancouver in 1921, he planted a tree in the Shakespeare Garden in Stanley Park. It is still there, pictured below)². The Russian Prince pictured above with Sir John was, however, at the time this photo was taken (post-Russian revolution), a relative nobody.

In an interview given for the Winnipeg Tribune in November, 1926, Prince Sergeie Alexandrovish Volkonsky claimed that he’d been on a world tour, searching for his parents, from whom he’d become separated during the Revolution.  According to the Tribune,

CVA 99-1533 - Prince Volkonsky, passport photograph 1926 Stuart Thomson photo.

CVA 99-1533 – Prince Volkonsky. Passport photograph. 1926. Stuart Thomson photo.

The last trace he had of them was that they had gone to France. After a fruitless search through the country, the prince went to England and there he spent two years. Since that time he has visited every corner of the globe. He arrived in Victoria, B.C. nine months ago from New Zealand . . . . On his way to Winnipeg from the Pacific Coast, the prince stayed near Calgary for a few weeks on a ranch owned by a Russian count . . . . Speaking of Canada, the prince termed it as “not a bad place at all. I like Canada and Canadians,” he said, “and would like to stay here, as it reminds me of Russia.” His ambition is to own a sheep ranch. “I want to become a good naturalized Canadian,” he said. (Winnipeg Tribune. November 1, 1926)

It seems to me likely that while his missing parents may have motivated his travels early on, surely by the time he reached Canada nearly a decade later, his motivation would have become, at least, mixed; that the principal reason for his being in Canada was to put down roots.

This conclusion seems to be supported by remarks in Sir John Martin Harvey‘s autobiography:

Maurice Willson Disher - The Last Romantic 1948

Caricature of Sir John Martin-Harvey. Maurice Willson Disher. The Last Romantic. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1948.

Of course, after the Russian revolution, the whole Pacific coast was littered with desolate refugees from that unhappy country. Vancouver was full of them . . . . Prince Volkonski . . . was haunting afternoon tea parties for the bread and butter he could unnoticed consume . . . . He had been in turn insurance agent, bill poster, waiter and actor. When my wife and I met him he was trying to teach the youngsters of Vancouver the elegant accomplishment of fencing — with scant encouragement. He thought that if I would visit his salles d’armes and allow myself to be photographed for a picture-paper in the midst of a bout with him, it might help. This I was delighted to do, and found myself credited by the newspaper with the reputation of being the finest swordsman in Europe! The youth of the city, however, were unimpressed, and the school was shortly afterwards closed. (The Autobiography of Sir John Martin-Harvey. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. 1933, pp 435-36).

There is no evidence in Vancouver directories of there being a dedicated fencing academy in the 1920s. (The only sign I’ve seen of there being any school in the city which included fencing on its curriculum was an ad for M. Lester Dancing Academy). But there was a mention of the location of Volkonsky’s fencing studio in the Sun: it was apparently located (albeit briefly, by all accounts) at Robson and Howe in “the Court House block”. (Sun, 20 Mar 1926).

It seems plain from Sir John’s report (and, reading between the lines in the Tribune article, too) that Volkonsky was tired out, hungry, and desperate to establish himself in a new, friendlier nation.

But I’ve been unable to find out what ultimately happened to Prince Volkonsky.¹ I can find no evidence that he ever became a naturalized Canadian (sheep farmer or otherwise). I have not even been able to ascertain where he died and was buried. Indeed, the later years of Sergeie Alexandrovish Volkonsky seem to be every bit as clouded in mystery to contemporary researchers as were his parents’ latter years to him!


¹In Russia’s Rulers Under the Old Regime (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), Dominic Lieven accurately notes: “[A]ttempting to trace relationships in the huge Volkonsky family is a nightmare.”

²Martin-Harvey was in Vancouver more than just the once. He was here in 1913 in “The Only Way” at Empress Theatre (Sun, 31 May 1913); 1914 in “The Only Way,” “The Cigarette Maker’s Romance,” and “The Breed of the Treshams” at Avenue Theatre (Sun, 23 March 1914); 1921  in “Garrick,” “The Burgomaster of Stilemonde,” and “The Only Way” at Avenue Theatre (Province, 23 February 1921); 1924 in (among others) “Oedipus Rex,” and “Hamlet” at Orpheum Theatre (Province, 12 April 1924); 1926 in “The Corsican Brothers” at Orpheum Theatre; and in 1932 in “The King’s Messenger” and “The Bells” at Vancouver Theatre (Province, 21 February 1932). Sir John Martin-Harvey died in 1944 at the age of 81. 

The plaque beneath the tree planted by John Martin Harvey in Stanley Park’s Shakespeare Garden in 1921. MDM photo.

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