On the Hunt for a Russian Prince!

Shiver was born from a trail of family stories; this will read a bit like ‘Who do you think you are?’ with very little documented evidence.

The first story, the one we all knew to be true, was that my grandma was adopted from Poplar in 1940; beyond that were some guesses of why and how, which kept her from digging too much.

Cut to 2009, when, age 70, my grandma was presented with a family tree and a phone number that would lead her into her sister’s kitchen for the first time.

Over a welcoming family feast, a mysterious tale unravelled… because the second story, the one they all knew to be true, was that their mother was adopted from Marylebone in 1917.


Now comes story number three; a mouth-watering tale that took us from a kitchen in London and dropped us straight into the ballrooms of Imperial Russia!

This story placed my great-great-grandmother Alice Sainsbury in the household of a philandering Russian noble on the run from the revolution. A baby was later adopted out.

Could it be?

— Time for a game of ‘Who’s y’r (great-great-grand-)father?!’ —

Most nobles on the run fled to Paris because Russian aristocrats tended to speak fluent French, but a small number settled in England.

Candidate number one on my google trawl, and a favourite of the family, was Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich. He was a direct relation of the Tsars and would cement my family’s place in the annals of history; he also lived in Kenwood House, which would be very handy for the northern line were I to inherit.

However, if one thing is proven true about our family it is that we are a small and stocky clan with round faces and loud voices. The Grand Duke was far too tall and far too thin. Surely history could deliver a Russian Prince of our own size, shape and demeanour?

Boris Anrep imagined in Pierre Roy’s 1949 painting.

Boris Anrep imagined in Pierre Roy’s 1949 painting.

Candidate number two was the man who fathered the father of Helen Mirren. This was a very tempting version for my career prospects but again there was no resemblance, and with so little evidence I knew I could only prove the story by pointing suggestively between photographs. Obolensky just would not do.

In the depths of the internet I found a man called Boris Anrep, who was from a family made noble through their military prowess. Boris was described by Aldous Huxley as the ‘epitome of the shameless philanderer’, he preferred to have two wives, and happily fathered illegitimate children as long as they were not sons. “There’s no sense in marriage.” he once said, “I prefer collages”* He wasn’t lying; he was the man who made the floors in the National Portrait Gallery.

A perfect candidate! I began research…

* ‘Boris Anrep: The National Gallery Mosaics’ by Lois Oliver