Julius SCHOMBURGKJ.M. WENDT, Inkwell with mounted emu egg and Aboriginal figures Enlarge 1 /2
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On display on Level 1

Julius SCHOMBURGK

Hamburg (?), Germany 1812 – Australia 1893

silversmith

  • to Australia 1850

J.M. WENDT

commenced 1858 /1862

retailer (organisation)

Inkwell with mounted emu egg and Aboriginal figures [Presentation inkwell (Grace Collection title)] c.1870 Place made: Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Materials & Technique: metalwork, inkstands, sterling silver, emu egg sterling silver: cast, chased and repoussé decoration; emu egg

Primary Insc: stamped marks: crown/J.M. WENDT/lion
Dimensions: 31.0 h x 25.5 w x 16.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2007
Accession No: NGA 2007.1223

The National Gallery of Australia has acquired a collection of Australian silver and gold works by many of the leading Victorian, New South Wales, South Australian and Western Australian silversmiths and jewellers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amassed by one collector over a period of thirty years, it includes presentation and testimonial objects, sporting and achievement trophies, inkwells, boxes, jewel cases, wine jugs, cutlery and personal accessories in styles ranging from rococo and renaissance revival to naturalism and art deco. Australian floral and faunal subject matter pervades the collection, contributing further to its importance as a document of nationalist fervour, achievement and aspiration during the colonial and post-Federation periods. While many of the works are ornate and extravagant in material, form and decoration, other, smaller objects show how the craft of the silversmith was applied to functional everyday articles for the home and for personal use. Many of these objects are personalised with engraved inscriptions, providing insights into personal and professional achievements and family, social and business relationships.

Of particular interest as social documentation are works depicting Aboriginal people in the form of small, sculpted figures as part of the overall design compositions of elaborate and ingenious decorative objects. Such extravagant objects heightened the economic and social division between Indigenous Australians and those new arrivals who displaced them. They reflect the mid-nineteenth-century Social Darwinism, which allowed some Australians to intellectually distance themselves from the plight of a displaced and decimated Indigenous people that was believed to be on the verge of extinction. The depiction of Indigenous Australians, set alongside native animals and plants in miniaturised dioramas on these tabletop objects, was in keeping with the prevailing romantic view of Indigenous peoples as one with nature, existing in a parallel world to the newly arrived dominant culture. Several works depict Aboriginal people in subservient positions, their tiny figures supporting luxurious jewel cases and photograph frames. Such objects reflect a confidence in a social order that is now seen as cruelly ironic given that much of the wealth that supported the production of such items was built upon the dispossession of those depicted on them.

Silver objects were produced in quantity by leading jewellers and retailers such as JM Wendt and Henry Steiner in Adelaide, and William Edwards in Melbourne, and most often were assembled from cast parts used as mounts for emu eggs, a convenient and exotic alternative to expensive, and time-consuming to produce, raised silver vessels. The use of the emu egg emulated a European fashion for the mounted display of ostrich eggs that had been popular in Germanic countries since the sixteenth century, a tradition that was maintained with the use of an indigenous material by German-born and trained immigrant silversmiths active in South Australia in the late nineteenth century.

Such elaborate objects were exhibited in intercolonial and international exhibitions, bringing Australian silversmithing achievements to an international audience and offering for many people their first encounter with Australian subject matter.

One of the most accomplished of these works is this c. 1870 silver and emu egg inkwell made by South Australian silversmith Julius Schomburgk (born Germany 1812, arrived Australia 1850, died 1893) for Adelaide jewellery and silversmithing firm JM Wendt. It depicts in blackened silver a caped Aboriginal hunter standing astride a killed emu, a posture emulating European hunting imagery. Kangaroo figures form part of the composition but their stiff rendering indicates a different hand, evidence of the collaborative nature of large silversmithing businesses employing workers of different skill levels. These composite works reveal a great deal about the nature of the craft as practised in Australia during the nineteenth century.

Robert Bell
Senior Curator Decorative Arts and Design


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Australian silver and gold works includes many of the leading Victorian, New South Wales, South Australian and Western Australian silversmiths and jewellers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Of particular interest as social documentation are works depicting Aboriginal people in the form of small, sculpted figures as part of the overall design compositions of elaborate and ingenious decorative objects. Such extravagent objects heightened the economic and social division between Indigenous Australians and those new arrivals who displaced them. The depiction of Indigenous Australians, set alongside native animals and plants in miniaturised dioramas on these tabletop objects, was in keeping with the prevailing romantic view of Indigenous peoples as one with nature, existing in a parallel world to the newly arrived dominant culture.

South Australian silversmith Julius Schomburgk’s silver and emu egg inkwell is one of the most accomplished of these works. It depicts in blackened silver a caped Aboriginal hunter standing astride a killed emu, a posture that emulates European hunting imagery. Kangaroo figures form part of the composition but their stiff rendering indicates a different hand, which is evidence of the collaborative nature of large silversmithing businesses. These composite works reveal a great deal about the nature of the craft as practised in Australia during the nineteenth century.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014