The National Gallery of Australia recently acquired an exceptional collection of Australian gold jewellery by most of the leading Western Australian jewellers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Western Australian goldfields and goldmining subject matter pervade the collection, further contributing to its importance as a document of regional fervour, aspiration and achievement during the state’s prosperous pre- and post-Federation periods. The collection was assembled over many years by Robert and Mandy Haines, and we are grateful that we were able to acquire it.
Most of the works eschew the prevailing commercial jewellery styles popular during this period. Instead, jewellers favoured literal and pictorial representations of shovels, picks, buckets and winches, arranged on bar brooches with arched lettering of the names of mining towns such as Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie, Marble Bar and Southern Cross.
The goldsmiths, many having set up premises on the Western Australian goldfields during the gold rushes of the 1890s, were among the leading jewellers of the day and a number of them went on to establish permanent businesses in Perth, Fremantle and elsewhere. Jewellery firms in other states also produced works in the goldfields style for the Western Australian market, and this collection includes examples by South Australia’s JM Wendt, Victoria’s Moore and Sons and Larard Brothers and Queensland’s Goldsmiths’ Hall Co.
This group of works represents the main jewellers working as goldsmiths and retailing in Western Australia from the 1890s. These works reveal the jewellers’ accomplished craft skills and business acumen in recognising the desire of Western Australians to celebrate their natural resources and the wealth that ensued. Among them are Aronson & Co, Adolph Otto Kopp, Donovan & Overland, Thomas Scanlon, JW Dunkerton, George Richard Addis, Louis Boxhorn and Levinson & Sons.
This type of jewellery had potency beyond its small scale: it was desirable and intimate (several pieces have personal inscriptions) and a portable advertisement for Western Australia’s ascendancy in the Federation. Many such pieces were produced, but they eventually fell from fashion and were recycled for their gold content. The Gallery’s recently acquired group of Western Australian goldfields jewellery is, therefore, particularly important in having survived this fall.
The Western Australian focus of these works also brings national scope to the Gallery’s collection of Australian late colonial and early twentieth-century jewellery. Each work illustrates not only the aesthetic and technical achievements of some of the state’s earliest professional craft practitioners but also presents a compelling and intimate narrative of Australian social and commercial history at a period of national transformation.
Robert Bell AM
Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design
in artonview, issue 66, winter 2011