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Montrose, Scotland 1804 – Hobart, Tasmania 1884


  • to Australia 1830

Snuff box c.1840 Description: An engraved silver snuff box
Place made: Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Materials & Technique: metalwork, decorative design commemoratives, silver: repoussed, chased, engraved. Manufacturer's Mark: stamped, 'DB' [Lion Passant] / [Monarch Head] 'DB' [Monarch Head] / [Lion Passant].

Primary Insc: No primary inscriptions.
Secondary Insc: engraved, 'Revd. Thomas Burke DD /Portumna'
Dimensions: box closed 3.0 h x 8.0 w x 5.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of John M. Houstone, 2014
Accession No: NGA 2014.999
Subject: Australia, Art period: Colonial, Tasmania
  • The Houstone Collection of early Australian silver

    The National Gallery of Australia has acquired an exceptional collection of Australian silver, goldsmithing and jewellery containing works by most of the leading Victorian, New South Wales, Tasmanian, Queensland, South Australian and Western Australian silversmiths and jewellers of the nineteenth century. Assembled over a 45-year period by John Houstone, a knowledgeable collector of Australian colonial silver, it includes presentation and testimonial objects, sporting and achievement trophies, inkwells, boxes, jewel cases, wine jugs, cutlery, jewellery and personal accessories in styles ranging from neoclassical, rococo and Renaissance revival to naturalistic narrative. Mr Houstone generously donated 31 of the works.

    This extensive group of early objects adds significant depth to the Gallery’s Australian metalwork collection. With its strong representation of pre-1850 silver, it allows us to show Australian innovation and craftsmanship in a 200-year span from the earliest period of known production through to the present.

    The neoclassicism of the early nineteenth century is evident in a number of works by one of Australia’s earliest professional silversmiths, Alexander Dick. The collection offers the most extensive selection of objects produced by this most important Australian silversmith, allowing a full understanding of his practice and the aspirations of his clients such as the architect Francis Greenaway, for whom he made a splendid ladle. Works by other silversmiths working pre-1850 include Robert Broad, Samuel Clayton, JJ Cohen, Jeremy Garfield, Richard Lamb and Felix Lynn.

    Australian themes pervade this collection, further contributing to its importance as evidence of nationalist fervour, achievement and aspiration during the colonial period. 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 objects for the home and for personal use. Many of the objects are personalised with family crests, engraved initials and inscriptions, providing insights into individual and professional achievements and family, social and business relationships. Several objects show the pride and pleasure of leisure activity, with depictions of racehorses, dogs and, in one particularly rare example from 1847 by Joel John Cohen, a boxing trophy belt with an engraved image of a subsequent winner, the boxer Larry Foley.

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

    Such objects were produced in quantity by leading jewellers and retailers such as Julius Schomburgk, JM Wendt and Henry Steiner in Adelaide, and William Edwards in Melbourne, and were most often 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. These eclectic and composite works reveal a great deal about the nature of the craft as practised in Australia during the nineteenth century. The use of 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.

    The collection also includes an extensive group of Australian colonial jewellery, with a strong representation of goldfields pieces. A massive gold brooch, made for presentation to the entertainer Lola Montez in 1855, is an unusual and rare part of the collection.

    This major acquisition illustrates not only the aesthetic and technical achievements of Australia’s earliest professional craft practitioners but also a compelling narrative of Australian social and commercial history.

    Robert Bell AM Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

    in artonview, issue 79, Spring 2014