30 July 2013

Australian history in English silver art: 1864

This large 1864 presentation vase was and is the most important example of mid-C19th silver in the Australian Collection at the Queensland Art Gallery, cast and chased to the nth degree. Its elaborate decoration was unlike any­thing produced in the Australian colonies, especially the grapevines that crawled all over the urn, twining around the stem and reaching full flower on the base.

The fine kangaroos and an emu around the base suggested that it was commissioned with an Australian connection in mind. The kangaroo and emu might have been expected on an object used in Australia, but the camel was a bit strange. Perhaps the designer had in mind the camels used in the very recent, very tragic Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-1. Perhaps the camel represented the Afghan camel drivers of Outback Australia.

It was called a presentation vase because it was presented to an important person in the colony, on an important occasion. The Queensland cur­ators believed that the vase was presented to Charles Joseph Latrobe (1801-75) who was Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria in the early 1850s, to mark the end of his term. Alas the inscription honouring the recipient was removed from the vase.

sterling silver, cast and chased presentation vase
by Hunt & Roskell, London, 1864
Queensland Art Gallery

The Queensland Art Gallery has gone to some trouble explaining the silver hallmarks on the vase. The sterling silver mark indicated that the vase was guaranteed to contain 92.5% by weight of silver and no more than 7.5% by weight of cheaper metals. The hallmarks also ident­ified the silver­smith or the company that made the piece; and showed the date and the location where the piece was assayed. In this case, the assay office was in London and the year was 1864. The silver­smith’s mark showed that it was made by John Samuel Hunt (1785-1865).

John Samuel Hunt and Robert Roskell (1843-1897) were aristocrats in the silver art world of Victorian Britain. The firm was heir to my all-time favourite Regency silversmith Paul Storr who established his business as Storr and Co in 1819. Later the firm became, in succession, Storr and Mortimer (1822-1838), Mortimer and Hunt (1839-1843) and Hunt and Roskell (1843-1897) in New Bond Street. The partners in 1864 were 1) John Samuel Hunt, who married Paul Storr's niece, 2) his son John Hunt, 3) Robert Roskell Jnr and 4) Charles Frederick Hancock. Along the bot­tom edge was ‘Breadalbane 1877’ related to an invent­ory record for Gavin Campbell (1851-1922), 7th Earl of Breadalbane.

I'm passionate about silver art, but this heavy and historically important object by John Samuel Hunt was too decorative and not useful enough for me. Would the recipient ever use the vase to put water and flowers in? Never!


Just to compare, I would have personally preferred to receive this parcel-gilt silver vase with its useful shape and classical design made by Daniel and Charles Houle in London, 1868 (22 ½" high). The Houle brothers were making exquisite silver art objects that boasted gold inlay and parcel-gilding, at the very same time that Hunt was making his Queensland confection.

 sterling silver parcel-gilt vase 
by Daniel and Charles Houle
57 cm high, London, 1868

But, as the Queensland curators noted, the classical res­traint typical of the Regency era was disappearing and a taste for rococo was reappearing. Outward looking and expansive, Victorians must have wanted a more international look that could reflect the aspirations of the expanding British Empire. The Houle brothers had to become less retrained or they had to find a new market for their classicism.


Andrew said...

Slag. That is what it reminds me of, I hasten to add. When steel? is welded, interesting shapes of a soft by-product form, which have to be chipped off with a pick. No, I am mixing something up here but I remember playing with it as a kid.

It is certainly a strange piece.

How weird is Australia. Even in early days, emus, kangaroos, camels and grape vines, no less.

Neither look suitable for a bunch of gladdies.

Ginny Burton said...

Can you imagine having to polish that piece? Whew!

On an unrelated matter, your map people finally moved me from Falls Church, VA to Arlington, VA but now when I'm in Washington, DC it says I'm in Reston, VA! They never replied to my email questioning how they determine locations.

Student of History said...

I wonder if they gave a huge and expensive thankyou gift to every colonial leader who worked in every British colony, or if Chalres Latrobe was seen as particularly successful.

Hels said...


certainly not my taste either! But two things were should be grateful for:
1. there is enough pure silver in there to refloat the Australian dollar back up to its true value and
2. what an amazing bit of early Australian history.

Hels said...


I imagine that Governor and Mrs Latrobe did not have to do their own housekeeping :) In any case, poor Mrs Sophie Latrobe died in 1854, as soon as she left Australia. But the all important presentation plaque did eventually fall off, so someone wasn't doing his/her job properly.

Sorry about the globe. Mainly it it is accurate but some places are routinely misnamed.

Hels said...


Latrobe was the first Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria and was indeed successful re separating from New South Wales, laying out the brilliant Melbourne street plans, reserving inner city land for endless parks etc.

But the Colonial Office back in Britain would have paupered itself, if it had to donate staggering amounts of money to thank every colonial authority across one third of the globe.

Most colonial officers moved every 5 years or so in any case. Latrobe had been in the West Indies, before his Australian assignment.