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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Hunt & Roskell, Pre­sen­ta­tion Vase (1864). Col­lec­tion Queens­land Art Gallery. Pur­chased in 2009 with funds raised through the Queens­land Art Gallery Foun­da­tion 30th An­niver­sary Ap­peal. On dis­play, QAG, Bris­bane.

IN the 19th cen­tury, Hunt & Roskell was the jew­eller and sil­ver­smith to Queen Vic­to­ria and renowned for pro­duc­ing some of the most ex­trav­a­gant and elab­o­rate de­signs in the world.

The firm, which op­er­ated from 1843 to 1897, had the dis­tinc­tion not only of be­ing granted a royal war­rant but of craft­ing wares of such high qual­ity that they were of­ten dis­played in in­ter­na­tional exhibitions.

One of its pieces, Pre­sen­ta­tion Vase, made in 1864 from ster­ling sil­ver and weigh­ing a hefty 10.1kg, was ac­quired by the Queens­land Art Gallery in 2009 to cel­e­brate its 30th an­niver­sary.

When I visit the gallery, I’m shown the vase by the cu­ra­to­rial man­ager of Aus­tralian art, Julie Ewing­ton, who says that while it may have been man­u­fac­tured in Lon­don, it was made with the Aus­tralian mar­ket in mind. Around the base are two kan­ga­roos, an emu and, rather bizarrely, a camel, rep­re­sent­ing the camels used in the Burke and Wills ex­pe­di­tion and the Afghan cameleers of the cen­tral deserts.

Look­ing at the vase, it is ev­i­dent this is not an ex­am­ple of clas­si­cal re­straint; rather, it is in­dica­tive of the ro­coco-re­vival style, which was very pop­u­lar in Eng­land in the mid-19th cen­tury, par­tic­u­larly in sil­ver­ware. The or­na­men­ta­tion is in­ten­tion­ally ex­ces­sive, with its Aus­tralian fauna, its camel and the co­pi­ous grapevines that bedeck the urn twin­ing around the stem and com­ing to a crescendo at the base.

Pre­sen­ta­tion Vase is the most im­por­tant ex­am­ple of Vic­to­rian sil­ver in the gallery’s col­lec­tion, and when I ask how it was ac­quired Ewing­ton says the gallery was keen to build up its colo­nial hold­ings, and so it de­lib­er­ately ‘‘ went look­ing for it’’, even­tu­ally buy­ing it through a pri­vate sale.

‘‘ We knew we wanted a ma­jor work in sil­ver and we knew we wanted some­thing to­tally over-the-top, and this mag­nif­i­cent and ex­tra­or­di­nary pre­sen­ta­tion vase by Hunt & Roskell fit­ted the bill,’’ Ewing­ton says. ‘‘ Its elab­o­rate dec­o­ra­tion is un­like any­thing pro­duced in the Aus­tralian colonies. It is an absolutely sen­sa­tional thing in terms of its ap­pli­ca­tion of the sil­ver­smith’s art. The cast­ing and the mould­ing are beau­ti­ful and very, very com­plex.’’

It is be­lieved the vase was pre­sented as a farewell gift to Charles Joseph La Trobe, the lieu­tenant gover­nor of the colony of Vic­to­ria from 1851 to 1854, but no one is ex­actly sure as the vase’s iden­ti­fy­ing in­scrip­tion has been re­moved. The vase was com­mis­sioned, made in Lon­don, then ap­par­ently trans­ported to Melbourne. It has been sug­gested by her­itage arts writer Glenn Cooke that the vase’s date, 1864, cel­e­brates the award of a govern­ment pen­sion to La Trobe.

The prac­tice of re­mov­ing in­scrip­tions from 19th-cen­tury pre­sen­ta­tion sil­ver was com­mon. If a fam­ily had to sell the gift, it had a sil­ver­smith erase the ded­i­ca­tion. The sale then couldn’t be traced to the fam­ily, there­fore avoid­ing any hint of fi­nan­cial dif­fi­culty or loss of rep­u­ta­tion. As a re­sult, the sil­ver might come on to the mar­ket anony­mously.

There is no doubt, how­ever, that this is an of­fi­cial pre­sen­ta­tion piece made by Roskell & Hunt be­cause there are sev­eral iden­ti­fy­ing marks, says Ewing­ton.

‘‘ This pre­sen­ta­tion vase is right at the top of the scale; it was a very sub­stan­tial gift. It was made for Charles La Trobe, an English­man who was go­ing to take it back home, and so much of the art made in the first 50 or 60 years of the Aus­tralian colonies was made for au­di­ences back home in Eng­land. How­ever, the vase was first seen in Melbourne, and now it is great that it has come back home to Aus­tralia.’’

Ster­ling sil­ver, cast

and chased with sil­ver-plated in­sert 53cm x 42cm

(di­am­e­ter)

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