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