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

DUR­ING the gold rushes, thou­sands of Euro­pean jewellers, gold­smiths and sil­ver­smiths came to Aus­tralia to share in the spoils of a pros­per­ous econ­omy by cater­ing to the newly rich. One such sil­ver­smith was Henry Steiner, among the best of the colo­nial sil­ver­smiths.

Born in Ger­many in 1835, Steiner ar­rived in Ade­laide in 1858 and set up his busi­ness in Run­dle Street. It wasn’t long be­fore he was en­joy­ing the pa­tron­age of gov­er­nors and even show­ing his best cre­ations at ex­hi­bi­tions across Aus­tralia and over­seas.

It was about 1875 when Steiner cre­ated one of his most spec­tac­u­lar pieces, a per­fume-bot­tle holder. An ex­am­ple of in­tri­cate dec­o­ra­tive art, it in­cor­po­rates an emu egg, Queens­land beans for the scent bot­tles, minia­ture Abo­rig­i­nal fig­ures and var­i­ous sym­bols of Aus­tralian flora and fauna. The ef­fect is a minia­ture dio­rama.

Thanks to a gen­er­ous do­na­tion, Emu Egg Dress­ing Ta­ble Nec­es­saire is in the collection of the Tam­worth Re­gional Gallery. Known as a “lady’s com­pan­ion”, the per­fume-bot­tle holder is not only dec­o­ra­tive but func­tional. On its base, it fea­tures an emu and two Abo­rig­i­nal fig­ures un­der a canopy of tree ferns. A cen­tral shaft sup­ports the emu egg, which is split in two and can open and close. The egg opens to re­veal two tiny per­fume bot­tles made from sil­ver­mounted Queens­land beans. The kan­ga­roo on the top is a lock­ing mech­a­nism used to flip open the egg.

The use of an emu egg as a container for per­fume-bot­tle hold­ers may seem strange but it was a pop­u­lar com­po­nent of Aus­tralian sil­ver dur­ing the 19th century. Its use as a dec­o­ra­tive de­vice was not even un­usual be­cause Euro­peans had used os­trich eggs since the 16th century.

Ac­cord­ing to Paul Don­nelly, an ex­pert in Aus­tralian gold and sil­ver, 1851-1900, the use of the over­sized emu egg was wide­spread be­cause it was viewed as an ex­otic sou­venir from na­ture. Abo­rig­i­nal fig­ures were fre­quently used be­cause Euro­peans at that time be­lieved the indige­nous people were a dy­ing race. And rain­for­est plants were added to the de­sign to sat­isfy the 19th-century love of do­mes­tic fern­ery.

Emu Egg Dress­ing Ta­ble Nec­es­saire is on per­ma­nent dis­play in the foyer of the Tam­worth gallery. When I visit the city, I’m shown the work by cu­ra­tor, Pam Brown, who says that it is an “amaz­ing ex­am­ple” of high Vic­to­rian dec­o­ra­tive art. It also show­cases Steiner’s abil­ity to com­bine skills in de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing to pro­duce a “me­chan­i­cally clever and vis­ually strik­ing work of art”.

“It’s an in­ter­est­ing mix of or­ganic ma­te­ri­als and metal, emu egg, Queens­land bean and sil­ver,” says Brown.

“The re­al­is­ti­cally mod­elled emus, fern tree and fig­ures are ex­am­ples of an in­ter­na­tional fash­ion for nat­u­ral­ism that was very pop­u­lar dur­ing the 1860s and the 1870s.

“It is a sig­nif­i­cant piece be­cause it sym­bol­ises the ap­pre­ci­a­tion and confi-

dence in lo­cal sil­ver­smiths at this early stage of the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment and de­picts the Aus­tralian spirit of na­tion­al­ism and sup­port for its crafts­men.’’ As for Steiner, he ran a suc­cess­ful en­ter­prise un­til his wife and two chil­dren died in the ty­phoid out­break of 1883.

As a re­sult, he sold his busi­ness to one of his em­ploy­ees, Au­gust Brunk­horst, and left Ade­laide. He re­turned to Ger­many and died in 1914.

Emu egg, Queens­land bean, sil­ver; 35cm x 19cm x 10cm;


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