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;