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image icon 'William Thurston testimonial epergne', c1877

'William Thurston testimonial epergne', c1877
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This is an epergne (pronounced 'e-purn') made around 1877 by Henry Steiner (1835-1914), which measures 46.0 cm (height) x 23.5 cm (width) x 25.0 cm (depth). Its central motif is a tree fern, made from intricately worked silver, which has delicate fronds that arch out from the trunk. These silver fronds support an engraved glass platter with elaborately scalloped edging. At the base of the tree fern a group of Aboriginal figures look outwards in different directions - one man is wearing a cloak and holding a spear. A koala and a reclining kangaroo also appear at the base. A vine encircles the trunk and climbs upwards. A silver plaque bearing an inscription with the words 'Presented to Mr Wm Thurston by his friends in Messrs G & R Wills and Cos Warehouse, as a mark of respect and esteem. Adelaide, 15th March 1877' is fixed to the timber base, which supports the tree and platter.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a striking and very fine example of a popular mid- to later-19th-century decorative arts style known as High Victorian - silverware and jewellery in this style were very ornate and sculptural, often looking like small sculptures
  • exemplifies the very high quality of design and silver work produced by continental European silversmiths who came to Australia around the mid-19th century - the large numbers of German immigrants to South Australia meant that several German-trained silversmiths settled in Adelaide and established reputations as the finest silversmiths working in Australia in the second half of the 19th century; Steiner commenced his silversmithing business in Rundle Street, Adelaide, around 1860, and worked there until 1884 when he returned to Germany
  • is an epergne, which is a very large and elaborate centrepiece for table decoration - epergnes were usually made from silver, with a glass platter or bowl to hold and display fruit or sweets; some epergnes had a series of smaller glass units grouped around one larger central platter; this kind of designware was the showpiece for the colonial silversmith as it allowed for virtuoso displays of technical and design skills
  • was designed as a testimonial item - these often flashy table sculptures were in high demand whenever an impressive gift was required for colonial notables and officials; in many cases they were customised to reflect some aspect of the recipient’s achievements
  • is a remarkable example of the style of jewellery and other items made by silversmiths in colonial times - in the 1860s and 1870s silversmiths began to incorporate naturalistic sculpted Australian motifs, such as Aboriginal figures, kangaroos and emus into their overall design; the tree fern was a particularly popular motif, in part a reflection of the advancement of the natural sciences and the fascination that European and British people had for the exotic attractions of faraway lands such as Australia
  • demonstrates particular jewellery-making methods - the figures were formed by casting (pouring molten silver into moulds) before being added to the centrepiece; the tree and much of the detailing in the base involved engraving to create different textures and patterns
  • points to the role played in the Australian colonies by several intercolonial and international exhibitions during the second half of the 19th century - these exhibitions enabled the craftspeople who were working in a diversity of materials, including precious metals, to show off their design and technical skills; work by Australian silversmiths was most conspicuous at these exhibitions and the objects exhibited were frequently virtuoso technical displays (as was this Steiner epergne) of the maker’s skill both as designer and manufacturer
  • references the mining of silver, gold, and other metals in colonial Australia - it is also a reminder of the relationship between the number of highly skilled silversmiths working in colonial Australia in the mid- to late-19th century and the ready availability of silver and gold, fresh from the diggings and the mines.