The Learning Federation
Please refer to Conditions of use (This item contains non-TLF content)

image icon Perfume-bottle holder, c1875

Perfume-bottle holder, c1875
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a 'lady's companion' - a perfume-bottle holder - made by German master silversmith Henry Steiner (1835-1914), who came to Adelaide in 1858. The work measures 33.5 cm x 24.0 cm x 11.8 cm. Its most remarkable feature is the centrepiece of the design, which is an actual emu egg that encloses two perfume bottles. The egg has been cut in two and is hinged to allow access to the perfume bottles inside. The bottles are made of two very large beans from a Queensland tree, with silver necks and caps added to make them functional as perfume containers. At either side of the egg are two very ornate handles that have been made in the design of a cornucopia (a cone-like unit that spills over with fruit). The egg sits vertically on a tree-fern stem and the gently curving fronds of the tree create an impression of the egg almost hovering - like a ball trapped on top of a fountain. At the base of the tree are some Aboriginal figures wearing traditional clothes - two are standing and one is lying down. At the top of the egg is a finial (an ornamental tip) in the shape of an emu.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is derived in its design from the elaborate gold- and silver-mounted ostrich eggs, shells and other objects that form a highlight of the Renaissance goldsmith's art
  • 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 was very ornate and sculptural, that is, they often looked like small sculptures
  • is an example of the changing fashions in colonial silver design that were inspired by European trends - for example, this perfume bottle contains elements of the Gothic (in Europe mid-12th to 15th centuries) and Rococo (in France early 18th century) styles that were enjoying a revival in Europe at this time; 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
  • is an example of the very high quality of design and silver work made by continental European silversmiths who came to Australia around the mid-19th century; one of the outcomes of the large numbers of German immigrants to South Australia at this time was that several German-trained silversmiths, including Steiner, settled in Adelaide and established reputations as the finest silversmiths working in Australia in the second half of the 19th century
  • represents a design motif that was very popular in colonial Australia - many colonial Australian silversmiths produced a range of works based on the emu egg; the fashion for silver-mounted emu eggs emerged in the 1860s and continued throughout much of the 19th century
  • is an excellent example of the silversmith's ability to combine skills in engineering and design in the production of this visually striking, as well as mechanically clever, work of art - the emu finial activated the locking mechanism.