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image icon Black swan casket, 1914

Black swan casket, 1914
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a hexagonal (six-sided) container made in copper and decorated in enamel and gilt by the Australian modernist artist and designer Ethel Barringer (1884-1925). The strong geometric design has been offset by the liveliness of the insets on each side panel and on the lid, and the elegant arches at the base of the object. Alternating panels on the sides depict black swans and a decorative interpretation of a tree with red flowers (possibly a flowering gum). On the lid of the casket, both images of the swan and tree have been combined into one motif. For such a small item - its dimensions are 13.4 cm x 14.7 cm x 12.8 cm - this casket has a strong visual identity. This is due in part to its distinctive hexagonal shape and the boldness of the designs on each panel combined with the use of only three colours - white, black and red - which have been set against the golden sheen of the copper body of the casket.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an outstanding example of the influence of the arts and crafts movement within Australia - this movement developed in Britain during the second half of the 19th century, largely as a reaction by many British artists and theorists to what they regarded as the deplorable state of British design and shoddy manufacture (particularly as demonstrated by many of the exhibits at the 'Great Exhibition of All Nations' at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851), the root cause of which was seen as being mechanised mass-production; some theorists, particularly William Morris (1834-96) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), advocated a return to the pre-industrial eras of handcrafting as a means of restoring standards of good design and beauty; response to this movement in Australia was largely artistic and was concerned more with stylistic and decorative elements and the promotion of individually designed handmade objects
  • references a significant trend in training in late-19th-century art schools in Australia - courses began to include the decoration of objects as well as the traditional media of painting and drawing; students were given opportunities to learn wood-carving, repoussé (pronounced re-poo-zay and meaning 'raised in relief'), metalwork, jewellery-making, china painting and embroidery
  • was made by a woman artist - a feature of the arts and crafts movement in Australia was the inclusion of women in all areas of craft production; the artist, Ethel Barringer, made a significant contribution to the development of art in South Australia in the early part of the 20th century as a painter, printmaker, metalworker and teacher; she also taught enamelling at the South Australian School of Art from 1921 to 1925
  • is an example of cloisonné (pronounced cloi-zon-ay, from a French word meaning 'partitioned') - cloisonné is a form of decorative enamelwork in which metal filaments (wires) are fused to the surface of an object to outline a design, the design is then filled in with enamel paste (glass); when heated, this paste melts and forms a thin sheet of glass within the boundaries of the filament shapes; this process and its end result can be seen in the casket panels and lid, particularly the black swan on the facing panel of the casket - the golden lines that define the outline of the body and the wings are the filament lines
  • is a relatively rare example of Australian enamelling of the period - enamelling never experienced the prominence of other crafts in Australia; Barringer learnt the craft in England and this casket was made in London in 1914
  • shows how Australian artists and designers of this period were beginning to use Australian flora and fauna as sources for their designs
  • is a handmade craft object - it is an expression of a belief in the value of maintaining handcrafting traditions in a modern world.