J. HENRY STEINER: The Master of Silver

An Australian Silver Vine-leaf Brooch, Henry Steiner - photo by Australia's specialist jewellery auction house

J. Henry Steiner was born in Rodenberg, near Hanover, Germany in 1835. He immigrated to Adelaide in 1858, and set up his business in 1860, on Rundle Street; same street as Matthias Joachim Wendt. Steiner was a very prolific silversmith, similarly to his great rival Joachim Wendt. He exhibited at many of the great 19th century exhibitions across the world. In Adelaide, it took him a short time before making his name which led to his enjoying the patronage of governors and other elites, who were even showing his best creations at exhibitions across Australia and overseas.

Despite being born and trained in Germany, Henry Steiner was an ace silversmith in Adelaide who displayed his foremost creations at many inter-colonial and international exhibitions. His famous epergne stood out over other Steiner’s display at the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturers and Agricultural, and Industrial Products of All Nations in Melbourne, in 1880-1881.

Perfume-bottle holder, c1875, Henry Steiner – photo by Art Gallery of South Australia

During the gold rush period, thousands of European goldsmiths and silversmiths jewellers came to Australia to share in the bounty of a prosperous economy by catering for the newly rich Australians. One example is the silversmith Henry Steiner, who was among the best of the colonial silversmiths at the time.

In around 1875, Steiner created one of his most spectacular art and functional pieces, a perfume-bottle holder that incorporated the shape of an emu egg which was an example of intricate decorative art. This seemed unusual to some people, but it was generally accepted for other forms had earlier been used such as; Queensland beans for the scent bottles, miniature Aboriginal figures and various symbols of Australian flora and fauna; emu and kangaroo. The effect of the emu egg is a miniature diorama.

A severe downturn in economy in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s; resulting from depression and drought, the loss of his wife and two children in the 1883 typhoid epidemic, forced Steiner to sell off his business to August Brunkhorst, and he returned home to Germany in 1884. Later in 1887, Steiner returned to Adelaide after the collapse of several Australian banks that he had significant investments in. He stayed on for another two years and then returned again back to Germany where he lived till his death on 24th July 1914.

Epergne, c. 1880, Henry Steiner – photo by National Gallery of Victoria

In 1880, the silver epergne, which was made in the workshop of the colonial silversmith J Henry Steiner, became Australia’s largest known centrepiece. It stood over a metre tall, the base not included. The silver epergne dominated over Steiner’s displays at the Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide international and inter-colonial exhibitions from 1879 to 1881. Today, the centrepiece has now been confirmed as being originally made for Australia’s first international exhibition held in Sydney in 1879 where it occupied part of Steiner’s exceedingly beautiful display. In 1924, it resurfaced in Sydney as a Victoria Park Cup horse racing trophy that was won by Francis Johnston, the donors’ grandfather, and his horse; Lornstock.

In the second part of the 19th century, quality silver epergnes were greatly favoured as forms of presentation. They were often only commissioned from prominent silversmiths in Australia whose work had was deemed as above average excellence. The epergnes were often in the form of a naturalistically rendered tree, while they were inspired by fashionable English and Continental models. In Australia, the epergne designs mostly consisted of figures of Aboriginal people as well as native flora and fauna, especially the emu and kangaroo. Steiner piece offers an interesting combination of Australian and European motifs. Other approximately over a couple of dozen large; over half a meter in height, silver presentation centrepieces were created in colonial Australia; its known that about half of these amazing tours de force of Australian silversmiths works to have survived to this date.

J Henry Steiner’s Epergne

Physical description

Silver epergne by J. Henry Steiner – photo by Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

1. This is a large silver epergne in the form of a tree supporting six S-shaped arms each holding a circular crystal bowl and the central branch with a circular ring supporting a larger bowl.

2. It has vine tendrils with small bunches of grapes attached under the central ring for the bowl and around the trunk just below the arms.

3. Towards the bottom, it has two stags foraging at the trunk’s base.

4. The whole is supported by a pedestal with three niches showing colonial scenes, one including an Aboriginal man holding a spear and an emu, the second with a kangaroo, and the third with a shepherd and sheep; all these figures are three dimensional.

5. Between the niches stand three small figures of Aboriginal people in oxidised silver, wearing silver skins, one man holding a boomerang, one man holding a spear, and a woman and child.


Rare 19th century Australian silver mug with loop handle and gilt interior. Marked on base and foot rim by Henry Steiner – photo by Henry Willis (Antique Silver)

The epergne was probably designed by Henry Steiner, Adelaide, at around 1880 with the help of Julius Schomburgk. There is no question that it was made in the workshop of Henry Steiner, Adelaide, in 1880. It was fully marked on the base with ‘H. Steiner’ with a crown, lion passant and queen’s head to side of the base.

And, regarding glass bowls: On acquisition, the Epergne included one original small glass bowl and four reproduction small bowls made in England. Following acquisition by the museum, it commissioned the large central bowl and one small bowl. These two were made by Robert Wynne, and wheel-cut by Eddie Mills in Sydney.

History of the Epergne

It was first exhibited in Australia’s first international exhibition held in Sydney in 1879, then Melbourne International exhibition in 1880, and Adelaide Inter-colonial exhibition in 1881.

The epergne was used as the Victoria Park Cup trophy in Sydney in 1924. Its history between 1881; Adelaide inter-colonial exhibition, and 1924 are totally known. However, it is thought that the epergne to have also been presented in Sydney in about 1920 as a trotting trophy by Joynton.

The ‘cma Adelaide Cup’, an Australian silver lidded trophy by Henry Steiner – photo by Carter’s Price Guide to Antiques and Collectables

The epergne was won, as a racing trophy; Victoria Park Cup, by Francis Walter Johnston’s father, Francis Johnston, and his horse Lornstock at Victoria Park on 13th December 1924. Lornstock was ridden by E Henry.

The epergne was in custody of Francis Walter Johnston family prior to its donation to the museum in 1998 by his four children; possibly 3 children and one cousin FW Johnston inherited it from his father and had it displayed in a wooden showcase in his Lindfield house on 45 Owen Street; since the family moved there in the 1930s. Mr. Johnston presented the epergne to his children in 1977.

John Hawkins; a noted Australian dealer and author, photographed at in Mr. Johnston’s house in Lindfield for his 1990 book, ’19th-century Australian silver’, and colour plate 69. After this, Hawkins was also asked to replace the missing original crystal bowls with reproductions made in England.