WILLIAM EDWARDS: Silversmithing from the Other Side of the World

Inkstand with kangaroo and emu motifs by William Edwards - photo by MAAS Collection | Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

William Edwards, the son of a silversmith and a manufacturing silversmith in London, and after immigrating to Melbourne in 1857, became a leading supplier of silverware; both made in his workshop and others imported from London. He was born in 1819 and died in 1889 in Melbourne. He’s worked in his workshop at premises on Collins Street East until 1876. He also ran a business in Melbourne which supplied silverware to major retailers until about 1872. Between 1873 and 1892, Edwards partnered with Alexander Kaul, who had come to Australia from England in 1852.

WE into a shield, William Edwards, London 1876 hallmark – photo by SilverCollection.it

William Edwards was a prolific silversmith who produced work of the highest quality with the best embossing ever seen in Australia. William immigrated to Melbourne in 1857 while his brother, who was also a silversmith, continued to work in London in the family business. He brought with him stock decorated with colonial motifs, to sell at wholesale prices to retailers. Edwards had the advantage of being able to produce pieces here in Australia, and also to import other work from his family or brother’s workshop. This makes easy to identify some of his pieces for they have an English character even when decorated with Australian motifs.

William’s father was Thomas William Edwards, who was a former apprentice to John Robins. He ran into trouble with Goldsmiths Hall in 1839 for adding silver to items after they had been returned from the assay. Edwards arrived in Melbourne in July 1857. In the details of his passage, he was described as being 38 years of age. He initially set up at 129 Collins Street and moved to 85 Collins Street East in 1872. William Edwards entered his mark at Goldsmiths Hall on January 7th, 1843 as a small worker from the same address as his father; 23 Ratcliffe Row, St Lukes. He moved to 19 Sekforde Street, Clerkenwell, on 11th March 1846. During his stay in Australia, one of Edward’s journeymen in Melbourne was once thought to be Joseph Forrester; a former apprentice of Robert Keay the elder of Perth in Scotland which entangled him with the law.

William Edwards ‘Victorian Rifle Club Challenge Cup, Match No.1, First Prize’ sterling silver trophy cup, circa 1863 – photo by Carter’s Price Guide

All Edwards’ silver pieces from 1859 to 1879 can be dated accurately with little difficulty after 1870. In 1874, he went into partnership with Alexander Kaul and seemed to take a bit of interest in this business even after the high-quality embossing disappeared. He displayed his work at the International Exhibition in 1861, and the Inter-colonial Exhibition in 1866 and 1867; both held in Melbourne. In his catalogue, Edwards made sporting trophies, cup caskets, inkstands, epergnes and emu egg ornaments. Due to his success, he secured major commissions such as a wedding gift for Princess of Wales in 1863, gifts for Prince Albert and The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, in 1867, while he was commissioned as a Royal silversmith by the latter.

A famous art dealer John Hawkins attributes the embossing on the claret silver jug to H Robottom of 29 Post Office Place, Melbourne, who exhibited at the Melbourne Inter-colonial Exhibition of 1866 and 1867. Hawkins suggests that this jug was part of a gift from the Italian Community in Melbourne to the military and political leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose major triumphs in leading the struggle for Italian independence took place in 1860.

A covered cup presented in 1859 to a Melbourne University scholar, Edwards & Kaul – photo by Australian National Maritime Museum

Edwards’ workshop excelled in the production of silver-mounted emu egg trophies, and is known for making the earliest surviving piece; a covered cup presented in 1859 to a Melbourne University scholar by his students. Edwards introduced a new range of emu egg ‘novelties’ to Australian silver. His workshop also produced a number of silver pieces, occasional gold trophies and epergnes, some of which were displayed in many international exhibitions. Edwards has also completed major commissions such as the gifts for Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, which then earned him an appointment as goldsmith and jeweller of the Duke’s household.

Today, only about twenty four significant examples of Australian-made secular presentation pieces crafted in gold seemed to have survived from the colonial period; although there’s about eighty that are known to have been made. The unique inkstand is one of the most striking, especially in its use of sculptural elements and Australian iconography. It was styled in silver and almost pure gold and it was produced in the workshop of William Edwards in Melbourne in 1865. It was retailed by Kilpatrick & Co (Est.1853).

Claret jug, c. 1867, William Edwards – photo by The National Gallery of Victoria

The majority of his pieces were designed in the naturalistic and Rococo revival styles. In the early 1860s, classical revival motifs and forms started appearing, they were often combined with rococo, and sometimes gothic elements of earlier art periods. The rare Regency detailing was evident in the design of the base of this inkstand. Other well-known pieces were Edward’s silver claret jugs of the 1860s, which were made in many variations including richly repoussed pieces, the emu and ostrich egg versions.

Some of the pieces of William Edwards

  • · Silver claret jug
  • · Inkstand with kangaroo and emu motif
  • · Silver emu egg presentation cup
  • · Sterling silver basket
  • · Presentation cup

In the recent times; between Friday 15 December and Sunday 1 April, 2017, there was an exhibition at the Royal Australian Mint, that showcased exceptional nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australian silver and gold objects drawn from the National Gallery of Australia’s significant collection of colonial decorative arts and design. The theme of this exhibition was the celebration of objects marking significant personal, community and professional achievements and milestones, or displays of prosperity and artistic accomplishment.

Presentation cup by William Edwards – photo by MAAS Collection | Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Silver and gold celebrate the aesthetic and technical achievements of many of Australia’s most significant early silversmiths. It includes objects made by silversmiths who worked across the country, including William Edwards and other such as Alexander Dick, David Barclay, Henry Steiner, William Edwards, Edward Fischer, John J Cohen and Joachim Matthias Wendt. It revealed the exceptional skills of Australia’s earliest professional craft practitioners and their compelling narratives of Australian social and commercial history.

Among the exhibited pieces included William Edwards collection of pieces gathered from different parts globally and owned by Museums and individual collectors.

In many auctions in Australia and across the world, the surviving pieces of William Edwards command very high prices due to their quality, age and uniqueness.