Charles Edward Firnhaber (1805-1880)

Charles Edward Firnhaber (1805-1880) was probably the most gifted silversmith to work in South Australia, and certainly is amongst the rarest. Firnhaber was born in Bremen in 1805 and arrived in South Australia in March of 1847. Upon arrival in the young colony Firnhaber retailed his works and manufactured for John Henry Pace, South Australia’s first silversmith. Due to difficulties exacerbated by robberies, Pace ceased to operate at the end of 1849, enabling Firnhaber to become the pre-eminent silversmith in the colony. Much of his most significant work consisted of commissions, either for testimonials, prizes and ecclesiastical plate. The commissioning client often had a strong input into the design of many pieces resulting in the production of some of the finest pieces of Colonial silver in existence. For example the fine Gothic communion service made for Christ Church, North Adelaide in 1850 was produced to the design of William Butterfield (1814-1900) from his publication ‘Instrumenta Ecclesiastica’ (1) which featured in the excellent survey exhibition ‘Bounty – Nineteenth Century Gold and Silver’ held by the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2012.  In 2007 I had the privilege of acting for the Art Gallery of South Australia in acquiring and reunifying the Hanson Cup acquired from a vendor in Sydney and the Hanson salver from a family descendant. John Hawkins in his important work ’Nineteenth Century Australian Silver’ refers to the Hanson Cup as ‘one of the finest pieces of surviving Australian silver’. (2) This work was a collaboration between Firnhaber who made the cup and salver to a design by the highly important Julius Schomburgk.

A Colonial South Australian Silver Goblet by Charles Edward Firnhaber | $800-1,200

It is not surprising that in the first 10 or so years of residing in Australia, when Firnhaber was not undertaking a specific commission that he reverted to his earlier training and taste preference, producing silver with a distinctly Germanic form for his atelier. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds a number of such cups from the early late 1840’s and early 1850’s such as the Masonic Cup for Henry Mildred of 1848 and the Ottaway cup circa 1853. These cups loosely derive from their German 16th Century antecedents. Given that Firnhaber was an active member of the flourishing German community in South Australia, this format would have found receptive clients seeking objects providing links to their heritage. These cups would have been held in stock and engraved for the particular purpose of the presentation or prize.

Leonard Joel is offering just such a cup being Lot 53 in our upcoming sale of Decorative Arts to be held in Melbourne on the 24th July 2023. The cup is fashioned in a distinctly German form, reflecting its antecedents, though it is of a more puritan perhaps Lutheran form than the other documented examples. The aforementioned German community kept up many traditions, some of which continue to this day such as the Schützenfest or Shooting Festival. As reported in the South Australian Daily Chronicle on the 22nd April 1865, pictured below, the silver cup was awarded to Mr. H. Linde, who became the King of the shoot for the following year with a score of 116 points. The cup was donated by a Dr. Bayer who it seems purchased at least one other such cup over the years from Firnhaber to be used as a shooting prize. There would seem to be several hands involved in the engraving of the cup, some of which was undertaken prior to the presentation, possibly by Robert Andrews, engraver, working in Adelaide in the 1860’s and the balance after the awarding of the prize. The cup would appear to be earlier, crafted in the 1850’s and not presented until 1865. It is likely that some items were kept in Firnhaber’s stock for a number of years prior to being sold. Alternatively Dr. Bayer may have bought it some years earlier and presented it for the shoot of 1865, a practice often found with trophy presentations.

Deservedly, most Firnhaber works one encounters are held by State sponsored collecting institutions, befitting his importance as a Colonial silversmith. A search of the Antiques Reporter website would indicate this is the first opportunity to acquire a substantive piece by Charles Firnhaber at auction in over 20 years.

(1) Robert Reason, Chapter 3, “Early South Australian Religious Silver”, ‘Bounty – Nineteenth Century Gold and Silver’, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2012, p32.

(2) John Hawkins, ‘Nineteenth Century Australian Silver’, Antique Collectors Club 1990’ Vol II, p30

To view the newspaper article of 1865 click here.

ANTHONY HURL / South Australia Representative Specialist

Banner Image: A Colonial South Australian Silver Goblet by Charles Edward Firnhaber | $800-1,200

JULY 2023