In October 1984 the National Gallery of Victoria successfully bid for a ‘Rare and important hallmarked Australian silver and gilt presentation cup’ at auction.1R L. Pickles & Co. Pty Ltd, Auction of Fine Furniture, Australian Paintings and Objets d’Art (Auction Catalogue), Age Gallery, Sunday, 14 October 1984, item 190. The cup, made by Charles Brentani for the Flemington Races of 1849, represents the earliest example of Melbourne-made silver to enter the Gallery’s collection.
Of the small amount of pre-1850 Australian silver that has survived, most was made in Sydney, the oldest and most established of the colonial centres. While the local trade directories reveal that there were a number of manufacturing silversmiths operating in Melbourne prior to the gold-rush boom, there is scant record of their work either in terms of documentation or extant artefacts. Until the re-emergence of the Flemington Cup, the most important examples of early Melbourne silver known were a coffee pot and entree dish by Charles Bennett, dated c.1845, and another piece by Charles Brentani, a silver snuff box, dated c.1848. All three are now in the collection of the Australian National Gallery. A relatively ambitious work, the Flemington Cup has the distinction of being regarded at the time of its manufacture as something of a milestone in local silversmithing. The following report was published in the Melbourne Morning Herald, 15 January 1849:
We have inspected a very handsome silver cup, value ‘fifteen guineas’, manufactured by Mr Brentani, of Collins-street, intended as one of the prizes to be awarded this day at the Flemington Races. It is a very respectable work of art, and exhibits in relief, ‘three racers’, pressing towards the goal; the handles, rim, and foot, are highly chased, and within the cup is richly gilt. It has been said, upon several occasions, that presentation articles of plate could not be manufactured in Melbourne – the contrary is now proved to be the fact, and it is to be hoped that the cup above referred to, will not be the only one that will leave the atelier of the artist.
Presentation pieces, particularly horse-racing trophies, indeed became a major source of commission for colonial silversmiths. Brentani’s Flemington Cup, as the first important racing trophy to have been made and presented in the Port Phillip District, heralds a tradition which encompasses some of the finest work ever produced by local gold- and silversmiths, for example the Drummond Melbourne Cup of 1891 (now lost) and the solid gold Geelong Trophy of 1880 by E. F. G. Fisher held in the Gallery’s collection.
The first meeting to be held at Flemington Racecourse was in March 1840. Until then Melbourne races had been run on what is now the site of Spencer Street Railway Station. Flemington very quickly proved to be a popular venue, attracting owners not only locally but also from the neighbouring colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania. Of course today Flemington Racecourse is internationally famous, particularly for its annual Spring event, ‘The Melbourne Cup’, which was inaugurated in 1861.
Brentani’s Flemington Cup was commissioned by Mr James Dunbar, of the Flemington Hotel, as first prize for the first race of the January meet of 1849. The race was listed as ‘for horses of all ages. Entrance one guinea. Gentlemen riders – Handicap weights’.2Melbourne Morning Herald, 16 January 1849. As inscribed on the bowl of the cup, the race was ‘won by Belzoni beating five others. The property of James E. Crook. Ridden by Mr. R. Lovelock’. Mr Crook, originally from Tasmania, owned the Wool Pack Inn at Bacchus Marsh. The cup remained in his family until the day of the auction when it was acquired by the Gallery.
Biographical information on Charles Brentani is scarce but suggests a colourful and resourceful character.3Biographical information on Charles Brentani was generously provided by Sr Μ. R Toohey RSCJ and Sr M. Toohey RSCJ, the great grandaughters of Charles Brentani. Born in Cadenabbia on Lake Como, Italy, around 1817, he spent time in England before embarking for the colonies in the mid-1830s. He arrived in Tasmania in 1835 and appears to have settled in Launceston. According to family sources, sometime during the early 1840s he travelled to Sydney to join a compatriot, Mr Cetta, who was a barometer- and looking-glass-maker in George Street. It must have been a relatively short stay, as Brentani was back in Tasmania in 1844 to marry Anne Campbell in Launceston. By the time their first child, Mary Anne, was born, the Brentanis had moved to Melbourne where Charles very quickly set himself up in business in Collins Street, first as a barometer-, thermometer- and looking-glass-maker and then as a jeweller and watchmaker.
By 1849 Charles Brentani had become a prominent local identity – perhaps more prominent than he would have wished. Less than a month after receiving acclaim in the local press for the Flemington Cup, he was again in the news, this time in connection with what was purported to be the first discovery of gold ore in the Port Phillip District. At a time when colonists were looking to the goldfields of North America, there was suddenly the possibility of ‘a gold field, which is more likely to cause immigration from California than the reverse’.4Argus, 31 January 1849. After the initial euphoria, a tangled web of circumstances began to occupy the attention of the press. Brentani and an associate, Mr Duchène, had been responsible for bringing the find to public notice, however there was not only confusion as to the exact locality of the goldfield but also much conjecture about the sudden disappearance of the man who had actually discovered it, a shepherd called Thomas Hood. These curious events were still remembered sixty-four years later, as they were recalled in an article recording the death of Brentani’s son, Charles Joseph, in 1913.5Argus, July 1913.
Charles Brentani’s business in Collins Street remained listed in the local trade directories until 1854. He died, still a young man, on 21 October 1853, leaving a widow and five children. His family grave is located in Melbourne’s General Cemetery.
Little is known of the range and quality of silver produced by Brentani during his short working life in Melbourne. The recently ‘re-discovered’ Flemington Cup is the only surviving example of his work apart from the fine silver snuff box already mentioned as being in the collection of the Australian National Gallery. The cup is a confident work, its pleasing proportions enhanced by the controlled balance of plain and highly decorated surfaces. One side of the bowl bears the dedicatory inscription, the other a lively racing scene of rather naive pictorial quality. A tightly bunched group of three horses and riders is shown galloping towards the finishing post; in the distance enthusiastic spectators crowd the isolated grandstand, presumably the proud structure built at Flemington the year before. While the background details have been boldly chased into the surface of the bowl, the group of horses and riders has been separately cast and applied. Chased floral and foliate motifs encircle the lower part of the bowl, including the rose, thistle and shamrock of Great Britain. Floral motifs also decorate the double scroll handles, while the scalloped foot of the cup is chased with a repeated feather motif radiating from the base of the stem. A comparison with the snuff box held by the Australian National Gallery reveals a number of common stylistic elements, most notably the use of cast and applied decoration and the choice and working of floral motifs.6These features could also suggest a connection with the Tasmanian workshop of David Barclay.
The Flemington Cup represents a significant addition to the small corpus of early Victorian silver extant and the story surrounding it is an illuminating episode in the history of Victorian pioneer craftsmen, so many of whom remain shadowy figures in the pages of a trade directory. This important acquisition was made possible by the generous support of BP Australia Ltd through The Art Foundation of Victoria.
Judith O’Callaghan, Curator of Metalwork, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1986).
1 R L. Pickles & Co. Pty Ltd, Auction of Fine Furniture, Australian Paintings and Objets d’Art (Auction Catalogue), Age Gallery, Sunday, 14 October 1984, item 190.
2 Melbourne Morning Herald, 16 January 1849.
3 Biographical information on Charles Brentani was generously provided by Sr Μ. R Toohey RSCJ and Sr M. Toohey RSCJ, the great grandaughters of Charles Brentani.
4 Argus, 31 January 1849.
5 Argus, July 1913.
6 These features could also suggest a connection with the Tasmanian workshop of David Barclay.