India. Silver, ivory.
Private collection, United Kingdom
The Marquesses Conyngham were an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family distinguished throughout the Regency and Victorian periods as soldiers, courtiers and politicians. The title was created in 1816 for Henry Conyngham (1766-1832). He served as Lord Steward to the Royal Household 1821-1830 and as Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle 1829-1830.
His son Francis, the second marquess (1797-1876) began a military career in the Ceylon Regiment (Riflemen), purchasing an unattached Majority in 1827. He rose to major-general in 1858 and lt.-general in 1866. He had meanwhile additionally held the post of Vice-Admiral of Ulster since 1849. It was as a courtier however that he is best remembered for an anecdote of history; on 20th June 1837, accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the second Marquess Conyngham informed the Princes Victoria that she was the new monarch, and thus he was the first to address her “Your Majesty”. Francis was succeeded by his son George as third marquess (1825-1882), who like his father rose to the rank of lt.-general, and in addition was appointed equerry to Her Majesty the Queen in 1870.
The unusual and highly ornate design of this powder-flask is the achievement of a synthesis of North European cultural traditions and the technical traditions and character of North-west India.
The European flavour of the carved flask body is formed of a predominant framework of strap-work interlace, the popular basis of many 16th century decorative patterns, suspending the Flowers of the Union of England, Ireland and Scotland, and with the silver nozzle cut-off formed as a mermaid from western mythology. At the centre of the outer face of the ivory body is the coat-of-arms of the Marquesses Conyngham carved in low relief, most likely for Francis, the second marquess. The highly refined Indian workmanship and small background motifs are characteristic of the Cutch (Kutch) district of Gujarat, and probably related to workshops in the old capital of Bhuj.
What is most remarkable is the ease with which the revivalist North European renaissance style (then popular across the range of British and French decorative arts), a style very obviously alien to Indian artisans, is merged quite naturally with the techniques of the local ivory and silver workshops.
The character and quality of the chasing of the silver mounts is accentuated against an extremely finely pounced matted ground, these features being strongly associated with Cutch workmanship. Equally characteristic of Cutch is the elegant realism of the features of the mermaid, which as the cut-off for the powder nozzle is the natural pinnacle of the design.
Closely comparable to this flask, and also illustrative therefore of the 19th century metalworking style of the finest Cutch workshops, is a supremely elaborate gilt-brass address casket mounted in silver, preserved in the former royal collection in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, the summer retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The casket was presented to Victoria, Empress of India, by His Highness the Rao of Cutch in 1897. While the two pieces are separated by their dates and clearly of different hands, they have very similar fine chasing in common, and the zoomorphic and figural subjects on the Osborne piece (one example being a native hunter thrown from his horse and attacked by bears) posses the same slender elegance of the mermaid on our flask.
Size: Height 21.5 cm / 8.5 in