This rare snuffbox is one of the earliest dated examples of decorative metalwork fully crafted in Australia; there are only two earlier examples known to have survived: the 1801 snuffbox presented to Governor Phillip King by a Lieutenant Grant (National Museum of Australia), and the 1805 Collins silver pepper caster attributed to James Grove from Hobart. With the exception of the Bowman Flag in the Mitchell Library, this piece also shows the first known use of the kangaroo motif in Australian decorative arts.
The snuffbox was commissioned by Walter Stevenson Davidson, a London merchant and early landowner and banker in NSW, as a gift for his father Reverend Patrick Davidson in Scotland. The box is inscribed: 'Walter Stevenson to his honoured father, N.S. Wales 1808'. Born in Old Rayne, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1785, Davidson arrived in Australia in 1805. He was closely associated with the Macarthur family and was granted 5,000 acres of land (Belmont) adjacent to the Macarthur estate at Camden. In January 1807 he sailed from Sydney as John Macarthur's agent, on a trip to Fiji where the shell used in this snuffbox could have been collected. He reached China in September 1807 and after spending a short time in Macao and Canton, sailed to Bengal, before coming back to Sydney in May 1808. In March 1809 Davidson returned to England, via Rio De Janeiro. He never returned to Australia.
The snuffbox is engraved with a standing figure of a kangaroo after the 1771-72 painting by George Stubbs which was reproduced as an engraving (mirror image) in John Hawkesworth's 'Account of the Voyages undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere' of 1773, and which in turn was made even more popular through wood engravings in Thomas Berwick's 'General History of Quadrupeds', London 1790.
While some researchers have speculated that the box may be of Chinese origin, its high quality and the new biographical research on Walter Davidson by Marion Diamond, University of Queensland, (he was in China in 1807 not 1808), point to Sydney as the most likely place of production.
The piece is attributed to Ferdinand Meurant. Born in Frontignac in 1765, Ferdinand Charles Meurant (original name was De Meurant) was a French jeweller, silversmith and watchmaker who at the age of 24 escaped to Belgium during the French Revolution of 1789. He then worked in Dublin where he was convicted, along with the Irish seal engraver John Austin, of forging bank notes and was transported to Australia in 1800. Meurant arrived on 6 January 1800 on the Minerva and after gaining favour with Governor King was granted full pardon in 1803, as well as a land grant at the Hawkesbury and a valuable leasehold behind Government House in Sydney. Reputed to be one of the first two working jewellers in Australia (alongside W. Moreton in Sydney), his shop was in Bent Street in Sydney, where today there is a commemorative plaque, unveiled in 2000.
Eva Czernis-Ryl, May, 2007