Ultimate parting gift? The extraordinary silver sculpture given to a Victorian MP by his grateful electorate

Posted on 24/11/2020 in Press Coverage

An ‘extraordinarily magnificent’ silver sculpture gifted to a Victorian politician by the people he served is expected to sell for thousands of pounds at auction.

The large, detailed and important work of art, crafted in 1880, honours highly regarded Jewish engineer Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda (1813 -1885), a man who won respect both as an MP and shipbuilder in London.

Commissioned to thank the ‘independent and patriotic spirit’ for his community service, it marked a moment in history that chimed with his views. The silver sculptural group depicts King John signing the Magna Carta – medieval Latin for the Great Charter of Freedoms – in 1215.

The sculptural group shows King John seated at a table signing the document in front of three Barons, the Archbishop of Canterbury and two pages, one holding the Crown, the other a shield. The Barons are realistically cast in chain mail with robes and cloaks, the Archbishop holds his crozier and the King's bloodhound stands to the front.

The item, which is due to be sold on December 8 in Hansons Auctioneers’ Fine Art Auction, has a guide price of £30,000-£50,000 thanks to its exceptional quality. It was designed and modelled by silversmith George A Carter and is hallmarked by Hunt & Roskell of London.

The monumental parting gift was presented to Joseph in 1880 after 12 years serving the Tower Hamlets constituency in London. He became their MP in 1868 but lost his seat in parliament in 1880 due to his support for Benjamin Disraeli’s foreign policy.

Nevertheless, his supporters could not bid farewell without thanking him for his service. A plaque on the silver sculpture, dated July 16, 1880, states that it was ‘Presented to Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda by a large number of his friends and former constituents in the Tower Hamlets. In recognition of the important services he has rendered to the borough and as a record of their high appreciation of the independent and patriotic spirit which he evinced throughout the long period during which he represented the constituency in the House of Commons’.

Family with engineering pedigree

Born in London, Joseph studied engineering with his brother Jacob. They set up Samuda Brothers which built marine engines between 1832-1842 in Cubitt Town, the Isle of Dogs. However, in 1843 Samuda Bros began building iron steamships for the Royal and other Navies, merchant marine, passenger and mail services as well as private commissions.

Sadly, tragedy struck in 1844 when Jacob and nine employees were killed when ship Gipsy Queen exploded during tests. But Joseph forged on to lead the company to success. By 1863, it was said to be producing double the output of the other London shipyards combined.

Joseph used his engineering expertise to benefit others. In 1860 he helped to establish the Institute of Naval Architects, of which he was the first treasurer and later a vice-president, and in 1862 he became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

He also shared his expertise in the House of Commons where he spoke with authority on all matters connected with his profession. Some of his speeches are described as ‘treasure-houses of technical and political knowledge’.

But ship building was far from his only area of interest. In 1841 he published A Treatise on the Adaptation of Atmospheric Pressure to the Purposes of Locomotion on Railways. He patented the scheme and his firm was engaged in putting it into practice from 1842-1848 supported by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a renowned English civil engineer. They worked on experimental lines, most notably between London Bridge and Epsom (Croydon line), Dalkey (Co Dublin) and Paris. However, due to consistent problems the scheme was eventually abandoned.

His political life blossomed when he became a member of the Metropolitan Board of Works from 1860 to 1865. He entered Parliament as Liberal MP for Tavistock in Devon in 1865.He sat for Tavistock until 1868, when he was returned for Tower Hamlets, which he represented until 1880. In addition, he was one of the original officers of the 2nd Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteer Corps/ 4th (City of London) Battalion in 1861 and was commissioned as a captain – the first Jewish unit in the British Army. Such was his impact a dapper caricature of Joseph was published in magazine Vanity Fair in 1873.

Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons, said: “When you look back at the life and times of Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda, this extraordinary silver sculpture, given to him by the people he served, reflects and honours his achievements. It’s a monumental piece of unique Victorian giftware, the likes of which I have never seen before, commissioned and crafted with great care for a politician who won the hearts of the people he served.

“Magnificent in its detail and workmanship, it celebrates the Victorian era, a time renowned for its sweeping progress, political reform, social change and the Industrial Revolution. Joseph used his intelligence and ingenuity to play his part and thoroughly deserved to receive what has to be one of the most impressive parting gifts ever seen.”

The sculptural group sits on an oblong-shaped ebonised plinth with canted corners mounted with silver plaques and figures. One cast plaque depicts a boat, SS Mahrousa, on the River Thames in front of the Tower of London above the Samuda Coat-of-Arms – a large motor yacht still in use built for Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. It carried him in a procession to mark the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

The other plaque depicts the Houses of Parliament. The piece is mounted on a commissioned burr walnut heavily carved stand, the central section featuring the Samuda Coat-of-Arm. The lot includes an illuminated manuscript presentation document, dated July 17,1880, embellished with gilt and watercolour depictions of exotic birds and flowers.

Passed down by descent, the silver sculpture is due to be sold on December 8 by Hansons Auctioneers. To find out more, email: [email protected].

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