Medals were widely awarded to successful show exhibitors from the mid-19th through the early 20th century. They usually featured, engraved or cast into the metal, the name of the awarding show society and the winning entrant and they were also often richly decorated with traditional symbols of abundance and plenty, perhaps positioning agriculture as key to human civilisation. Rosettes made of folded ribbon or paper, often in red, white and blue, emerged as decorative military awards in France in the early 19th century and were soon used in many European countries to signify party allegiances in election campaigns. Versions made from felt, sometimes printed with details of the award, became popular as agricultural show prizes in the later decades of the 20th century, arguably creating new cultural links between show competitions and the arenas of war and politics.
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Silver prize medallion presented to Sydney Emanuel by the Horticultural Society of NSW for his display of wheat at the Exhibition of Horticultural and Colonial Products, Sydney, New South Wales, 1868. Donated by Tim and Sally Emanuel.
The Horticultural Society of New South Wales was established in Sydney in 1862, following the demise of a number of earlier horticultural societies and committees, some attached to the Agricultural Society. The new association aimed to attract 'all lovers of gardening, whether professional or amateur', with the purpose of developing knowledge of and skills in horticultural pursuits, including increasing the range of useful and decorative plants available in Australia.
From 1863, the society began holding a number of exhibitions each year, and in early 1868 organised the Exhibition of Horticultural and Colonial Products in honour of the visit of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh to Sydney. Held in the Domain, the exhibition included rare ornamental plants such as the intriguing 'singular lace-leaved aquatic plant of Madagascar', as well as flowers, fruit, specimens of glass, garden pottery, paper, saddlery, boots and shoes, perfumes, candles, soap, ornamental leather work and Australian reptiles in wax. The listing of 'sundries' for the exhibition includes 'Wheat grown at Goulburn', for which Sydney Emanuel evidently received this medal.
The medals for the exhibition were sourced by Mr Glaister and Mr Wooff, of the Horticultural Society, though the sources of the design is unclear. On one side the medal features a staghorn, a tropical fern native to areas of Australia, Asia, Africa and South America, together with the Society's name and its motto 'PERSISTERE. EST / PROSPERARE' (to persist is to prosper). The obverse declares in elaborate script that the medal was presented to 'S. Emanuel Esq.', with a border of rock lilies, a spectacular flowering plant native to the Sydney region, and text recording the occasion of the exhibition to commemorate the royal visit.
The medal brings together a representation of purely ornamental plants, the staghorn and rock lilies, with the very important agricultural species, wheat. This conjunction reflects the Horticultural Society's interest in both aesthetically and economically valuable species, but it also constructs an interesting understanding of agriculture. Wheat was, and continues to be, a main food crop, but its display at the Horticultural Exhibition suggest that the skills and practices of nurturing commonly associated with decorative plants in domestic gardens could also be applied to wheat. From this perspective, the processes of selective breeding and plant husbandry required to produce prize-winning exhibits accord with both the development of scientific knowledge and innovation that is central to industrial agriculture and experiences of individual human engagement with plants that are devalued in that system. The conjunction expressed in the medal also suggests that the Horticultural Society saw no opposition between the growing of plants in rural and urban areas.
The medal's incorporation of the Society's motto, in Latin, together with the text detailing its connection to the Duke of Edinburgh's visit, and the address of Emanuel as an 'esquire', asserts the Society's identification with the well-educated social elite. The motto continues traditions of upper-class institution's use of Latin phrases to express their core values. It is interesting, however, to consider the intent of the Horticultural Society's exhortation to persevere. Could it be asking members to stick with the work of shaping imported horticultural species and horticultural practices to harsh Australian conditions? The staghorn is native to northern Australia and the rock lily to eastern Australia, but it is questionable whether they are deployed on this medal as assertions of Australian identity, given that there is little historical precedent for their use in this way. It is more likely that the use of these plants references 19thcentury garden fashions and particularly the popularity of lush, green foliage which was considered essential to a relaxing and beautiful garden experience.
Silver prize medallion awarded to Sydney Emanuel by the Agricultural Society of New South Wales for the best bull at the Yass, New South Wales, show, 1879.
As well as winning a silver medal for his wheat at the Horticultural Society's 1868 exhibition, Sydney Emanuel exhibited with great success at agricultural shows in southern New South Wales, near where he lived and farmed. He secured this silver medal for the best bull at the Yass show in 1879. Given the text on the medal, including the name of its manufacturer, Hardy Brothers, in Sydney, it is probable that it was produced by the Agricultural Society of New South Wales for use by show societies throughout the colony.
One side of this medal features an image of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood, who was understood in ancient Rome to have made the gift of agriculture to humans. In her right hand, Ceres holds a torch, a distinguishing feature, and in her left, a loaf of bread. Around her, cherubs harvest wheat, tend contented sheep and wave a palm frond, a symbol of peace. Ceres stands on a pedestal engraved with images (from left to right) of a painter's brushes and palette, a plough and a factory with smoke rising from its stacks.
This complex image asserts the ancient, mythical origins of agriculture, valorising it as the gift from the gods that enabled the rise of human civilisation (in Roman mythology, humans foraged for acorns before Ceres gave them agriculture). The raising of crops and animals is seen as a beneficent and nurturing practice, almost a process of mothering, intimately linked with peace and prosperity. Ceres' pedestal details the benefits agriculture has brought humanity - the fine arts, technology and industrialisation. In this way, the medal represents agriculture as a pre-industrial process, characterised by a mother's relationships with her dutiful children, and simultaneously positions it as integrally part of the modern, industrial world.
The obverse of the medal incorporates text detailing Emanuel's win, fringed with a botanical border of indeterminate species and topped with the legend, 'Practice with Science'. The motto expresses the Agricultural Society's faith in science as a key to agricultural progress, a central tenet of industrial agricultural systems. The medal implicitly applauds the efforts of Australian farmers to use scientifically informed best practice to improve the land, the beasts that feed off it and the broader agricultural industry.
Silver prize medallion presented to F.S. Holt by the Bowen Pastoral and Agricultural Society for the best fat bullock at the Bowen, Queensland, show, late 19th century.
Although, as a small inscription at the bottom of one side describes, this medal was manufactured in Sydney, it features images that link it directly to the region of Bowen in north Queensland. On one side, the inscription describing the prize is surrounded with a scene of crowded tropical botanical growth. The plants are stylised, but not overly so, and many, including date palms, sugar cane, bananas and pineapples, are recognisable as crops typical of the Bowen area. The scene is overwhelmingly lush, creating an argument for the region's fertility and the capacity of farmers to draw forth its bounty. At the top of the medal, the sun rises over the canopy bringing the promise of a new day, connoting not only Queensland's sunny weather but also positioning the colony's tropical fecundity and the bounty of its agricultural output as central to its future.
On the other side of the medal, the impression of fertility is repeated. In the foreground, a diverse group of farm animals, including a horse, bull, pig, goat and sheep, reside densely together in a small paddock. The scene is crowded but it also exudes peace and harmony, with the sheep in the foreground sitting contentedly. Behind the animals, the land stretches, with a man following a horse-drawn plough rendered tiny to suggest great distance. To the right there is a field of what is probably sugar cane. It is a crowded scene, suggesting agricultural diversity and energy, and it firmly locates agriculture in an open, rural landscape. Moreover, it is a landscape characterised by placid, settled animals who appear content to gather companionably in their little enclosure.
Aspects of the medal's design suggest that this is not just any Australian landscape, but rather a Queensland scene. To the left of the animals, two icons of rural Queensland - a date palm and a windmill - lean in towards the centre. The field of sugar cane stretches, a crop suitable only for the tropical north. In the far distance, in the centre of the medal, a building stands that may be a house with wide, shady verandahs - a dwelling typical to Queensland.
Behind the sugar cane, a building with a smoking chimney rises. It is probably a cane processing plant, or it may be some other kind of factory, but the height of the stack and the dense pallor of the issuing smoke mark it as industrial rather than domestic. The medal brings harmoniously together a bucolic rural scene with industrial processes, with the smoke plume creating a frame for the whole scene. The design asserts that agriculture naturally encompasses both the rural and the industrial, suggesting perhaps that while industry needs the raw materials produced by the land, farmers also need the technology, capital and knowledge required to turn those materials into products for consumers.
Images, symbols and designs can be interpreted in many different ways. What do you think this object says about agriculture? Send us a comment