21 November 2022

National Museum pockets rare colonial billiard table for $1.1 million

| Sally Hopman
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billiard table

The rare Australian colonial billiard table, complete with ornate carvings, has just been acquired by the National Museum of Australia for $1.1 million. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

An ornate colonial billiard table, on which Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, once played at Buckingham Palace in London, has been acquired by the National Museum of Australia (NMA) for $1.1 million.

The table features intricate carvings of early days of colonial Australia including outback life, the gold rush and conflict between First Nations Australians and early settlers.

Director of the NMA, Dr Mathew Trinca, described the craftsmanship and design of the table as “extraordinary”, “a one-of-a-kind example of Australian colonial furniture making”.

“This truly unique acquisition, carefully carved from Tasmanian blackwood, perfectly showcases our colonial history and we are delighted to be able to share it with the nation,” he said.

Built in 1885 by Sydney-based billiard table manufacturer Ben Hulbert, its skilled carvings are the work of cabinet maker George Billyeald.

It was first shown at the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, at Adelaide’s Jubilee Exhibition in 1887 and at Melbourne’s Centennial Exhibition in 1888.

old photo

Archival photograph showing the Australian colonial billiard table on display at the 1888 Melbourne Centennial Exhibition. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

It was also displayed at Buckingham Palace in London where it was reportedly admired by Queen Victoria and played on by billiards enthusiast Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, who was later to become King Edward VII.

Head of Collection Development and Information at the NMA, Dr Ian Coates, who oversaw the acquisition , said the table was a “one-off”.

He said it first came on to the NMA’s radar about 10 years ago but it was only two years ago when its acquisition became a possibility.

“We began negotiating with the anonymous owner back then,” he said. “They were very keen for it to go somewhere where it would be on public display so that sealed it for us.”

He described the colonial billiard table and matching scoreboard as “an unrivalled piece of craftsmanship that through the depiction of colonial life and native flora contributes to an understanding of our national identity and design history.

“Perhaps most signficant are the scenes of conflict between First Nations people and colonists included as part of life on the frontier,” he said.

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“Such representions are rare. They are an important part of our national history – subject matter that was ignored for much of the 20th century which now forms part of the truth-telling about what happened in the history of our nation.”

The first sighting of the table in Australia was in 1895. A few years earlier, Hulbert had moved to the NSW South Coast working as publican at the Commercial Hotel, Milton. A pub visitor reportedly saw the billiard table there.

The next sighting was in 1912 in New Zealand where it was displayed in an Auckland shop and later showcased in the Auckland Exhibition. The story goes that it was given as a raffle prize to a C.R. Rainger of Auckland who in 1921, gave it to Ray Court, also from Auckland.

The next owner was a Captain Harry Carey, who acquired it prior to 1980 when it was sold at auction by Christie’s in London.

Dr Coates said because the table had led such a public life, including starring in a number of major exhibitions, it was easy to track its provenance over the years, allowing it to come to the NMA with its rich history well documented.

He said the table was in the hands of a number of private collectors before it was acquired by the NMA this year.

To get the two-tonne table to Australia, he said, involved some serious logistics.

Carved table

A relief panel from the Australian colonial billiard table depicting early life on the goldfields. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

“You’re looking at four slabs of Welsh slate … they’re about 250 kilos each. Then there are the legs and beams, they’re also quite substantial.”

He said it took five days to get the table from New Orleans to Sydney then Canberra. He saw it out of the United States and agents tracked it all the way to Canberra.

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Dr Coates said as with all significant museum acquisitions, purchase of the billiard table involved a number of processes, including securing three independent valuations as well as looking at previous sales of similar items – although the latter was not easy in this case because the table was so rare.

The NMA paid the $1.1 million price with the support of the Australian Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account which contributed $550,000. It was also supported by the Pratt Foundation and donors to the NMA’s 2022 annual appeal.

It went on display today (Thursday 17 November) at the NMA in Canberra and will remain up on the mezzanine level until February next year.

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Probably a bit chunky and gross for my house but a really beautiful piece. I think the National Museum got a bargain! Not to mention all that history! Great buy I can’t wait to go and see it!!

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