The present lot was the focal point of the Garrard display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Official catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, London, 1851, p. 98). It was unquestionably one of the firm's most captivating exhibits. The Illustrated London News describes the work in detail and attributes its design to Edmund Cotterill (1795-1860), as does The Guide to the Great Exhibition.
Cotterill designed the work to illustrate a well-known passage from Walter Scott's The Talisman, published in 1825. It depicts the two protagonists, Saladin and Sir Kenneth, a poor Scottish crusader, pausing at a fountain beneath palm-trees. Saladin treats Sir Kenneth with kindness and assists the crusader by helping him return to his camp in disguise. Unusual for its time, The Talisman is thought to be one of the first occasions in English literature where an author features Muslims in a positive light. Cotterill models Saladin as being dignified and self-assured, embodying the mood of Scott's character.
Cotterill was head of Garrard's design studio from 1833 and worked for them until his death. Cotterill was responsible for a number of ambitious sculptural groups including the Emperor's Plate each year from 1849-1852. Many of his designs incorporated horses, which he excelled at modelling (J. Culme, Nineteenth Century Silver, London, 1977, p. 96), and were 'often with Moorish or Arab and equestrian themes' (G. Campbell, The Grove Encyclopaedia of Decorative Arts, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 409). This work fits neatly between a 1846 centrepiece depicting the figures resting with camels and its companion centrepiece from 1853. both designed by Cotterill (The Glory of the Goldsmith: Magnificent Gold and Silver from the Al-Tajir Collection, pp. 220-221, no. 171i and 171ii) .
The allure of the Middle East captured the imaginations of European artists from the turn of the 18th century. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his men encountered the Mamelukes, who came to power in Egypt during the 1770s. They were defeated by Bonaparte’s Army and later became a part of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Known for their colourful dress, layering garments of red, yellows and greens, their exotic fashions were appropriated by women back in France, who began to wear large shawls and turbans. The allure of the Orient inspired more than just fashion. Artists such as Ingres, Delacriox, Gerome and Descamps visited the regions repeatedly throughout the first half of the 19th century, bringing images of harems and other genre scenes back with them. The present lot poignantly depicts the budding transition of Orientalism from painting to decorative art. It was in the 1860s and 1880s when the exoticism of the East took hold in English interiors, such as the Arab Hall in Leighton House, London, dating to 1877-79.
At some point after the 1851 exhibition the centrepiece was broken up and sold as smaller sections including the present lot and the figure of Sir Kenneth which was sold Sotheby's Belgravia, 18 November 1971, lot 26, (J. Culme, The Directory of Gold and Silversmiths, London, 1987, p. 174).