As They Are: Colonial Life and the Art of S.T. Gill
Although S.T. Gill died 135 years ago, the current exhibition at the State Library of Victoria, Australian Sketchbook: Colonial Life and the Art of S.T. Gill (until October 25) is the first major retrospective exhibition of his art to be ever held. So why did he have to wait for so long for his fifteen minutes? As curator of this exhibition and author of a major monograph on the artist, this question has somewhat perplexed me and I have tried to explain it to the best of my abilities.
A few words about the artist. Samuel Thomas Gill was born in 1818 in Perriton, a small village in Somerset, England, where his father was the Baptist minister. He grew up in the Devon – Cornwall areas, where his parents ran separate schools for young gentlemen and young ladies. His father entered business and dissented to join the Plymouth Brethren. Gill initially studied in the home school, attended William Seabrook’s Academy, worked in an art framing and lithographic print shop in Devonport and then painted backgrounds for a London-based silhouette studio. We have, surviving from his teenage years in England, a profusely illustrated sketchbook with pen and ink and watercolour sketches. Here there is already an expression of an early love of dogs, hunting and an outdoors life, plus a wit and a love of social narrative. Following the death of two of his siblings in an outbreak of smallpox, Gill and his family migrated to the newly established colony of South Australia, where they arrived just before Christmas in 1839.
In the Antipodes he spent his first twelve years in South Australia, where he recorded the colony’s first mining boom, ‘Coppermania’, the streets of Adelaide and the journey of exploration, where the camel shot the explorer. It was also in South Australia that he first encountered the Indigenous inhabitants, where he observed their traditional ways of hunting and living with the environment and gradually developed an empathy with the Indigenous peoples. The economy of South Australia dipped badly once gold had been discovered in neighbouring Victoria, and the colony was severely depopulated. Gill joined the rush and left for the Victorian goldfields. There is no evidence that he set out in search of gold, but by mid-1852 he had commenced sketching on the goldfields of Mount Alexander, Bendigo and Ballarat.
Between August and October 1852 his 48 lithographs, Sketches of the Victoria Diggings and Diggers As They Are by STG were issued in two sets and almost overnight Gill became the highest profile artist of his day. Diggers on the way to Bendigo has become something of an iconic image for the Australian gold rushes, where three diggers followed by a child and accompanied by a dog are shown from behind walking after a dray pulled by oxen. In this image Gill opens his narrative on the life of the diggers. The warm clothes would suggest that they are travelling in winter, possibly in June or July as the accompanying dated lithographs suggest. They carry their rolled-up blankets on their backs, basic mining equipment, including a tin dish and cradle, together with weapons with which to defend themselves should they strike gold. The figures are highly individualised, but at the same time anonymous; it is the tale of everyman on the way to this Australian El Dorado. Unlike many of his fellow artists, Gill set out to give the gold rushes a human face. He translated the whole enterprise into a number of human situations, which rang true to the experience of those who were on the goldfields in the early 1850s.
While hysteria was being whipped up by politicians and in the media about boat people from Asia, ‘coolies’ or ‘celestials’, as they were called, who were said to be invading Australia to steal our jobs and our gold, Gill showed hardworking Chinese living in harmony with the rest of the miners. We have the first image of a Chinese takeaway restaurant in Australia, where food is advertised as being always ready and with customers taking it away in canisters. Where Gill does comment on racism on the goldfields, such as in the watercolour which he has titled ?Might versus Right, he leaves us in no doubt as to where his sympathies lie, as a group of Anglo-Irish thugs attack a number of terrified, but peaceful, Chinese miners. In other words, Gill emerged as a democratic socialist and increasingly became a bit of a thorn in the side of the establishment. Although the presence of women on the goldfields was widely noted in written accounts, as well as in some journals kept by the women themselves, they are almost invisible in the art of the goldfields. Gill was the exception. In his lithograph Zealous gold diggers, Bendigo, dated on the stone at 1 July 1852, a woman nurses her baby in one hand, while she rocks the gold-extracting cradle with the other. Her infant daughter handles a shovel, loading the ore-bearing soil into the cradle from the wheelbarrow, while her husband pours into the cradle the buckets of water with an ‘Aquarius’, the long-handled dipper in which the ‘bucket ladle’ is attached to a pole.
Gill’s women of the goldfields were not shy dainty things, but women of character. The official ban on the sale of alcohol fanned a lively trade in sly grog from the euphemistically termed coffee tents. From the back of one of these, a large woman serves a string of customers. We learn from contemporary sources that there was a Mrs Bunting: “She was well known as a sly grog-seller, and has been fined some dozen times or more, from 20 pounds to 50 pounds a time; but she did not care for it, she still went on, and set the law at defiance …” It was also noted that when she appeared on horseback armed with pistols, bushrangers would gallop off in the opposite direction. Gill does not vilify the customers at the sly grog shanty, as one would find in the moralising graphics following in the Hogarthian tradition, these are quite orderly diggers shown relaxing on their mandated day of rest. As one has become accustomed to see in Gill’s art, a canine commentary in the foreground provides a clue to the reading of the work, with a dog sleeping it off in the wine barrel.
After four years in Victoria, Gill had developed a high profile, was compared to Phis and Cruikshank in the press, and was quickly becoming a household name. However, reputation was not to be equated with financial success and in January 1856 we have a newspaper advertisement for an auction of a ‘splendid collection of watercolour drawings’ by Gill. Our knowledge of Gill’s private life is incomplete, but he appears to have had a wife, but no children. He left Victoria abruptly with another woman, Elizabeth, with whom he fled to Sydney, where he arrived on May 20, 1856. Repeating the work pattern he developed in South Australia and Victoria, Gill launched himself in making scenes in and around Sydney and before long the Sydney Morning Herald was to declare that “Mr. S. T. Gill has made for himself a reputation in the Australian colonies as a water-colour artist such as is seldom obtained by an individual in any country.” Nevertheless, in Sydney, Gill failed to replicate the success of Melbourne and although he was in demand in some quarters, he struggled to make a living.
Gill was back in Melbourne by early 1864 and was to stay here for the remaining 16 years of his life. During this period in his art practice he was diverse, prolific, and worked at the height of his powers to produce some of his most incisive and profound art. Increasingly, his work of the 1860s celebrated an Australian reality, an Australian way of life and the Australian character. Elements of the Australian character which may have formed in rural Australia by the 1840s were brought together on the goldfields in the following decade and were given their earliest pictorial articulation in the art of Gill. Gill’s bushman, who huddles by the campfire with his dog, protects the herd, brands the cattle, sees the Aboriginal people as equals with whom he labours, searches for a lost child in the bush and finds peace in a bush funeral, is the one who appears throughout the pages of The Australian Sketchbook. Gill’s later work is spirited, beautifully executed and laced with wit.
Gill was never an outsider, living outside the society which surrounded him and which he depicted, but he did fail to find for himself a comfortable niche in the emerging structures of the colonial art world. He was our colonial conscience and a hugely significant artist who presented us to ourselves as we were at a time when society wanted to practice selective amnesia. About a dozen years after his death, a notice appeared in the general art magazine commemorating Gill “… But S.T.G., for thirty years in the early history of this colony, was diligently engaged in depicting the scenery, the streets and the people of this new country. He was a man you might see and even notice moving hither and thither in Melbourne, but he did not look like the ideal artist … And yet, although his name is not high upon the scroll of artist-fame, his work, [is] wonderful, abundant, and in its way, perfect.”
Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM
Curator, Australian Sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of ST Gill and author of ST Gill and his audiences
Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of ST Gill, State Library of Victoria, Keith Murdoch Gallery, Melbourne (VIC), until 25 October 2015 – slv.vic.gov.au