Christo­pher Allen ex­plores the para­dox of ST GiIl

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

The para­dox of ST Gill is plainly ex­pressed on the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria’s web­site and in the ex­hi­bi­tion it­self. He was, we are told, “Aus­tralia’s most sig­nif­i­cant artist of the mid-19th cen­tury”, yet has been all but for­got­ten for the past 100 years or more; or at least, he is re­duced to the rank of a sec­ondary fig­ure in the nar­ra­tive of colo­nial art and a source of il­lus­tra­tions for his­to­ries of the gold­fields.

Whether STG, as he was regularly known in his time, re­ally was the most sig­nif­i­cant artist of his pe­riod is de­bat­able; it is a big claim when we think of Eu­gene von Guer­ard in par­tic­u­lar.

But it is cer­tainly thought-pro­vok­ing and makes us re­alise that the pri­macy of land­scape in the Aus­tralian tra­di­tion, as the main ve­hi­cle through which our art has de­fined the na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, may at the very least have con­signed the prac­ti­tion­ers of other gen­res to an un­war­ranted ob­scu­rity.

Land­scape was cer­tainly im­por­tant from the begin­nings of set­tle­ment, but it is ar­guable that the suc­cess of the Hei­del­berg School and the sim­plis­tic idea that they were the first artists to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia ac­cu­rately skewed our per­cep­tion of their pre­de­ces­sors. It led to al­most a cen­tury of de­pre­ci­a­tion of colo­nial land­scape paint­ing, and per­haps an even more com­plete dis­re­gard of non-land­scape colo­nial art. But, as Sasha Gr­ishin sug­gests in this ex­hi­bi­tion and in the out­stand­ing cat­a­logue that ac­com­pa­nies it — and as the work it­self bears out — there were no doubt other rea­sons for the ne­glect into which Gill slipped even to­wards the end of his own life­time.

Sa­muel Thomas Gill (1818-80) was born in Eng­land and came out to Ade­laide with his fam­ily — his fa­ther was a Bap­tist min­is­ter — in 1839, barely three years af­ter the new colony’s foun­da­tion at the end of 1836 and early in its con­struc­tion on the plan laid out by Colonel Wil­liam Light in 1837. Founded by free set­tlers with money to in­vest, the city grew re­mark­ably quickly, though not as fast as the Mel­bourne that would soon spring up, su­per­charged by the wealth of the gold rush.

Gill’s early works give a vivid pic­ture of the new city, with its broad straight streets laid out on a grid plan that ul­ti­mately goes back to the ur­ban de­sign of Pi­raeus de­vised by Hip­po­damus for Per­i­cles, but which Light had more re­cently ad­mired in the Si­cil­ian city of Cata­nia.

Though still only sparsely built up, Gill’s city seems a tran­quil, or­derly and civilised place — em­i­nently ap­peal­ing to any­one con­sid­er­ing join­ing the new set­tle­ment.

As a free colony of de­cent peo­ple — un­like the riff-raff of Syd­ney — Ade­laide ini­tially was ex­pected to be free of crime, and Light’s de­sign did not even in­clude a prison. Sim­i­larly, there were hopes of main­tain­ing har­mo­nious re­la­tions with the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion and, although such op­ti­mism proved naive, it helps to ex­plain the em­pha­sis on pos­i­tive por­tray­als of the Abo­rig­ines that is no­table in South Aus­tralian colo­nial art.

Gill’s own early im­ages of Abo­rig­ines, from 1842, are ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing, re­call­ing the un­bi­ased cu­rios­ity of the Port Jack­son Pain­ter in Syd­ney town a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions ear­lier. Here too we see im­ages of the daily life of in­dige­nous peo­ple who have only just come in con­tact with the set­tler pop­u­la­tion and have barely had time to as­sim­i­late Euro­pean ways.

There are, for ex­am­ple, wa­ter­colours of na­tives light­ing a fire, div­ing into the wa­ter or hunt­ing. Par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing is a larger wa­ter­colour of a cor­ro­boree, with two set­tler spec­ta­tors on the right whose pres­ence does not seem to con­cern the par­tic­i­pants in the cer­e­mony at all.

Another draw­ing shows an armed skir­mish be­tween two groups: Gill is a sym­pa­thetic ob- server but does not sen­ti­men­tally imag­ine that the Abo­rig­ines are paci­fists. The most moody and ro­man­tic work in the oeu­vre of an artist who is usu­ally any­thing but ro­man­tic shows a na­tive sepul­chre. The body is raised on a plat­form made of sticks and cov­ered with what ap­pears to be wo­ven grass mats. The pur­pose of the plat­form is ex­plained by the pres­ence of sev­eral din­goes be­neath, and the whole scene is bathed in sil­very moon­light.

The in­evitable clash of two in­com­pat­i­ble cul­tural regimes is sub­tly and poignantly evoked in an im­age of na­tives stalk­ing emus. The im­me­di­ate nat­u­ral set­ting seems al­most pris­tine, but there is a post and rail fence on the right and pas­tures are vis­i­ble be­yond that. Much more com­plex and am­biva­lent is the later wa­ter­colour Na­tive Dig­nity (c. 1860) in which an Abo­rig­i­nal cou­ple pa­rades os­ten­ta­tiously through the streets in an in­con­gru­ous mix­ture of Euro­pean cloth­ing: the ab­sur­dity of their dress is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, but per­haps just as sig­nif­i­cant is the mean-spir­ited dis­ap­proval of the colo­nials who look askance at them.

Another am­bigu­ous im­age is one that Gill re­peated on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions: a squat­ting, grin­ning Abo­rig­ine with fam­ily mem­bers be­hind him and the ti­tle “Lord of all he sur­veys”. The tone of the im­age de­pends on the way that we in­ter­pret the grin, which is hardly a smile of serene con­tent­ment. But there is lit­tle doubt about the way the same tag is used in a pair of pic­tures con­trast­ing the lot of the Abo­rig­ines be­fore and af­ter the ar­rival of white men, per­son­i­fied as a fat and self-sat­is­fied landowner in the sec­ond of the pic­tures.

Gill is best known, how­ever, for the im­ages he made of the gold­fields, to which he trav­elled in 1852. Those that he pro­duced at the Bal­larat fields are the sub­ject of a small but valu­able satel­lite ex­hi­bi­tion at the Bal­larat Art Gallery.

Gill drew in pen­cil and wa­ter­colour, but his work be­came widely known and pop­u­lar through the new medium of chro­molithog­ra­phy, which made coloured pic­tures ac­ces­si­ble to a wide public.

The gold rush at­tracted for­tune hun­ters from all over the world like swarms of lo­custs, dev­as­tat­ing the land and liv­ing in squalid camps, driven, as though in some me­dieval al­le­gory, by the des­per­ate search for wealth. A few made for­tunes, and many re­mained poor or ended up even more des­ti­tute than they had be­gun. The sub­ject fas­ci­nated Gill, but he ap­proached it on the whole in a low-key, anec­do­tal mode, with a mix­ture of com­edy and pathos and a vein of moral crit­i­cism.

Of­ten the im­ages are con­ceived in pairs or in se­ries. Thus Lucky Dig­ger That Re­turned shows the now wealthy prospec­tor at home in com­fort­able mid­dle-class sur­round­ings, with his wife and fam­ily. Un­lucky Dig­ger That Never Re­turned, mean­while, dis­plays the grim pic­ture of

Aus­tralian Sketch­book: Colo­nial Life and the Art of ST Gill State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, un­til Oc­to­ber 25 Gill in the Gold­fields Art Gallery of Bal­larat, un­til Septem­ber 13 ST Gill, Bad Re­sults, circa 1852 (wa­ter­colour and gum ara­bic on pa­per), Art Gallery of Bal­larat

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.