Christopher Allen explores the paradox of ST GiIl
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