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Artist S.T. Gill

Work rich in historical detail

By Jean Schmaal 

Scope Magazine June 1977

Australia’s first painter of modern life

ST Gill, Australia’s first painter of modern life
The Conversation : July 15, 2015

Sasha Grishin,
Adjunct Professor of Art History, ANU

ST Gill may be the quintessential Australian colonial artist, known to anyone who has been educated in Australia and seen textbooks on Australian history full of Gill illustrations of the gold rushes.


Who was Gill and why was he lionised in the 1850s, neglected later in life and subsequently relegated to art historical purgatory?

He was born in Somerset in England in 1818, where he received his early training in Devonport, Plymouth and London.

The Gill family migrated to South Australia, when he was 21, arriving in the newly established colony just before Christmas in 1839.

For the next 41 years Gill, in Australia, worked at a frenetic pace, initially spending 12 years in South Australia, then four years in Victoria, much of this time on the goldfields, then seven or eight years in Sydney and then the final 16 years of his life based predominantly in Melbourne, where he died in relative poverty in 1880.

Gill’s output was prodigious, with about 3,000 items by his hand catalogued thus far. That was in keeping with the rate of production by his contemporaries working within the tradition of democratic multiples.

Gill produced watercolours, pen and brush wash drawings, pencil drawings and sketches, lithographs, other forms of prints, and possibly daguerreotypes.

He may have experimented with oils, but few or no oil paintings are extant which are indisputably by his hand.

There is evidence in his art that he spent a considerable amount of time with Indigenous people and came to respect the way they lived within their environment. Subsequently in his work he bore witness to how Indigenous Australians had become dispossessed and exploited in their own land.

How is a man remembered when he dies? Shakespeare had it the the good was oft interred with his bones, and it was the evil that was remembered afterwards.

For all that, some remarkably beautiful and enduring works of art, buildings, feats of engineering, music and so on, remind us of their authors, centuries after their demise.

On the Australian Colonial scene of more recent times a somewhat more humble man has, nearly 100 years after his death, come to be recognised as one of the most valuable recorders of those early times.

One doubts whether Samuel Thomas Gill set out deliberately to cast himself in such a mould when he landed at Port Adelaide in 1839.

He was only 21 when he came to South Australia with his parents and younger brother and sister. 

His early training in draughtsmanship and painting, coupled with his keen eye for detail, were later to reveal him as the great humanist in Australian Art. 

People and their activities were his source of material, and his paintings showed them as they were --- the unglamorous, virile, down-to-earth pioneers of the new Colony.

Gill, from the beginnings of his Australian life, had the gift of seeing the landscape through Australian eyes. 

He was the first artist to interpret what he saw without giving Australian scenes the softness and opulence of the European countryside. 

He painted gum trees to look like gum trees, and not like the oaks and elms of England. 

He was also the first artist to paint the harsh red outback of his new homeland.

His early scenes of Adelaide show a rather surprisingly well-established colony for the short time since first settlement. His paintings teem with life as it was in that first decade.

One sees King William Street deeply rutted by bullock wagons and busy with all manner of horse transport;

  • there's a water carrier

  • shepherds and their dogs,

  • and drovers, and among others,

  • a woman with a goat-drawn cart selling milk.

Early scenes of Adelaide
Australia's forgotten Colonial Artist

There's scenes of North Terrace where Gill shows 'gentlemen' of Adelaide doffing their top hats, and strolling with their walking sticks.

Close by, blanket-clad aborigines make their way.

And everywhere there's dogs ---- barking, running, active dogs ---- all no doubt adding to the liveliness and rowdiness of the scene as Gill saw it.

In 1844, when Charles Sturt left Adelaide with an exploration party, Gill was there to see it off an to paint two fine pictures. 

These are among Gill's finest and most characteristic works.

They show the prancing procession of the upper-crusters on their shining horses passing some of the more solid buildings of Adelaide.

In the foreground is a picket fence and the backs of onlookers with a heap of dead marines and beer barrels at their feet.

Gill was not one to shy clear of the obvious, crude though it may have been.

Soon after Sturt's return, Gill set out in 1846 on an exploring expedition with John Ainsworth Horrocks, who had settled at Penwortham, in a rich valley south of what is now Clare.

Gill kept a diary and made numerous sketches of what turned out to be a tragic journey which ended in the accidental shooting of Horrocks and his subsequent death.

These sketches are particularly precious to latter-day historians, being rich in detail in an era before the advent of photography.


Below: Gill's record of the Horrock's expedition

In 1851, with the discovery of gold in Victoria, almost every able-bodied man in SA hurried east to the diggings. 

With them went Gill who sketched and painted every aspect of the hectic activities on the goldfields, and it is perhaps for this work that he is known best of all.

Here again, Gill did not go in for glamor; he caught people in the act, whether they were tramping off to the diggings, swags upon their backs, drinking at the shanties, 'salting' a mine, or engaging in the many activities of a busy mining camp.

He also sketched the Police Gold Escorts which conveyed the precious cargo back to civilisation. 

And here again, the detail is remarkable.

Gill has left us reminders of many walks of life of those early Colonial days --- pictures of the drovers, the shepherds, the bullockies carting wool in the fifties, walks of life we will not see again.

Memorial tombstone ST Gill.jpg

Gill began to drink heavily and slowly sank into abject poverty.

On October 27, 1880, in the midst of an argument over the hanging of Ned Kelly, he collapsed on the steps of Melbourne Post Office and was dead by the time he was taken to hospital.

He was buried in an unmarked public grave in the Melbourne General Cemetery until 1912 when the Historical Society of Victoria removed his remains to a private grave and erected a monument to commemorate his work.

He had never married.

So passed a brilliant man whose star was not to reach its zenith until nearly a century after his most active days.

Today his work is highly praised and eagerly sought after. Fortunate indeed is the person who can point to a picture on his wall and say, "That's an original Gill."

There are a few in the Clare district; one in particular shows the Bungaree Head station in 1846.


 Date: July 7, 2016


Colonial artist ST Gill portrayed 19th-century Australia’s bush, towns, goldfields and cities alike in vivid detail. 

Who was Samuel Thomas Gill and why is he so important that the National Library of Australia is devoting a major three-month exhibition to him?


Gill was born in 1818 in Perriton, a small village in Somerset, England, where his father was the Baptist minister.

He grew up in Devon and Cornwall, where his parents ran separate schools for young gentlemen and young ladies.

Gill initially studied in the home school before attending William Seabrook’s Academy.

He worked in an art framing and lithographic print shop in Devonport and then painted backgrounds for a London-based silhouette studio.

Following the death of two of his siblings in a smallpox outbreak, Gill and his family migrated to the newly established colony of South Australia. They arrived just before Christmas in 1839.

The 21-year-old Gill immediately launched himself as an artist with advertisements in the press offering his services.

It was probably during his first couple of years in Australia that Gill painted a series of watercolours of the Labours of the Months and the Four Seasons in the National Library collection, where he translated an English pictorial tradition into terms of the South Australian agrarian calendar and placed it within a localised South Australian setting.

November, for example, was the month for shearing, where Gill painted possibly the earliest shearing scene in Australian art.

In 1846, Gill embarked on a journey of exploration led by the grazier John Horrocks, which ended tragically when the explorer was shot by his camel.

Horrocks, in keeping with the European explorer/naturalist tradition, shot at everything that was unusual and collectable.

On seeing an attractive bird, he decided to shoot it, but when loading his shotgun, he unwittingly rested against Harry the camel.

The camel jerked and the shot was released into Horrocks’ face and hand.

As the explorer lay dying, Gill nursed him over a number of days, but to no avail, and when he died the hapless camel was put to death on the explorer’s orders.

Gill produced 33 watercolours on this journey, which were exhibited to considerable acclaim in Adelaide.

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 the colony 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.

Almost overnight Gill became the highest profile artist of his day. 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.

Gill’s little lithographs recorded the unfolding environmental catastrophe on the goldfields, where the trees had largely been felled, streams clogged and the human anthill had eroded the surface of the ground.

Gill grew increasingly critical of some attitudes of the mother country, especially towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia and its flora and fauna, and he frequently started to champion a new breed of people — the Australian digger — who was tough, resourceful and resilient.

He also to some extent became the conscience of Australian colonial art and on many occasions he depicted the ‘dark side’ of life on the goldfields.

While politicians and some of those in the media whipped up hysteria about people from Asia, called coolies or celestials, who were said to be invading Australia to steal jobs and gold, Gill showed hardworking Chinese living in harmony with the other miners.

He created the first image of a Chinese takeaway restaurant in Australia, where food was advertised as being always ready and with customers taking it away in canisters.

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Sturt's Expedition
Expediton with John Horrocks
1851 Goldruh
Early Colonial Days

Gill's name is also commemorated on the three cairns which have been erected in memory of John Horrocks and his party along the path it trod during that last tragic journey into the Far North ---

--- One cairn is at Penwortham

--- Another cairn is at Gulnare (said to be named after his favourite dog)

--- and the third cairn is in Horrocks Pass, where the party went, accompanied by Harry, the first camel ever imported into Australia and the destined to be the cause of Horrocks' untimely death.

It is doubtful whether any other artist's work can be turned to for such richness of detail as Gill portrayed;

his goldfields sketches, in particular, are a veritable treasure-house for such 20th century innovations as television programs wishing to recapture the exciting atmosphere of those rumbustious times

 - Jean Schmaal, June 1977

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