It would be hard to overstate the importance of the role played by colonial artist S.T. Gill (1818-1880) in establishing the most widely accepted images of 19th century Australia. Rarely can an artist anywhere have been so central to the early formation, in a visual arts sense, of a modern nation.
Active in the period just prior to mass photography, Gill documented the everyday life in the 19th century at the same time as he transformed it in aesthetic terms. It is not just the images themselves that matter, but the example they provide for subsequent generations of artists right up until the present day.
One contemporary artist who seems to me to follow in this tradition is Margaret Ackland, whose wonderful Instagram series The Watercolour News on a daily basis recreates topical images from current affairs as well as capturing scenes of inner suburban Sydney street life.
To look at Gill’s work today in the flesh is to marvel at how fine and detailed his watercolours, lithographs and sketches are.
In their own highly distinctive way, I would say the pictorial journalism pioneered by Gill also informs the superb work of acutely observational artists such as Rocco Fazzari and Oslo Davis. Like Ackland, Fazzari and Davis (and others) give us images we could easily have seen freighted with a dimension of poignancy and humour as well as sheer artistry that news photographs rarely convey by themselves.
One of the most impressive aspects the development of Gill’s art is his embrace of different media. Best known for watercolours, Gill’s sketches and lithographs also demand serious consideration as essential records of life in the cities and the outback. If he was working now it is easy to imagine Gill using digital means to create or at least transmit his work.
Gill’s intended audiences were wealthy individuals and public institutions in addition to an emerging mass market. To look at Gill’s work today in the flesh is to marvel at how fine and detailed his watercolours, lithographs and sketches are despite the pictures themselves being physically so small. Even panoramic subjects such as the scenes of cricket matches played at the Domain in Sydney are made up of tiny, carefully differentiated figures all drawn as individuals, a bit like Canaletto’s scenes of Venice.
We can see in the work an understanding of the subjects, especially Indigenous Australians that transcends what we might now take to be the often dismissive if not hostile attitudes of his era. Gill was also remarkably empathetic towards animals, both native and imported, and provides a valuable if rather dismal record of kangaroo hunting, a popular blood sport of the time.
Like many of the great artists of the past, including Rembrandt, Gill ended up being buried in a pauper’s grave.
Dogs and horses are rarely absent from Gill’s images, reflecting his own liking for the former and the general appreciation of the latter as a status symbol as well as the most practical means of transport. It is important to note that as Gill had no photographic reference to work from; his work was created from very careful and detailed observation retained in what now we would call a photographic memory.
As suggested by the title of leading art historian Sasha Grishin’s recent book S.T. Gill & his audiences, Gill was a working artist throughout his life. In his unassuming professional way, Gill, who like other journeyman artists of his time received no sustaining financial support and had no safety net despite ill health and rampant plagiarism, documented momentous events like the Victorian gold rush.
Gill worked extensively in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, moving on to wherever enough new material was to be found. He achieved reputational success but not financial security. Like many of the great artists of the past, including Rembrandt, Gill ended up being buried in a pauper’s grave.
S.T. Gill’s empathetic spirit lives on in Australia in the work of some of our most original and socially engaged artists.
As an artist living from commission to commission, Gill had to cater to the public taste for realism as well as satisfy a growing taste for romanticising pioneering bush life. He had to produce what his customers wanted, though he did it in his own way. There is a subtle irony on display in much of Gill’s work. Gill had no tickets on himself, and in self-portraits renders himself with disarming self-deprecation.
Subsequent schools of artists such as the Australian Impressionists began reimagining as well as recording the bush and the cities in terms of sophisticated light and colour relationships. Modern art, as we know, moved on towards the exploration of total abstraction.
It was largely left to illustrators and cartoonists to depict the ordinary comings and goings as well as the quotidian quirks of daily life in Australia.
More than a century after Gill collapsed and died from a heart attack on the steps of Melbourne’s General Post Office, a building he had previously drawn with characteristic finesse, his work provides a portal to an Australia both strange and recognisable.
S.T. Gill had the soul of a true artist, one who thoroughly deserves constant rediscovery and whose empathetic spirit lives on in Australia in the work of some of our most original and socially engaged artists.
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