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S.T. Gill (1818-1880)

Amongst the newcomers to Central Victoria in 1852 was the artist Samuel Thomas Gill, who soon abandoned his attempts to mine gold in favour of drawing and painting all aspects of life on the recently discovered gold fields. Born in Perriton, Somerset, England in 1818, Gill was educated at Dr Seabrook’s Academy, Plymouth. From here he went to London, where he was employed as a draughtsman and watercolour painter by the Hubard Profile Gallery prior to his departure for South Australia in 1839.

Working primarily in watercolour, S.T. Gill established a studio in Adelaide in 1840 and called for those "desirous of obtaining a correct likeness" of themselves and their families, friends, animals and residences to contact him. Although many portraits as well as views of the city were executed by Gill during this time he also ventured out into the countryside, where he produced a number of watercolours that reflect the colours and form of the Australian landscape.

The 1840s were a time of exploration in South Australia. Not only was Gill acquainted with explorer John Eyre, but he also recorded the newly discovered copper mines at Burra Burra as well as the departure of Charles Sturt’s expedition to the interior on 8 October 1844. Then some two years later Gill himself set out on John Horrock’s ill-fated expedition northwards to the Flinders Ranges and beyond as an unpaid draughtsman.

Following a series of personal tragedies including bankruptcy and ill health, Gill joined a large group of South Australians heading for the Mt Alexander gold fields, Victoria in 1852. Not well-versed in the nature of the Australian landscape Gill turned his hand to portraying life on the gold fields as what had once been sparsely populated pastoral land gave way to activities associated with mining and the emergence of substantial towns like those of Ballarat and Bendigo.

The lucky digger that returned
By S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
Click "Enlarge" above to view a gallery of S.T. Gill's paintings.

The unlucky digger that never returned
By S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
Click "Enlarge" above to view a gallery of S.T. Gill's paintings.

The watercolours produced by Gill during tis time focus on everyday activities and depict all levels of society when both rich and poor flooded on to the gold fields and worked side by side in search of gold. While some of these images such as Forest Creek, Mt Alexander are panoramic in nature, may are much more intimate scenes of a particular event or activity and often highlight the differences between those who succeeded and those who have failed such as The Lucky Digger That Returned and The Unlucky Digger That Never Returned. Not only the vastness of the landscape, but also the range and impact of mining activities upon it is also depicted in many of these watercolours. As tents gave way to more substantial buildings, these too were featured along with their inhabitants, portraying both the excitement of the times and also the hardships. Gill had an eye for detail, as is reflected in the Arrival of the Geelong Mail, Main Road, Ballarat 1855, in which he captures the animals and children running in front of the coach as it enters the town, and faces in may of his images reflected the feeling of the moment.

S.T. Gill
Arrival of the Geelong mail, Main Road, Ballarat, May 2nd, 1855
27.8 x 42.1cm
Purchased with the assistance of the citizens of Ballarat, 1978
Collection: Ballarat Fine Art Gallery
Click "Enlarge" above to view a gallery of S.T. Gill's paintings.

Late in 1852 Gill moved to Melbourne where he recorded the growth of that city as well as making periodic sketching trips to the gold fields and other parts of Victoria. Gill was a skilled lithographer and during this time he produced a number of lithographs including Victorian Gold Diggers as They Are, The Diggers and Diggings of Victoria As They Are 1855, and Sketches of Victoria. It is largely from these works, some of which were also reproduced in England and Germany where there was a great demand for knowledge about the new discoveries, that Gill earned the reputation of "artist of the goldfields". Victoria Illustrated, a series of drawings by Goll engraved in London was published in Melbourne in 1857, by which time the artist, whose work as an illustrator and cartoonist was now well establish, had moved to Sydney.

On arrival in New South Wales Gill continued to work as an artist and illustrator, but unable to repeat his earlier successes, he returned to Melbourne in 1862. In the interim Melbourne had grown considerably and Gill had been largely forgotten, but in 1869 he was commissioned by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library to produce 40 watercolours depicting life on the Victorian gold fields. At the same time that he produced this collection Gill prepared a largely identical set of 53 watercolours under the title drawing of The Goldfields of Victoria During 1852-53 Comprising Fifty Sketches of Life and Character Primative (sic) Operations etc, etc., By S.T. Gill Melbourne, 1872, but this was not published before his rather undignified death on the steps of the Melbourne Post Office in 1880.

Buried in a pauper’s grave S.T.Gill’s body was eventually moved to a private grave in 1913, thanks to a subscription raised by the Historical Society of Victoria which also arranged for a headstone to be place there.

To view a gallery of S.T. Gill paintings, click "Enlarge" on any of the images above.


By Gael Ramsay

From Gold and Civilisation, National Museum of Australia 2001. Published by Art Exhibitions Australia Ltd and the National Museum of Australia.

Bowden, R.M., S.T. Gill: Artist, Melbourne 1971

Dutton, G., S.T. Gill’s Australia, Melbourne, 1981

Appleyard, R.G., Fargher, B., and Radford, R., S.T. Gill: The South Australian Years, 1839-1852, catalogue, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1986


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