Diggers on the goldfields came from diverse backgrounds, and hence the artists who produced works during that time ranged from immigrants, adventurers and public servants, to publishers, professional artists and absolute amateurs.
The most popular subject matter portrayed in the artwork was the “digger at work”. This was mostly portrayed with an adventurer spirit – here today, gone tomorrow. Other subject matters included the impact of mining on the landscape and the commercial and domestic life of the diggers and their families. Family representations were however, in the minority and did not reflect the reality on the diggings, where families were a significant proportion of the population.
Also largely absent from paintings of the time were Aboriginals. Eugene Von Guérard, in 1854, completed two paintings depicting groups of Aboriginals in the bush. The depictions did not feature them in the diggings themselves, but reflected the reality: most indigenous Australians left the goldfields, as they could no longer sustain their traditional lifestyle.
Arguably the most prolific of the gold rush artists was ST Gill who, like others, used the recreational and commercial life of the goldfields as subject matter for his art. Stores, restaurants, popular entertainments, sly grog shops and Sunday services were the subject of many drawings and prints of the 1850s.
Some artists took great liberties with the truth when depicting commercial life on the diggings. George Rowe’s watercolour “Parker and Macord, Potato Salesmen and General Fruiterers” Bendigo c1857 not only depicted the store as a bricks and mortar establishment (not the tent it actually was), but included a veritable feast of (very rarely seen) fresh fruit and vegetables available for sale.
Rowe also found a couple of profitable sidelines to his painting by writing letters for the many illiterate diggers, as well as painting flags used to identify businesses, dwellings and claims. Images of the Chinese camps at the diggings invariably show flags flying.
All aspects of artistic endeavour flourished on the goldfields and in the community at large, with engraving and illustrations becoming extremely popular in the 1850s. Good prices were often achieved for pieces chronicling goldfield life – the general public keen for a piece of the action that was the talk of the nation. Illustrated memoirs were published, newspapers featuring engravings were published locally and overseas and some artists even went on to achieve a fair degree of fame: Eugene Von Guérard becoming curator of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1870.
By Nicole Grant
Deborah Clark, Art of the Goldfields, from Gold and Civilisation, Art Exhibitions Australia & The National Museum of Australia, 2001.