Colonial artist ST Gill
How I came to write about ST Gill and his audiences
7 May 2015
As a child growing up in Melbourne, I remember my Dad pointing out to me the stately GPO building in the city and telling me that the great colonial artist, ST Gill (1818–1880), died there on the steps and, unrecognised, was buried in a pauper's grave. Children are impressionable and the story stuck in my imagination.
Subsequently, every time I encountered a Gill illustration in my school textbooks, I thought about this unrecognised corpse lying on the post office steps. Gill became a bit of an obsession. I started to collect various pictures of his from bank calendars, magazines and heritage publications and a bit of a childish portfolio developed. Sadly, with time, images multiplied, but information about the artist remained limited with many of the same stories recycled.
Coming to Canberra opened the wonderful resources of the National Library of Australia and Gill works of spectacular quality cropped up in considerable numbers. He no longer appeared as a tragic and enigmatic character, but rather as an artist whose biography had been poorly studied. Slowly, bits of the jigsaw were brought together and Gill got a life. I started to assemble a catalogue of his known works (presently it stands near 3,000) and was amazed by its calibre and diversity.
Yet the childish question remained—how did this great artist end up dying as a nobody? Gill came back with an answer which I did not expect: he had become a thorn in the side of the establishment that set the taste for art. He was a tree hugger, an environmentalist who deplored the devastation caused by the mining industry; he empathised with Indigenous peoples and, in some of his artwork, unambiguously championed their cause; he denounced the racism shown towards the Chinese miners; he loved dogs, horses and the bush, and the rural values of mateship and common sense; and he was critical of the institutionalised Church and the pure merinos of high society. He had the spirit of what we would now call a democratic socialist and, by the 1870s, taste in art circles had changed in favour of pretty oil paintings of landscapes, social frivolities and invented mythologies. Gill kept on producing his ‘democratic multiples', his superb watercolours, sketches and prints, but the audience for these was shrinking. Although he made some of his finest work in the final years of his life, he was clearly marching to a different drummer than were most in the colonial art world.
With fresh insights into the life and career of this remarkable artist, the dream arose of writing a book which would bring together some of the best works by Gill and provide a context for interpreting and appreciating the art of Gill. As an author, I am now all too aware of the flaws in my book (this is always the case and I have had plenty of practice with Gill being my 25th published book), but it is my hope that the book, plus the exhibition which opens at the State Library of Victoria in July 2015 before travelling to the National Library in June 2016, will restore Gill to the position of a key figure in the history of Australian art.
Back to the steps of the GPO. Gill was not a hopeless alcoholic, as some popular accounts claim; rather, he died of a ruptured aorta—as we learn from the autopsy—at the age of 62, still working at the peak of his powers. His body was identified later that day, but as he had no assets he was buried at public expense. I am almost too embarrassed to confess, that as a child I thought GPO stood for the ‘Gill Post Office' ...