The son of an amateur artist, Samuel Thomas Gill (1818–1880) was born in Perriton in Somerset, England, and educated in Plymouth at a school kept by his parents and at Dr Seabrook’s academy. He was employed as a draftsman and painter by the Hubbard Profile Gallery in London. In 1839 he emigrated with his family to South Australia. He set up a studio in Adelaide. As well as painting buildings and street scenes, he took an early interest in the interior of the colony and the Aboriginal peoples. In 1846 he was a member of the party led by J.A. Horrocks that explored the country near the head of Spencer’s Gulf. Some of the paintings made on this journey were displayed in the first general art exhibition in Adelaide in 1847.
In 1851 Gill was declared bankrupt and in 1852 he travelled to the Victorian goldfields. After a few months he had assembled a large number of watercolours and wash drawings, which were highly praised when they were exhibited in Melbourne. A skilled lithographer, Gill produced 24 lithographs entitled Victorian Gold Diggings and Diggers of Victoria as They are (1853) and a later series The Diggings and Diggers of Victoria as They were in 1852 (1854). He was recognised as the leading artist of the goldfields and his works were pirated in England and Europe.
In 1856 Gill moved to Sydney where he produced Scenery in and around Sydney. He was commissioned to paint some wealthy homes, but his fortunes waned and he increasingly relied on newspaper work. He returned to Melbourne in 1862 and published The Australian Sketchbook in 1865. In 1869 the Public Library commissioned him to paint 40 watercolours of the goldfields, based on his drawings. He produced drawings for the Melbourne Herald, but his last years were clouded by alcoholism; he became largely forgotten and was destitute at the time of his death.
The earliest acquisition by the Library of paintings and drawings of S.T. Gill was the purchase of 27 works from W.A. Bell of London in 1932. In 1954 Queen Elizabeth II presented 13 sketches by Gill and Charles Sturt to the Australia Government and they were placed in the Library. There are 86 original works of Gill in the Nan Kivell Collection, which was purchased from Rex Nan Kivell in 1959. They make up about half of the total holdings in the Library. Most of the other works by Gill in the Library’s collection have been bought at auctions or from art dealers, the most recent being in 2004.
The Library holds 95 watercolours and about 80 wash, sepia wash or pencil drawings of S.T. Gill. In addition, it has a very large number of lithographs and chromolithographs engraved by Gill, as well as wood engravings, lithographs and photolithographs based on his paintings and sketches.
The majority of the original works date from 1841–52, when Gill was living in South Australia. There are many depictions of the streets and buildings of Adelaide, including the barracks, court house, Frome Bridge, the gaol, Government house, the hospital, Methodist chapel, North Terrace, the racecourse, St John’s Church, Trinity Church, and the wharves and customs house at Port Adelaide. Country towns feature in some works, such as Burra, Mount Barker and Mount Gambier, as well as stations at Clare, Kapunda and Mount Remarkable. Several of the works were painted on the Horrocks expedition to the top of Spencer’s Gulf and the Flinders Ranges in 1846. Other subjects include cattle drovers, emus, grass trees, the interior of a settler’s hut, kangaroo hunting, a mounted stockman, racehorses, a shepherd, wild dogs and woodcutters. Aborigines appear in many of the South Australian paintings, mainly hunting possums, kangaroos and emus, taking part in corroborees, or working with stockmen and explorers.
There are a small number of paintings and drawings of the goldfields at Ballarat and Mount Alexander (Castlemaine), with titles such as Claim Disputed, Concert Room, Charlie Napier Hotel, Ballarat, Diggers en Route to Deposit Gold and McLaren’s Boxing Saloon, Ballarat. They are complemented by plates from Gill’s books on the goldfields. Other Victorian works depict the Royal Arcade in Melbourne, the Yarra River, Port Phillip Bay, falls on the Wannon River, the lighthouse at Queenscliff and bushmen hunting in Gippsland.
The final group of original works date from 1856–62, when Gill was living in Sydney. The subjects include the battery at Mrs Macquarie’s Point, the General Post Office, the Sydney Morning Herald office, the first cricket match between New South Wales and Victoria (1857), the Gap at Watsons Bay and a departing emigrant (1859).
The paintings, drawings and prints of Gill are held in the Pictures Collection. Most have been catalogued individually and many of them have been digitised.
Some of Gill’s books of lithographs, such as The Australian Sketch Book (1855), Sketches of the Gold Diggings (1855) and The Gold Fields of Victoria during 1852 & 3 (1872), are held in the Australian Collection. Loose plates from these and other publications are held in the Pictures Collection.
Paintings, drawings and prints of Gill are held in several galleries and libraries, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, the Castlemaine Art Gallery, the La Trobe Library (State Library of Victoria), the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales), the National Gallery of Victoria and the Queensland Art Gallery.
Bowden, Keith Macrae, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist, K.M. Bowden, Sydney .
Dutton, Geoffrey, S.T. Gill’s Australia, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981.
Jones, Shar, Gill, Samuel Thomas, in Joan Kerr (ed.), The Dictionary of Australian Artists, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, pp. 296–8.
Morgan, E.J.R., Gill, Samuel Thomas (1818–1880), Australian Dictionary of Biography online