The Life and Art of S.T. Gill
Talks / Lecture
Hear exhibition curator, Sasha Grishin in conversation with Virginia Haussegger, exploring the life and art of colonial artist S.T. Gill.
Sasha Grishin is a leading art historian, art critic and curator. He is curator of the Library’s current exhibition, Australian Sketchbook: Colonial Life and the Art of ST Gill, and author of the companion publication ST Gill and His Audiences.
Transcript of ‘In Conversation: Sasha Grishin and Virginia Haussegger’
Speakers: Mathew Jones (MJ), Sasha Grishin (SG), Virginia Haussegger (VH)
Location: National Library of Australia
MJ: Hello everyone. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name's Matthew Jones and I am a curator in the exhibitions branch here at the Library. And thank you for coming out on such a wet and not so pleasant afternoon. But I think that kind of shows how much ... how keen we are ... all are to hear Sasha and Virginia today and talk and listen to them talk about Gill. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their Elders, past and present, for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home. So today we're going to listen to Virginia Haussegger AM and Sasha Grishin AM, the curator of the exhibition ST Gill. I should say, pardon me, Australian Sketchbook, Colonial Life and the Art of ST Gill and they'll be in conversation today talking about that exhibition and about the life of Gill.
Australian Sketchbook, Colonial Life and the Art of ST Gill is the first comprehensive retrospective of the life and art of ST Gill. It tells the everyday stories of Colonial Victoria through the vibrant imagery of a man who was once Australia's most popular artist and then suffered decades out of view. Prospectors, Aboriginal Australians, larrikins and swagmen, a range of classic Australian characters and types are depicted in Gill's work. This retrospective of Gill's work showcases more than 200 paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints and enables us to glimpse life on the goldfields and in the bush, cities and towns of 19th century Australia. The National Library has been extremely fortunate to form a partnership with the State Library, Victoria, to develop two exhibitions on two significant 19th century artists, ST Gill and William Strutt.
The William Strutt exhibition, Heroes and Villains, was here at the National Library last year and is now at the State Library of Victoria this year and of course Australian Sketchbook was at the State Library of Victoria last year and now we're very fortunate to have it here at the National Library.
By working together we've been able to combine two great collections and product two exhibitions that have made an important contribution to Australian art history. I thank our colleagues at the State Library of Victoria for sharing with us their collections, expertise and passion for Australian art and history.
Of course a retrospective such as this is as much a life's work for the curator, Sasha Grishin, as it is a reflection of the life's work of the artist, and it's a great pleasure to acknowledge the role the Sasha played in bringing this exhibition to fruition. Sasha founded the fine art program at the AustralianNationalUniversity in 1977 and now works internationally as an art historian, art critic and curator. And as well as being the curator of the exhibition he was also the author of the exhibition's companion publication, ST Gill and his Audiences, which is on sale in the bookshop.
Virginia Haussegger is the face of ABC TV news in Canberra. She's an award winning journalist, writer and commentator whose extensive media career spans more than 25 years. Today our speakers in conversation will shed light on the life and art of colonial artist, ST Gill. And now I'd like you to please join me in welcoming them to the stage. Thank you very much.
VH: Well good afternoon. It's a delight to see so many of you out on this wet Canberra day. A very Canberra day, I've just come back from three weeks in the sun and Canberra's raining (chuckling), and it's cold, but lovely. What a pleasure and delight it is for me, I've got to say, and this is something that I have raced back for, to have the opportunity to sit here in conversation with Sasha. Professor Sasha Grishin is by far one of Australia's ... or Australia's greatest leading art historian and scholar, and it is an absolute honour and privilege to be given this opportunity. So thank you very much, Sasha, for agreeing to do this event.
SG: Virginia, after such an introduction, if I say anything it's going to be an anticlimax.
VH: (Chuckling) Not at all, not at all.
VH: Now we have just under an hour to talk. I will take 10 minutes or so of questions at the end so if you've got questions store them up and this is a wonderful ... well, as I say, opportunity to ask Sasha directly yourself what it is you'd like to know about ST Gill or wider issues.
I'm going to start by saying, though, that you know how often in these conversation sessions you find the interviewer, ie me, interrupts and awful lot and likes to show off what they know about the issue. I just want to let you know that's not going to happen today.
SG: Oh pity (chuckling).
VH: Because I don't know much about ST Gill at all. And in fact I'm a appalled to say because I did do a fine arts degree at Melbourne Uni many, many moons ago. He's never been on my radar until recent years, because of you, which brings me to my first question, Sasha, why? Why ST Gill? You have devoted many, many years and a huge amount of effort to making sure that he stays in Australian memory. Why?
SG: It's like that I really don’t know how to answer that. But as this is going towards the end of the exhibition, and I'll promise something. When this exhibition finishes, I've been working on a very, very large ST Gill database, a catalogue raisonné. That's going to go live online and after that I will divorce Gill.
SG: 'Cause he has certainly lasted longer than most marriages.
VH: I don't believe you.
VH: I did ... I don't believe you will divorce him because I know, and you have actually written this yourself, you have had a fascination with ST Gill since the age of six, since you were a child. Tell us that little story about what first brought him to your attention?
SG: Well Virginia's referring to ... I thought you said you weren't going to interrupt (both laughing).
VH: I just changed my mind (both laughing).
SG: No. When I was a very small child, I was born in Melbourne, and my father and I were passing the GPO, and he said to me, as a sort of throw-away line, there, son, Australia's greatest colonial artist died on the steps in poverty. Don't follow a career in art (all laughing).
VH: That worked well, didn't it?
SG: And that worked ... yeah, it's ... obviously I listened to my father's words. And anyway that bugged me. There's this contradiction. Greatest artist died in poverty. And to say that I worked on Gill ever since would be not true. But it's always been sort of at the back of my psyche. And then as I went through the schooling system in Melbourne he cropped up everywhere. You couldn't pick up a book on Australian history without having a few of those funny little Gill drawings of the goldfields and then bank calendars came out from the National Bank, Gill was everywhere.
Gill seemed to surround up, but whenever I ask questions like, what do we know about him, and people say, oh, he's a colonial artist ... about him, no ... very little is known. His personal life is biographies unknown. So I say, okay. And then probably about 20-something years ago, when I was already in Canberra, I thought to myself, well let's find out what we do know about Gill. And being sort of a trained art historian, I thought well the best thing to do is to really get together all of Gill's work, bit by bit, and look at it 'cause up 'til now virtually everyone in this audience can bring to mind about 30 or 40 images by Gill.
VH: Without necessarily even knowing if they are by Gill.
SG: Without necessarily knowing they're Gill's and just encounters in history books. And I thought to myself, well is that all he's done? And so bit by bit I started to assemble with a ... with assistance, of course, what we refer to as a catalogue raisonné. It currently stands just shy of 3,000 works.
VH: So he's probably one of Australia's most prolific artists.
SG: Ah, yes he was but it was not unusual for artists who worked in democratic medians like printmaking, water colours, to have work in their thousands. I mean, Cruikshank's catalogue raisonné runs to about 7,000. Honoré Daumier's is to about ... over 8,000. So, I mean, these people really worked hard. I mean, Gill could easily do ... and this is separate images. I'm not talking about duplicate prints.
So in the process of work, I got to know much more about Gill and the more I sort of learnt about him the more interested I became in him. 'Cause I certainly realised that the goldfields were just one small aspect of this overall oeuvre. And there's ... he's really the social conscience of 19th century Australian society.
VH: Well let's talk a little bit about that because that's what I first gleaned when I came across your writing about him. And I was curious because I've been dismissive of him, thinking he's a bit of a cartoonist, basically, and I don't particularly like the style of work until I've started to look a little bit closer and picked up on what you've said. But let's just unpack it by going back to when he first came to Australia. He was 21 years old, he arrived in South Australia and he immediately announces, or within a couple of months, gets rooms and announces that he's an artist with open rooms and invites people to come and purchase his work.
VH: Tell us about what happened from there?
SG: Well essentially Gill was born in England, he was born in Somerset, in 1818. His parents ... his father was a Baptist minister, he ran a school for gifted boys. His mother ran a school for gifted ladies so Gill goes through this home schooling system. Then he goes into the WilliamSeabrookAcademy. Then he works in London, he works in a framing shop. So by the time he arrives in Australia, as Virginia said, just before Christmas, in 1939, he's 21 years old. Two of his siblings in England had died of smallpox and the decision was made by the family to uproot and come to the newly established colony of South Australia, which had only been going for about a year at that stage.
I think he arrived as an Englishman with all the sort of prejudices of an early 19th century Englishman and an occupier, colonial character. And immediately advertises that I make likenesses of people, of horses and dogs, of estates, local scenery. And I think Gill, at that stage, starts to immediately look around him. And things like the calendars sequel that we have, one of the treasures of the National Library here in Canberra from the Rex Nan Kivell collection. The labours of the months, the seasons, all of those things are done by Gill in the first two or three years in Australia. Fascinating material.
Gill also participates as an unpaid extra on a journey of exploration with a cer ...
VH: Charles Sturt.
SG: Well no, he doesn't actually go in the Sturt one, he goes in the John Horrocks expedition in 1846.
VH: And why would have agreed to go on ... with that team as an unpaid artist?
SG: Well I think two things; firstly, John Horrocks was the same age as him. They both arrived in '39. They knew one another, they're in ... it's a small community. And the other thing is to capture the imagination, to see things that no white man has seen before.
VH: Now, but as you say, he arrived as an Englishman and I recall you even saying that he was part of the British propaganda ...
VH: ... circle.
VH: A propagandist. Was he going to really see for himself because he realised Australia was not what the English understood it to be?
SG: Well I think we have his diaries from the Horrocks expedition, where he is recording what he's seeing and he's obviously as a young bloke relating to what he knows. I saw this and this is different from this, I saw this and so on. But the expedition, I think, opened his eyes a little bit because he started to see indigenous people. The expedition was interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the first expedition in Australia where they actually used a camel to explore the outback.
VH: An imported camel too.
SG: An imported camel. And, as you've asked, the camel's name was Harry.
SG: Thank you for that. And it's unique, as far as I'm aware, because it was an expedition where actually the camel shot the explorer.
VH: How did that happen?
SG: Well basically camels one, explorers yet to score.
SG: John Horrocks was a typical explorer, so any time he saw anything of interest he would just shoot it and bag it. It was just a cultivated cultured attitude to it.
SG: And he saw a rather handsome looking bird, sounds by the description like a parrot, decided to load his shotgun, lean against Harry the camel, the camel jerked and the shotgun went up in his face. So a few days later the explorer was dead and ...
VH: Camel shot one.
SG: ... his ... yes, absolutely. And his dying wish was shoot bloody Harry.
SG: So it wasn't a happy story. But what are we witness in Gill, is the sort of an awareness of another Australia. We know that whilst he was in South Australia, he was there for 12 years. He lived with indigenous people. He recorded the way they hunted, the way they fished. These are all sort of ... the very first part of the exhibition is really Gill and indigenous Australians.
VH: So was he one of the first Australian artists to actually do this?
SG: Yes. Gill, when you get to know him ... sorry, it sounds awfully American, but is the first in so many fields. And it's a bit strange. And ...
VH: But ... and his attitude towards indigenous people seem to have changed rather quickly.
SG: It changes rather dramatically 'cause very early in the piece he wasn't exactly referring to them as savages, but there was confrontation. It was he, Horrocks and the expedition, holding guns, being confronted by these people. But bit by bit he started to know these people and he did a career ending move. He took the side of the indigenous people. And he came out with these ridiculous statements that there's a lot we can learn from these people and graphically convey that in his art.
SG: And we can move on to speak about that in a moment. So I think what happens to Gill, originally he arrives as a sort of Englishman, a person who is very, very adamant about the virtue of the Victorian civilisation. He does these propaganda images of this beautiful City of Adelaide trying to entice people to immigrate here and live here. And within about 10 years something happens. He changes. He swaps allegiances. He starts to question English values. And I think that's a sort of this fascinating growth and change in STG.
VH: So how did that change in him affect his income and his sponsorship?
SG: Well I think Gill was both a very lucky person and a very unlucky person. His income in South Australia by the 1850s, early 1850s, started to dip dramatically. He also had some affliction on his hand and he couldn't work for a few months, he was insolvent. But then of course in 1852 gold was discovered in Victoria and together with the rest of the male population of South Australia Gill went to the New Jerusalem of the Southern Hemisphere.
VH: But he raced over with the idea of gold digging, literally, or he saw it as an opportunity to experience something new?
SG: Well, Virginia, I mean I can't answer that, but I'm fairly convinced that Gill did not dig for gold. I mean there's a lot of myths about him going over with his brother. He didn't, they went separately. There's no evidence that Gill actually did ... dug for gold. We know that he arrived about May of 1852 and immediately started to produce sketches and most importantly lithographs. Between August and October of 1852 Gill produces 48 fantastically popular lithographs, black and white ones, called Victoria Diggings and Diggers, as they are by STG, 1852.
VH: Were these commissioned pieces? Who's he doing them for?
SG: No, no. He's freelancing. He was working with a publisher, a printer/publisher and so this will sell. There was an enormous amount of interest in it. People wanted to send it back to England, back to America and all the other places where miners are coming from. So really Vic ... I mean, think of Victoria in '52, population of about 77,000, by '54, population a quarter of a million. So it's a huge expansion. Information on Victoria's hard to come by and Gill just happened to be very, very lucky that at that moment he moved into that gap. And so I can argue that in those four years that he initially spent in Victoria, from '52 to '56, he really became the most highest profile artist working in Australia.
VH: Tell us a little bit about what he was depicting, though, on the goldfields because the ... not only the style but the subject matter changed, didn't it?
SG: Unfortunately this is his second career ending move. Gill depicted what one could refer to as the dark side of the gold rushes. He started to speak about themes like racism, environmental destruction, attitudes to women and so on. Now I realise that today, in 2016, for an audience, a sophisticated audience like this, it's impossible to imagine. But back in the 1850s there were these narrow minded xenophobic racists ... politicians, who were whipping up in the media hysteria about the arrival, and their words not mine, of the boat people.
VH: Imagine that. It's very hard to imagine, I really have to stretch my imagination.
SG: This is the situation that Gill found himself in, that they were coming here to do three things; to steal our gold, our jobs and destroy our values. And Gill made a huge mistake. He started to show these really sympathetic images of Chinese miners.
VH: Look, when you say that was a mistake, though, again I go back to the issue of income and commissioning. If he was working freelance with a publisher ...
VH: ... but were freelance, did he not realise then that this wasn't going ... this material was not going to have a buyer, who's going to buy it if it's actually criticising the very society he's trying to sell into.
SG: Well the family records always suggest that Gill was a really, really poor business person.
SG: And everything seems to be ... support this. But I mean people were interested. I mean, I know everyone here is fascinated with this idea, what did a Chinese takeaway restaurant look like in 1855? Go to the exhibition and you'll see it. John Alloo's, Chinese restaurant, Main Street, Ballarat, 1855, outside and inside. So yes, I mean he was sort of basic answering this quest for knowledge, information. But he was starting to increasingly add ... questioning about it. We will all know that there women on the Victorian goldfields. But you don't see them in art. You do in Gill. And that's interesting. I mean Gill is actually ... and, again, I mean, Virginia, I was speaking about that a few minutes ago and said, well there's not that many of them. Well actually when you start looking at them they start to appear.
VH: You have to look hard but ... and this is the problem, women are erased mostly from Australian history.
VH: But, yes, I take your point, they are there.
SG: But I mean, let's imagine you look at a scene like the Coffee Tent or Sly Grog Tent, whichever title you like. The person who is actually selling the Sly Grog is a woman, a big, tall, mountain of a woman who's ... and I know who she is now, I tracked her down. Her name is Mrs Bunting. Mrs Bunting was a tall woman, she'd been fined several times of rather large sums between £20 and £50 for selling sly grog but she basically said, oh to hell with it, I'm making too much money to bother with. And I came across recently a letter about it which I adore. She used to ride bareback on horses with a couple of pistols tucked ...
SG: ... around her waist and when bushrangers saw her coming they would gallop in the opposite direction.
SG: What a woman.
VH: I would have loved to have seen him do a portrait of her. Rather, I mean, I know the piece you mean and it ... she's very prominent in it but she is at the back of the picture.
SG: Ah, yes, but she is the focal point.
SG: And Gill, I think, also works on this principle that if you want to say something really, really important, you don't have to shout. You can actually put it in ... now like you can think of a great painting like Bruegel, think of the, you know, in our art historical tradition of Icarus.
SG: You don't actually see Icarus. When you look there, oh okay, there's a couple of feet sticking up out of the sea. And with a lot of Gill, I think ... and that's what I love about him, if there's anything, that's because there's several levels of it. You've got the sort of Eddie Warhol wow factor. You look and say, wow. And then okay, and then you look into it and there's another level meaning and then you look further into it and there's another level of meaning. And this sort of unpeeling of imagery. Whether it ... his ... you may see, well okay, it's still Bendigo Creek, that's fine, but it actually shows all the trees cut down. It shows the waterways totally polluted. He's making these comments in a rather subtle way. Now it could be, I don't know, that he was taking into account there were some things you couldn't say too publicly.
SG: People wouldn't buy them. But the interesting thing is, that the images had a life in several different forms. Yes they appear as a ... those 48 little lithographs, but they are also frequently reproduced on letterhead paper. Letterhead papers, they were before postcards appeared and essentially was sort of if you think of an A4 sheet folded four times, the image would appear on the top of it and then you'd have these other sides of the paper to write on it. Now one of the difficulties of being sort of an academic, work in art history, sometimes you have to go hardship positions like the Bodleian in Oxford, who happened to have quite a good collection of letters from the goldfields written on Gill letterhead paper. And the interesting thing is that people are actually writing in to say, yes this is exactly how it is, you know, just very much like, say, you and I may pick up ... not that you use postcards nowadays but if you did use postcards (chuckling) let us say the Leaning Tower of Pisa something, yeah I've been here, this is what I've seen but in its testimony to being there, seeing these things. So in those sort of lithographs and the accompanying drawings, that Gill creates in the early 1850s, he's starting to really make all of these points about what's really happening, the actuality, the psychology, the experience of the goldfields, and he doesn't have a single image of people shouting Eldorado or standing with these huge nuggets that you find in photographs of the time. But none of that's so important as this following factor. That's my big claim. I think that Gill, in the early '50s, creates in art a new species of homosapiens, the Aussie Digger.
SG: Gives it visual expression and calls it Aussie Digger as well. This ... mind you, this is long time before Gallipoli. And that's interest ... important to remember that as well. And these people are tough, they're resilient, they're true to their mates, they're resourceful. And there were blokes just like that as well.
VH: (Chuckling) I'm sure, well said. I was going to say, though, and of course they are mostly men, in fact ...
SG: Ah, both. Both.
VH: Well I know ... yes that's ... we've discussed, he has included some women. But when you talk about him defining the Australian colonial character, I guess it's something I have felt uncomfortable with when I first came across him because women are so absent from the bigger picture of the Australian colonial scene. And that's reflected in this work.
SG: Yes. Well firstly I have to say you're absolutely correct. But ... the but is, he includes more women than any other colonial artist. But, yes, I think it's ... when ... if I'm going to say it's equal share, no it's not. And of course when I'm speaking about the colonial factor or character, yes it's a relative one, it's this mythology of the rural character. I mean, I think the ... as far as I can understand, the idea of what it is to be an Australian, it really arises probably in the 1830s and '40s in rural Australia. And the melting pot of the goldrushes brings it all together, makes it urban, makes it national.
SG: Now Gill is really the first bloke who actually comes on board and gives it visual expression.
SG: And I think that's quite interesting, quite exciting. And it's really from the '50s that we start having these rather strong images of identity of Australia appearing in Gill. And that surprised me when I was working on it 'cause I didn't actually set out with an agenda, I was looking at the work and the work was telling me these stories.
VH: Did that, the fact that he was the first to do that and doing it in such a powerful way, did that affect his own fame or increase his fame?
SG: Yes and no. I mean there were people who saw it. Marcus Clarke, for example. Even Redmond Barry. And he got some commissions from that. Other people basically felt he was banging on about something that perhaps they didn't want to know about. Melbourne society was changing. Once people made money they didn't really want it discussed too publicly where the money came from. Gill was going along swimmingly in Melbourne, when in 1856 catastrophe struck. She was raven haired, strikingly attractive and on the 20th of May 1856 Gill and Elizabeth eloped.
VH: With his other wife still in South Australia.
SG: We assume he had a wife and we assume she was still in South Australia. And then he committed the great sin of crossing the Murray.
SG: He went north.
VH: Oh, that's where he got it all wrong.
VH: I'm from Melbourne (chuckling).
SG: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And he settled in the scent of sin in Woolloomooloo in Sydney, in Stanley Street and so Gill remains in New South Wales with Elizabeth and we've tracked him down and he's giving lessons, he's making all sorts of scenes, probably until the end of 1863, early 1864 when he returns to Melbourne alone. Elizabeth remains in Woolloomooloo, she's listed in directories but at this stage she calls herself Mrs Gill.
VH: So we don't know whether they actually married?
SG: Ah, interestingly enough contemporaries refer to them as being always introduced as Mr and Mrs Gill. None of the registry records show evidence of a marriage. Could they be lost? Possibly. There's no evidence of a divorce either. So a little bit complicated. I'm not setting out to actually rehabilitate Gill or give him this actually sterling character, but just these factual materials. But Gill again in Sydney, depicts a lot of things about Sydney that no-one else had and he becomes increasingly questioning about some of our social values.
VH: What ... he's obviously very interested in those who were dispossessed and minorities and look we see that on the go ... we see it with his coverage of indigenous people but also on the goldfields with the Chinese people, the might versus right type of work.
SG: Yeah, yeah.
VH: What were the key values, though, that he seemed to really focus on in his work ... in his body of work?
SG: Well I think egalitarianism. That's a very major one. The idea that essentially this is a new country and you can do something special here that you couldn't do back in England. Gill is really quite exciting in his thinking. I mean, okay, let's come to the chase and just call a spade a shovel. He was a democratic socialist, full stop. And there's a wonderful image, for example, many wonderful images in the exhibition but one made in Sydney which has a strange title, he who grumbles but pays. And you've got this really quite obese gentleman, you know, the John Bull character or the pure merino of New South Wales that occurs in Gill's other work. Dressed to the nines. And Gill, by the way, has dogs. Gill's dogs are very important in his art and he uses them always to comment on human behaviour, very much like Hogarth did. And so Gill got his dog dressed up in drag and the gold ... the dog has a gilded collar and you look at this image and say, oh, that's a strange, you know, uncomfortable image. But then he confronted this question, how do you actually depict the invisible urban pore? And you look behind the image and you see actually this pauper who's transparent. And you see it and he can't pay ... and then there's a mass of urban blacks. And so when you go through that series of images and that hang a wall] of them, yeah, it's undeniable, all the great matrimonial success, a family declaring that they've got the number one prize at the baby show. Again, there's all sorts of commentaries happening in that work.
And I think one of the sort of strengths of Gill is that he was prepared to engage with these very difficult social issues. But he believed it was appropriate to always have a bit of humour tucked away in your back pocket. You don't always have to get up on a soapbox and shout at people saying, this is important, listen to me. But you can also be subversive. People get seduced by the bit of eye candy and then you actually put in the venom in the bite.
VH: Was that possibly to a way of still hoping that people would buy his work if he kept his social commentary rather subtle such that someone buying it may not even realise (chuckling) that it's there?
SG: I think, yes. I think there may have been ... one of the strategies that he used. I mean we know that Gill is having problems in selling work. He's teaching, he's got a few backers, he's got a few friends. And mind you some of the things are off his own accord. He does them wrongly. For example there was a famous horserace where the finest galloper from New South Wales was put up by the finest galloper from Victoria. The horserace was held in some place called Flemington in Melbourne, and Gill for the newspaper rushes out and produces the finishing image where Vino the New South Wales galloper wins by a short nose ahead of Hawthorn, that was Hawthorn, the Melbourne galloper. Now he was taken to court over that, or his newspaper was, 'cause people said, no he could never have known the outcome of the race so early in the piece.
VH: So how did he get it so right?
SG: He guessed. But in the court he had to confess he'd never seen either Vino or Alice
SG: ... and made it all up. That didn't do great things for his reputation.
VH: It also reminds me, though, of I think it's a chapter in your book for this exhibition that it's titled, It Was ST Gill South Australia's First Photographer, which brings up the issue of photography. He was almost producing a finished line photo there wasn't he.
SG: Yes, yes. I mean, we know that Gill imported a Daguerre type camera into South Australia. We have some images which could be from that camera and we know he sold it on rather quickly because let's face it photography's such a limiting media. Gill just found it too limiting. I mean if I take a photograph of you, this is how you looked at 1:30 of a second exposure. If I draw you, then I can bring in a whole history of observation. And so I think Gill dismissed photography as a useful tool but not good as an end in itself.
VH: So whilst not photography then, the other thing that I think raises the issue of his social realism in his work which we've been touching on, which albeit very subtle, he was probably one of Australia's first social realist artists, wasn't he?
SG: Yes, yes.
VH: Almost journalist. Photojournalist at some stage.
SG: Well I don't like the word, photojournalist, not that I've got anything against journalists.
VH: (Chuckling) I'm pleased to hear that, Sash.
SG: No, I think the whole thing is that Gill wanted to give a social commentary and for use of a better term he was our first paint of modern life. He wanted to sort of show what life was like and always there was a gloss, there was always a commentary involved in it. And I think it's just fascinating, this sort of levels and tears of meaning that he involves in his work. So when he returns to Melbourne 1864, they produce the Australian sketchbook itself. The first lavish chromolithographic publication, and I think it's in that democratic medium of printmaking that Gill brings together this whole image of what it is to be an Australian.
VH: Can I ask you to explain to us what that ... the cover shot for the ... or the cover image for that with Gill himself with his sketchpad underarm and two Aboriginal guys behind him warning him, or it looks like they're ...
VH: ... calling out something. What's going on there?
SG: Well I mean I think it's a wonderful ... why I selected this, the hero image for the exhibition, was because it's sort of a summary. It's a self-portrait. Gill was walking through the Australian bush, he pauses, takes his boots off, he's now dipping his feet in the stream, cooling them, he's got his pipe, his bottle, his folio of drawings. And then there's a couple of indigenous blokes around the corner, they're friends, they occur in others of his work. They're sort of saying something to him and he waves to them. Yeah, it's fine. Both are actually saying to him is there's this black snake about to strike him and bite him in the foot. So he's already putting himself in a slightly ridiculous situation while above him, when you look, there's a melodic magpie about to unload on him as well.
SG: So ... and even ... that's the sort of a humility ... this is the frontispiece of the whole thing, that's he's not presenting himself as the great artist creator, 'cause how many self portraits have you seen and, you know, you've got this bush, oh here, or ... with an easel and all that.
SG: It's like he's sort of ridiculing himself.
SG: Presenting himself as an object of ridicule.
VH: But it also shows a great sense of humour too, doesn't it?
SG: And there's humour about it. But when you actually look at the treatment of the bush itself it's really quite beautiful.
VH: Sasha, in this magnificent exhibition here, one of the things that strikes me is how beautiful some of the landscapes are, much better seeing in person than in reproduction, of course. I personally think that's the richest work, the actual landscapes, and also his architecture, more so than the goldfield stuff, and yet the goldfield stuff is what he's known for. What do you think of his landscapes?
SG: They're fabulous. I mean Gill on a good day produces fantastic landscapes, you know, with the Fred Williams blobby trees. The ... he was a marvellous watercolour artist. He was more at home in the bush than he was in the city. He was more at home in the saddle than he was sitting behind a desk. And so in many ways he had this affinity with the landscape. Yes there is a rural mythology and I use that word advisedly, that the idea that there's a truthness to experience, there's a truthness of life in the bush and all these things are marvellous, and Gill is sort of playing on this. But I think also what's important is that he's now celebrating new values of what it is ... what's so special about the Australian bush. And he's the first person that actually takes issue with our gumtrees; the strangeness of our light, all of these Scribbly Barks. I mean Gill's also looking around these things and depicting them. Yes, late in life he did work quite a lot as an architectural draughtsman 'cause he has that absolute precision of observation. He can get it all right, so he was doing the day he died. He was working on elevations and plans and ... for architects. That was another source of income. I mean, so Gill was in fact a jack of many trades, he was doing all these things. But I think it's a very, very important point to make, but Gill did get better as an artist as he got older. So there's hope for all of you there.
SG: And ...
VH: But in truth isn't that always the way or pretty much the way with most artists?
SG: No, quite a lot of romantic artists burn out. In other words say, gosh. Sir Sid used to say that. I did my best work when I was in my 20s.
SG: And I'd do anything to be able to repeat that. Now when you look, for example, Collins Street picture that he has, it's actually dated July 1880, three months before his death.
VH: And you think he did some of his best work in that last year?
SG: Oh absolutely, in the last five years of his life. So, the technique is so sophisticated. The subtlety of what he's saying is there. So he was an artist who actually developed. He died at the age of 62.
VH: Sasha, he died, as we started this discussion, with you explaining ... your father telling you he died as a pauper on the steps of the GPO. I read that he was also covered in filth and vermin at the time and he lay unidentified for some time as well. And ended up in a pauper's grave. Now how could a man who was so talented, clearly talented, who had so many different audiences, who worked incredibly hard and at a frenetic pace, how could he end up a pauper?
SG: He was a poor business manager. I don't know ... I mean one of the classical myths about Gill is that he is a hopeless alcoholic, who couldn't hold a brush in the final years of his life and essentially people ... friends supported him just to get him through the last years of his life. Now that's not true. The first bit of evidence is that some of his best work's produced in the last year of his life so he certainly could hold a brush. And, dare I say, there's also empirical evidence like his ... after his death there was a coronial enquiry, obviously, 'cause he died unknown, and they did actually look at his liver and things and it was in perfectly reasonable state. He may have drunk too much but most artists do and most people do, but he certainly didn't die as a hopeless alcoholic. But, again ...
VH: He died of a heart condition, though, didn't he?
SG: He died of a ruptured aorta, yeah.
SG: He was 62. His father died even younger and his mother died when she was 54, I think, something like that. So really is part of the family line, it was not that unusual, but for some reason after he died there was a deliberate attempt to vilify him, to write him off in the sort of romantic myth, ah yes he did his wonderful work on the goldfields for which we'll remember him and then later he just really went to pot. Now I think in some ways we are a little bit uncomfortable with that sort of social conscience pricking work that he did in the last, say, 20 years of his life. But this is the sort of stuff that he was pointing out to us that perhaps we should treat the indigenous people as equals. Perhaps there's nothing wrong with people being Asians. Perhaps women are part of our society, they're not outside our society. Perhaps we should stop screwing up the environment, it's not the way forward. I mean all of these issues are very, very clearly spelt out in Gill's work. They were not popular issues and society, and particularly art history, does practice selective amnesia.
VH: But nevertheless it's taken a hundred and thirty-five years, is that right?
VH: To finally have an ex ... a retrospective of his work which does now give us a holistic picture of Gill and his life and his talent ...
VH: ... thanks to you.
VH: And although you say (chuckling) you're divorcing him ...
VH: ... I really don't believe it (chuckling).
SG: Now, I mean, listen, I think the people have the wrong impression that I'm sort of bagging for Gill, trying to put him into a hierarchy of saying, well this is the greatest colonial artist. Absolute nonsense. No intention of doing that, but I think he needs to be brought into the equation. He was a voice and an important voice and when you consider the 19th century, when you consider the Von Guerards, the Nicholas Chevaliers, the Louis Buvelots, Strutts, let's also consider ST Gill as one of these artists. 'Cause he was saying something that none of the others were, and I think that's quite important. And that's really the purpose of the exercise, is to get Gill back into circulation. Increase the awareness of Gill, to say, well here's ... listen, he's saying something that's important for all of us, perhaps we should have a second look at him.
VH: I know some of you will have questions for Sasha, so please pop your hand up if you do and the mic ... we've got microphones to both sides. Hands up, we've got one over here ... did I see another, and another one over here. Do we have any other questions over here, just to balance it out? So just pop your hand up as soon as you've got a question and a microphone will float your way. And just while we're waiting ... and make sure you do speak into it because we are recording today's discussion. Just very briefly, we haven't touched on really his love of dogs. There are more dogs in his work (chuckling) than there are women, which is a whole other issue. But I got the impression, as a dog lover myself I got the impression that he understands the nature of dogs extremely well.
SG: Well Gill all his life had dogs. Back in England from the little juvenile sketchbook we have is with his English dogs. When he came to South Australia he ... one of the first things he got himself a dog. And right through to the end he always had his dogs with him. So he was a dog owner, a dog lover. But he also used to incorporate his dogs into compositions and use the dogs as a sort of a canine commentary on human activities. You may remember, say, the Rake's progress of Hogarth where a cat would cover up his face with his paws to say, oh God, you can't do that, how embarrassing. Gill has his dogs commenting on human behaviour throughout so he was one of our great canine artists and one of the great equine artists. Now it sounds a bit coy and silly now but for the Victorian era it wasn't, these were very high art forms.
VH: I was fascinated to hear you say, when you and I looked at the exhibition, when we were looking at the Collins Street Block, which I urge you if you haven't seen it to go and have a look at it, it's only a small piece. But if you look very closely, and it's got a lot of women in it which is unusual, but look very closely, Sasha, your take on it's a commentary on human behaviour, on class, but there's something very specific going on in the foreground.
SG: Well doing the Block is basically between Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street, on Collins Street, and this is the fashionable place for promenading and it's ... very criticised for it, and Gill shows these really dressed up women walking up and down and these blokes eating it up with their gaze, and right in the front are two dogs sniffing one another.
SG: This is what I mean, using a canine commentary to say, well ...
VH: Says it all really, doesn't it.
[End of Recording]