SOMETIMES when a great artist hits upon an uncomfortable truth, society can try to muffle their voice by demonising them.
And one of those people, according to a Canberra-based expert, was one of Ballarat’s most famed historical artists, S.T. Gill.
It has been said that Gill died an alcoholic, penniless and infected with syphilis. And just this week, an academic has claimed that the irreverent artist was in fact an escaped convict.
But according to Sasha Grishin, adjunct professor of art history at Australian National University, none of those claims can be in any way substantiated.
Instead, Prof Grishin says, Goldfields society was rather uncomfortable with Gill’s rather pointed commentary on the treatment of Indigenous people, the treatment of women, and the environmental damage caused by mining.
“You can see it as being cheeky but unlike other artists working on the Goldfields, who were very heavy on the Eureka moment...Gill in fact gives us the dark side of the gold rushes, the actuality of being there, the difficulty, the violence, the side grog, all of those aspects swim through,” Prof Grishin said.
“Gill had a unique voice, a very distinctive voice, he did what none of the others did. He became the conscience of colonial Australia. He hit on those things that make us uncomfortable even today – racism, environment, the treatment of women, the treatment of Indigenous individuals.”
Prof Grishin said claims this week by academic Babette Smith that Gil was in fact a convict were simply “fanciful”. He said Gill’s work and chronology was well-documented, with no gaps available in his history to give air to ideas he might have spent time incarcerated.
The generally-held view is that Gill was the son of a Baptish minister who emigrated with his parents, working in Ballarat for four years from 1852.
He said although Gill’s status in art history has long been known, other “myths” surrounded his legacy have sprung up over the years.
“In some ways we’re a little bit shy of what Gill was telling ourselves, of how we treat the Indigenous people, in telling us about racism and telling about environmentalism. One way of brushing him out of history is saying he died a pauper with a bottle in his hand. Not quite true.”
Prof Grishin said Gill’s autopsy showed no signs of a damaged liver, and that he died instead of a ruptured aorta. He also said claims Gill’s work deteriorated toward the end of his life were manifestly untrue, and in fact he did some of his best work in the year of his death – 1880.
Prof Grishin is working to restore the estimation of Gill to its rightful place – as one of the shapers of Australia’s national identity. He has written a large book cataloging his work and ran a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria last year.
Now, he is curating Australian Sketchbook – an exhibition of Gill’s drawings at the National Gallery of Australia.
Importantly, Prof Grishin noted Gill was the first person to coin the phrase “digger”, which was later taken up in reference to the trench-digging ANZAC soldiers of Gallipoli.
At the time of last year’s exhibition, the Art Gallery of Ballarat ran a concurrent event, showcasing some of its eight precious original watercolours.
Now, some of the pieces that weren’t shown last year are now available for viewing at the gallery’s Ballarat in Pictures exhibition.
Gallery director Gordon Morrison said because the works were watercolours on paper, they would fade with exposure to the light. Therefore, the pieces are only shown for two or three months maximum, before being rested for four to five years.
“The only way you can ensure people will enjoy them in 100 years’ time is to be very economical with their display,” he said.
Mr Morrison said Gill’s works were exceptionally contemporary in their commentary of social issues.
“(He was) probably political more or less by accident, cheeky by intention. He certainly had an eye for the more earthy side of life in a place like Ballarat,” he said.
“We have a wonderful image of diggers carousing in one of the local theatres - its called Subscription Ball – and what I loved about that is there’s this one bloke who is in the foreground who’s had too much to drink. He’s collapsed into his lap and some of his mates are about to remove him before he makes a big mess of himself.
“I guess he’s speaking to aspects of life that haven’t changed in 150 years – the kind of behaviour you’d probably encounter in many parts of Ballarat on a Saturday night today.”
Mr Morrison said the prolific, English-born artist – who created more than 3000 works and whose work was reproduced across the world – gave people back home a taste of what Goldrush life was like.
“There was a huge market in the old country to gain impressions of what it was like out here in the colonies,” he said.
“His images are very humanistic, they really capture the spirit and feeling of the times he lived in.
“He is one of the more talented of the artists who happened to be present at the birth of Ballarat white settlement and he saw it in those early rambunctious days when it was basically a tent city or clapboard town.”
Mr Morrison explained that Gill often created works in pairs to tease out social issues or the flip sides of situations.
“He quite often did these double images where he chose the good side and then showed the bad side. We’ve got a pair of watercolours called Lucky Digger That Returned – a very satisfied portly man who’s dangling his child on his knee, surrounded by a wife and very nice 19th century interiors,” he said.
“That’s meant to be seen as a pair to Unlucky Digger That Never Returned – a skeleton lying in the bush.
“They’re pretty unsubtle images, but again, they hit home.”
Australian Sketchbook runs at the National Library of Australia in Canberra until October 16. Ballarat in Pictures runs at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until July 31.
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