Having enjoyed Mitchell’s Plein Airs and Graces: The life and times of George Collingridge, it didn’t take long to be totally absorbed in the retelling of a story already partially known by those who love South Australian History. In this fictional 'autobiography' of Samuel Thomas Gill, Mitchell has used Gill’s artwork as a chief source in an attempt to bring him, and his surroundings, to life again.
The Profilist is a refreshing new way of looking at, or interpreting, the history of a young man who lived for a short time at Coromandel Valley. Apart from Gill himself this reinterpretation also has a look at such well-known figures as Edward John Eyre, Horrocks, Charles Sturt, Ayers and most of South Australia’s early Governors.
The description of Port Misery at the time of Gill’s arrival is superb, as it that of Governors Hindmarsh, Gawler and Grey. The more one knows about South Australia’s early history the more it will be enjoyed, even though the life of the main subject, Samuel Gill, here called Ethan Dibble, turns out to be a rather sad story.
The story narrates South Australia’s early uncertain beginnings, the rising of confidence after early disappointments and the change from tents or bark huts to cottages. Then we see the extravagant building of Government House, the Gaol and police barracks. This is followed by the increase in stock numbers, exploration and finally the settling down.
Having to earn a crust Gill accepted any commission that came his way. Most of them were views of newly ploughed and fenced fields, livestock or newly built and white-washed cottages. In doing so he provided the first evidence that South Australia was growing and developing. He also made paintings of nature, plants, landscapes and street scenes.
The description of the early races, and the men who took part and those attending is something one can read again and again. His account and sketches or paintings of Captain Strutt’s (Sturt) departure for the interior with his whale boat to prove that Eyre was wrong were meant to show what exploring was all about. Taking part in Mr H’s (Horrocks) ill-fated, privately paid expedition with his camel shows a different point of view well worth reading.
Gill came home after H’s hurried burial with a portfolio of sketches of the harsh interior, and the camel. Unfortunately nobody wanted to know about it, or its results, which meant no sales and no income. His sketches of this trip provide us now with the only visible evidence of that historic event. His output of work was substantial but, like Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, sales were mostly few and very far between.
Meanwhile good times for South Australia seemed to have returned. With much better weather and bumper crops, farmers were strutting about the streets ‘like so many turkey cocks’. As the proverbial icing on the cake, copper was discovered with the real bonanza starting at Kapunda and Burra. Gill was invited to sketch or paint the mining scenes. Many of his well-known underground water colours were bought for two guineas a piece.
Naturally the directors of the South Australian Mining Company, which paid dividends of 200% three times a year, wanted their portraits and mansions painted as well. Compared to all this wealth miners were only paid a pittance. Still, the copper wealth created many jobs for bullock drivers, carpenters and hundreds of others men. It boosted immigration, especially that of Cornish and German miners and resulted in even more development and constant work for Gill.
All this lasted for some years with much expansion in Adelaide where the new wealth could be seen everywhere. It all came to a sudden stop when gold was discovered in the eastern colonies, particularly Victoria. Miners left their jobs, publicans went broke, businesses closed resulting in even more men, and some women, to leave for the goldfield, including Samuel Gill.
Once again his pictures of the diggings were precise and detailed as were those of the digger hunts ordered by Governor Bathrobe (La Trobe) which only came to an end after the Eureka incident. Gill remained in the eastern colonies visiting the goldfields of Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine and then to Sydney, finally ‘settling down’ in Melbourne.
Melbourne proved Gill’s undoing. Mitchell now relates Gill’s many frustrations and disappointments. In a time when there was no copyright protection several people, among them a South Australian, used his work in their own books without acknowledgement or even passing them as their own work. Gill remained productive though and tried to paint or sketch what could or would be sold but income remained low with most of it spent on drink.
After being hand fasted to his Elizabeth, Gill and his ‘wife’ went to Sydney where he intended to establish himself as an artist. After a more or less successful time in Sydney he was ready for new horizons and visited the goldfields at Bathurst. However gold was now hard to come by. Very few men still used a pan. Most mining was done by deep-sinking and crushing.
Back in Sydney Elizabeth left him and Gill had to come to terms with his Syphilis and the bottle. Both were unsuccessful. Finding it hard to make a living in Sydney Gill returned to Melbourne once more painting the stately buildings erected with the profits from mining and speculation. There was no demand for scenes of the goldfields anymore. He now drews cartoons which proved easy to sell.
His health was declining rapidly and he resorted more and more to the bottle. Occasional nights were spent in the watch house as a vagrant. Evictions from lodgings or hotel rooms were regular as he was unable to pay the rent. He died drunk on the steps of the Melbourne Post Office on 27 October 1880 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
With the Profilist, Adrian Mitchell has produced a compelling picture of the early years of South Australia and some of the other colonies in the imagined voice of Samuel Thomas Gill, or someone very much like him. In doing so he has also succeeded in highlighting Gill’s contribution to its visible historic record. According to Mitchell, Samuel Gill was one of those men who happened to be in the right places at the right times – and what times they were – and he recorded them in all their turbulent vitality.