david coombe history


S.T. Gill and Art History's Wrong Turn

Mockup of the album cover labelled JOHN ROWE 1847 JOHN ROWE 1847. In 1932 the National Library of Australia acquired a series of beautiful watercolours by S.T. Gill known as The Seasons and The Months. The paintings came with a gilded red Morocco label that was a mystery then and has remained so until now. Solving this mystery overturns the last 35 years of art history's dating of Gill's earliest Australian works.
Image (right): author's mockup of the album cover labelled JOHN ROWE 1847.

Main points ...

Article type: ANALYSIS


In this article ...

The Challenge of Dating Gill (1840 to 1851)

During his time in South Australia (1840 to 1851), artist Samuel Thomas Gill appends dates to fewer than a quarter of his watercolours and fewer than a third of his wash drawings. Dating the undated becomes then a matter for analysis and judgement, and unfortunately there is no South Australian sketchbook of original pencil sketches – either dated or in chronological order – to act as a reference point. To better understand this dating challenge it's helpful to start with Gill's English sketchbook.

The End, Finis, 1838

Thumbnail image for AGSA 659D34FINIS | Art Gallery of South Australia 659D34 

The End. Finis.

This was to be the last picture in nineteen year old Sam Gill's sketchbook before he would start a new one. It is a rural view – quite possibly the family's home county of Devonshire, England. A young man – likely the artist himself – stands warmly dressed on a sunny late winter's day. He wears a broad hat, clamps his gun from armpit to elbow crook, and leans on a rock with a brace of ducks atop and a pair of hares below. Beside him are two faithful dogs. A tiny stream tumbles beside the rock into a pool. The sun is huge and low in the sky; the background is coastal and a sail boat is near the shore. Chiselled into the rock is the word "FINIS". One dog looks to the viewer but the hunter's gaze is elsewhere, seemingly in thought with half a smile?

It is tempting to read this as Sam Gill's reflection on the prospect of leaving England for the new colonial settlement in South Australia, but that departure was still seventeen months away. Although "FINIS" might seem rather significant, it could just as easily be youth's dramatic ending of one sketchbook before beginning another. The book is not dominated by pencil as one might expect for quick field drawings, but pen and brown ink. The pictures are interspersed with poems by his father.

Sam Gill signed "FINIS" with his trademark initials and dated in his customary place at lower left. In the same brown ink of the sketch, and presumably contemporaneous, is "S.T.G. Feby 21/38". (It seems someone later has added the century "18" in black, not brown, ink.)

This sketch is so deliberately signed and dated it's a surprise to find the next extant work so signed by Sam Gill is marked "S.T.G. Nov/44" – nearly seven years later.

S.T. Gill Announces, 1840

On 7 March 1840, within three months of arriving from England, and then aged 21, Samuel Thomas Gill advertised himself and his studio in Gawler Place, Adelaide. He sought orders from clients for personal portraits, and for pictures of their favourite animals, their houses and of scenic landscapes.

In his 1971 book Samuel Thomas Gill : artist, Keith Macrae Bowden saw Gill's 1840 advertisement as the start of a trajectory. "In this way Gill launched himself on a career that lasted for twelve years in the young colony, and it was not long before he gave proof of his ability."1

Bowden however struggled to place pictures in the period 1840 to 1843 – the early years from which artist-dated works are lacking.

Fifteen years on from Bowden, in 1986, the Art Gallery of South Australia published S.T. Gill : the South Australian Years, 1839-1852 by Ron Appleyard, Barbara Fargher and Ron Radford. Appleyard and Radford, in their several chapters, packed Gill's "missing years" with about 30 works. Their argument for dating these levered off the twin series The Seasons and The Months. They placed these fifteen watercolours in 1840-1842 and, consequently, a similar number of other undated works in the period 1842-1844. This made for a smoother biographical timeline.

"The Seasons and The Months", London, 1932

The Seasons and The Months is a series of watercolours of the four seasons and the twelve months (although July is now missing). These works were bought by the National Library of Australia (NLA) in London in August 1932 after an offer by a Mr W.A. Bell. A note on NLA's acquisition file reads:

These drawings came to Mr. Bell through his mother-in-law deceased. The larger ones have evidently been extracted from an album into which they were pasted by the edges. With them he sends a red morocco label with "JOHN ROWE, 1847" on it in gilt letters. He thinks this belonged to the said album or portfolio. His mother-in-law was related to the Rowe family. As several of the "month" series suggest being sketched in a single locality, a clue may be given thus to the date of the drawings and their provenance. Was Rowe a pastoralist, for instance? And are the letters R O on the wool bales his brand?

Based on the Rowe label, Dutton in 1962, Bowden in 1971 and Dutton again in 1981 had all dated The Seasons and The Months to 1847.2 Appleyard and Radford, unable to corroborate the label's story, set aside this evidence. They then used comparative style to date the series to 1840-42. They saw the paintings as English in style and therefore early in Sam Gill's transition towards Australianness. (Their argument follows with my emphasis in bold.)

The remarkable series of The Seasons and The Months are amongst the earliest watercolours painted by Gill in South Australia. They may have been painted with some feelings of nostalgia. The subject matter and its treatment in pretty vignette style is very English and is reminiscent of the pen illustrations in S.T. Gill's [England] sketchbook.
The Seasons and The Months are themes often used in European and English art ... Gill has nevertheless given The Seasons and The Months an Australian flavour ...
The location and date of execution of these views is not known. The two sets (July is lacking from The Months) were purchased in London by the National Library of Australia in 1933. At the time the vendor said that the paintings came to him through his mother-in-law who was related to a family named Rowe and that The Seasons had been in an album labelled "John Rowe 1847". He understood The Months had been executed in one locality, possibly on a pastoral property which may have belonged to John Rowe. However, no reference has been found to John Rowe as a pastoralist in South Australia, and it seems more likely that the sets were composed from sketches made at different times and places during Gill's travels in the settled areas of the colony.
The treatment of the compositions and the translucent watercolour, together with the methods of harvesting depicted, which pre-date the introduction of Ridley's stripper (see Summer, cat. 14) date the series to c. 1840-42. It is Gill's first major South Australian work.3

Appleyard and Radford set aside the label's evidence and presented an historical argument of their own (Ridley's harvester) plus another argument of style (Gill was still more of an "English" than an "Australian" painter). I will deal with these arguments in turn before returning to 1847's John Rowe, who eludes no longer.

Summer and Ridley's Reaping Machine

Thumbnail image for NLA R3305Summer | National Library of Australia R3305 

Sam Gill's "Summer" shows wheat harvested by solid men with thick legs, strong backs, muscly arms, broad hands, each working a short handled sickle; the thirst inducing labour repaid in both currency and beer. Close by are a quart jug, watermelons and a machete for slicing. A tree stump is a headstone to lately departed timber. No mechanisation is seen.

In August 1843, South Australia's wheat crop had outgrown the supply of labour for its harvest, and press attention was directed to the invention of a reaping machine. The following month, a committee was already reviewing competing models. John Ridley's model was judged superior and entered construction. He made two that year.

It took many years for machines to dominate the harvest. On 22 November 1844, the South Australian newspaper reported that Ridley had constructed a further six mechanical reapers on top of the two from the previous year.4 By no means had machines displaced manual harvesting, and just days later men still filled the fields.

The wheat harvest was fairly commenced yesterday at Fullarton, where four good scythemen are now engaged on a field of splendid corn. It is gratifying to hear that the rates of reaping will, this season, be more in accordance with the price of corn and wages generally. The rate asked by scythemen is 8s. per acre, with 6d. for beer, for cutting, binding, and stooking. Reapers, with the sickle, will probably get 1s. more. The experience of the last two years has produced a great number of excellent scythemen, who can cut down two acres a-day – so that the farmers are now more independent of extra hands at harvest time than they have ever before been.5

It took a few years for the machines to dominate. It was reported in October 1847 that "the Reaping Machine, invented by Mr Ridley, is now almost universally adopted in this colony."6

Appleyard argued that because Gill portrayed an all-manual harvest, the painting predates South Australia's iconic invention – Ridley's reaping machine – in 1843. This is an error of logic and history. Appleyard used absence of evidence – no portrayal of the mechanical harvester – to conclude evidence of absence – that the machinery did not yet exist.

That argument now dealt with, I wonder what might be made from Summer's background. A team of six bullocks pulls something with seemingly a large front wheel. The image is small and hard to resolve but is it meant to be a reaping machine?! (In another harvest picture, Gill painted a pair of machines, each pulled by a four bullock team.7 Most early pictures had the motive power at the back; Gill put it at the front.)

Argument from Style

Appleyard and Radford also made an argument of artistic style – the English "pretty vignette style", the "compositions" and the "translucent watercolour" are all used to support an 1840-42 date for The Seasons and The Months. Comparative style is then used to date other paintings in the 1840-44 gap. In essence they argue the young Gill, fresh from England, was adjusting to the Australian environment, evolving from his "Englishness" to his "Australianess". And yet they have an each-way bet, adding "Gill has nevertheless given The Seasons and the Months an Australian flavour. There is a feeling for the distance and atmosphere of the Australian landscape ..."3

Sasha Grishin's S.T. Gill & his Audiences (2015) was a book of much greater scope, covering the full extent of Gill's career, so it's understandable he used Appleyard et al. for the South Australian years.

It is not clear who commissioned Gill nor exactly when, but in terms of figure types and compositional structures, in many places the style echoes that found in his juvenile sketchbook. Taken together with certain iconographic peculiarities, this suggests that they were executed very soon after his arrival in South Australia – possibly around 1840 or 1842. Gill presents a peculiarly antipodean rendering of the scenes, celebrating an Australian agrarian calendar and a localised South Australian reality. One could speculate that the intended audience was back in England and that this was an illustration of how English traditions continued and were adapted to the new conditions, and how this piece of England thrived far away from home ...8

It seems perfectly reasonable to describe The Seasons and The Months as being both English and Australian in style. After all, what else were the colonists? In fact it's likely customers wanted both. They had expectations:

South Australia, in short, is just a healthy common-place country, with regular seasons – summer and winter, spring and autumn, and their accompanying rains, heat, wind, and dust, suited to the latitude of 35 south; having, withal, so very little remarkable in its general appearance, beyond a few tame savages and evergreen gum trees, as to make an Englishman fancy, for nine months of the year, that he is at home, and an Italian for the other three, that he is not very distant from that peculiar locality mentioned by Dante, and which we need not at present more particularly describe.9

It appears Sam Gill had satisfied these expectations, though without going as far as hell for three months. The landscape is Australian – gum trees and grass trees – but introduced into this landscape are the English, their crops, their fashion, their work, their pastimes. The prominent people are European colonists with Aboriginal people appearing in the background of three of the four seasons (but in none of the months).10

Arguing that vignette style demonstrated Englishness (and earliness) does not agree with the broader evidence of Gill's work. Vignette style was his thing, using it for example in twelve wash drawings of Aboriginal and bush subjects that he dated January 1849. (They are in collection NLA NK7063 and were not included in Appleyard's catalogue.) Furthermore Gill continued to paint vignettes in his 1850s gold rush work.

The style argument doesn't work.

I return now to the discarded historical evidence – the "JOHN ROWE, 1847" label.

Gilt on Red Morocco: John Rowe 1847

In dating The Seasons and The Months to 1840-42 Appleyard set aside the evidence of an old label. It's time to meet 1847's John Rowe. We meet him in the accompanying article, and in so doing we return this series to its proper time.

The Seasons and The Months was painted for Lieutenant John Roe, sometimes known as Rowe, who arrived in South Australia with the 11th Regiment of Foot in May 1846. Gill painted the series in 1847.

Read the companion article: S.T. Gill's The Seasons and The Months 

"The South Australian Years", 1986

The South Australian Years is an impressive compilation of contributions from Ron Appleyard, Barbara Fargher and Ron Radford. Appleyard is acknowledged (in the foreword) as making the greatest contribution. "A lifetime of familiarity with Gill's work has been crowned by intensive recent research. Gill's biography is now immensely improved. The paintings have been sometimes re-titled; dating is far more accurate ... Mr Appleyard's research is at the heart of this exhibition and its book."11

Most the book's content is a catalogue raisonné of watercolours and lithographs. Included too is a five page biographical outline with extensive footnotes. Noticeably omitted from the catalogue are Gill's wash drawings, although they are mentioned in support of watercolours and in an appendix.

This impressive book has been a frequent companion as I made my own study of S.T. Gill. But the dating is flawed. The pivotal error was Appleyard and Radford's analysis of The Seasons and The Months. The dating made for a continuous biographical timeline with Sam Gill, from his arrival, hitting the ground painting. The dominant narrative has been that while his father and brother established the farm in the Upper Sturt Valley, the eldest son plied pencil, pen and brush in town. (There is some evidence that, instead, the father was in town and the brothers on the farm during the economic depression of the early 1840s.)

Despite the dating error, The South Australian Years remains an excellent reference. I admire Appleyard's attention to detail. The appendices and extensive cross-referencing demonstrate his analytical approach. I think he would have envied the online resources that 35 years later are available to me: high resolution images of artworks in state and national galleries and libraries; searchable digitised newspapers through NLA's Trove; and a bespoke research database.

Art History's Wrong Turn

Art history took a wrong turn in 1986. Gill did not paint The Seasons and The Months around 1840-42 as has been held for the last 35 years. He painted the series in 1847. These watercolours show Gill not in antipodean naivity, but in artistic maturity and versatility.

This revision has flow-on effects. Appleyard and Radford used The Seasons and The Months as the reference point to date other paintings 1842-44.12 This argument now collapses and a sinkhole opens beneath Sam Gill's timeline. 1840 to late 1844 again looks dark and empty. We can no longer assume that from the time Gill announced his artist's rooms in March 1840, he was on a steadily rising trajectory. After Gill's advertisement in March 1840, it was to be another eleven years before he would re-advertise. And references to him are elusive until a 29 October 1844 diary entry of John Howard Angas, brother of the artist George French Angas, notes "Out with Mr. Gill the artist who has come from town to take some sketches".13

I'm still out with Mr. Gill. I'm not looking for a new smooth inclined path, but I am seeking to map the contours. So far 1840 to 1844 is looking sparse, though not empty.

Postscript: W.A. Bell's Mother-in-Law

This research opened up another question about W.A. Bell of Palmers Green, London, who sold The Seasons and The Months to NLA in August 1932. He claimed his mother-in-law was related to the Rowe family (thus explaining his ownership of these paintings). At the same time he also sold a series of Gill's wash drawings to NLA: R107 to R118. However we know, from reverse notes and content, that these were painted for James Allen in late 1845.14 See: S.T. Gill and James Allen, 1845 . In the absence of another fortuitous family connection, another explanation is more likely – that Bell was a collector, dealer or middle man.

I think W.A. Bell is likely Wilson Alexander Bell (1893-1945). Schooled in Classics, Bell was a headmaster in Northern Ireland, at Sullivan Upper School from 1927 to 1931, then at Down High School from 1933, leaving 1932 as a gap in his career.15 He died in 1945. (John Roe too was from Ireland and died in Monkstown, County Dublin in 1898.)


Appleyard, Ron. & Fargher, Barbara. & Radford, Ron. & Art Gallery of South Australia. (1986). S.T. Gill : the South Australian years, 1839-1852. Adelaide : Art Gallery of South Australia

Bowden, Keith Macrae. (1971). Samuel Thomas Gill : artist. [Collaroy, N.S.W.] : K.M. Bowden

Dutton, Geoffrey. (1962). Paintings of S.T. Gill. Adelaide : Rigby

Dutton, Geoffrey. (1981). S.T. Gill's Australia. South Melbourne : Macmillan

Grishin, Sasha. & National Library of Australia, issuing body. & State Library of Victoria, issuing body. (2015). S.T. Gill & his audiences. Canberra, ACT ; [Melbourne] : National Library of Australia Publishing in Association with the State Library of Victoria

Linn, Rob. and Historical Consultants Pty. Ltd., issuing body. Sharing the good earth : 175 years of influence and vision : Royal Agricultural & Horticultural Society of South Australia Incorporated / Rob Linn Historical Consultants Pty Ltd for the Royal Agricultural & Horticultural Society of South Australia Incorporated Goodwood, SA 2014


1. Bowden 5.
2. Dutton (1962) 7, Bowden 131 and Dutton (1981) 19.
3. Appleyard 47. Radford expresses the same opinion (3). Fargher alludes to it (44).
4. South Australian (Adelaide, SA : 1844 – 1851) 22 November 1844: 2. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71613412>
5. South Australian, 26 November 1844: 3. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71613439>
6. South Australian, 15 October 1847: 3. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71609629>
7. Linn 19. (Picture from a private collection.)
8. Grishin 32.
9. South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 4 October 1845: 2. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article195933184>
10. Appleyard, 49, sees two Aboriginal hunters on the skyline, but the high resolution image shows these obscure "figures" towering over a mounted rider and so not intended to be Aboriginal people.
11. Appleyard, vii.
12. Appleyard 53, 60.
13. Appleyard, 53.
14. Appleyard, 107-108.
15. Trevor J.I. Gray, 2005, The History of Bangor Grammar School, accessed 12 April 2021, <http://grammarians.co.uk/about-the-grammarians/history-of-bgs/> Chapter 9, 1923-1947. Also personal correspondence, Sullivan Upper School, 12 April 2021.

David Coombe, 22 April 2021 (original).
Updated: 1 December 2021 | text copyright (except where indicated)

CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2021, S.T. Gill and Art History's Wrong Turn, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <http://coombe.id.au/S_T_Gill/S_T_Gill_and_Art_History's_Wrong_Turn.htm>