david coombe history


S.T. Gill and George Hamilton's Breeches

SUMMARY: The National Library of Australia holds five delightful vignettes by S.T. Gill showing activities of Aboriginal people. This article recovers some historical context for these watercolours, revealing them to be for George Hamilton who over-painted two of the pictures. Previously dated to early 1842, I date them to 1847. I consider the contrast between these paintings and Hamilton's contemporary sketches of frontier conflict.

NOTE: This article includes historical references to Aboriginal people that may be considered ignorant or offensive. They are reproduced here to identify context for the artworks.


Five Little Pictures

The National Library of Australia (NLA) holds five small alike pictures by S.T. Gill showing activities of Aboriginal people. The palm sized watercolour vignettes – about 9cm by 10cm – are in two separate catalogue groups but are linked by size, subject matter and style and also by what's on the back, being covered in writing from edge to edge. All have descriptive text, three have a picture title and two have penned sketches. The picture backs unlock the context, provenance and date of this collection.

To see these vignettes with detailed notes for each scroll down or jump to the List of Works.

Eyre's "Journals ..."

Given the reverse inscriptions, all five works seem to relate closely to (without being direct quotes from) E.J. Eyre's Journals of expeditions of discovery into central Australia ... published in London in September 1845. This book has nine chapters (in Volume 2) on the "Manners and Customs of the Aborigines of Australia" 

The backs don't exactly correspond with Eyre's book. The notes don't appear to be those an artist would use. Neither Eyre nor Gill seems to be the writer.

The Key Work

One of the five works helps answer the authorship question:

Thumbnail image for NLA NK7073/3Fishing practices on the Murray learned from the Whites | NLA NK7073/3 

Three Aboriginal children are near the water's edge where they fish with rod and line. One child has a fishing float.

NLA NK7073/3 reverse inscriptionThe reverse inscription reads:

Fishing practices on the Murray learned from the Whites / He drew these too anatomical – so I took the liberty of putting a Whites [breeches?] on them – the most primitive of twine strings pendant before the person – said [?] quick on [one ft?] [mini sketch here] / Mr Eyre used to give them hooks &c. They are generally very Successful – but they could not play a trout. They wd [=would] dive for brim & spear brim.

There is some connection to Eyre but he is referred to in the third person so the back notes aren't by him. The trout reference seems to us, at first, absurd.

We turn to the picture itself. Above Gill's signature is "Mr G H". Gill thus credits George Hamilton for an original sketch upon which the vignette is based. (Gill similarly captions another watercolour – River Murray native women fishing for crawfish - from sketch of Mr G. Hamilton | Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales PX*D 73 f.6  – "from sketch of Mr G. Hamilton".)

The content too is revealing as the fishing boys have appeared before. An earlier and larger watercolour shows them fishing from a log with rod, line and float.

Thumbnail image for SLNSW-M PX*D 73 f.1[Spear & net fishing from a canoe and from the riverbank] | Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales PX*D 73 f.1  (This is earlier than the vignettes – likely late 1844). If the fishing boys vignette is from a sketch by Hamilton then so is this larger painting.

Who was Hamilton?

George Hamilton (1812-1883)

George Hamilton was an early overlander of stock to the colonial settlement at Adelaide. So was E.J. Eyre. At the time Hamilton was a reasonable sketch artist – though not as good as Gill. Eyre used both these artists to illustrate his Journals, the first copies of which arrived in Adelaide in February 1846. It was a book with which Hamilton would have been intimately familiar.

Going Fishing

Hamilton also was an enthusiastic fisherman. In February 1847, he wrote Fishing in South Australia published in London in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal.1 In the article Hamilton reports on a previous trip to Moorunde.

My first day's fishing on the Murray may perhaps afford a good sample of the style of sport to be expected on this river. When my friend Mr. E. J. Eyre was Resident Magistrate on the Murray River, I used occasionally to visit him at his station, Moorunde, situated on the west bank of the river, in the midst of delightful wilderness of game – a paradise for a sportsman; my visit was generally limited to a week, and as my object was sport, no time was lost in pursuing it. The black fellows, over whom my friend exercised unlimited sway, were famous auxiliaries, and entered enthusiastically into all sorts of schemes for pursuing our game, either in shooting, hunting, or fishing. In fact, the natives of Australia are certainly of the genus "sportsman," and often amused me by the excitement they displayed when I was out shooting or fishing with them ...

We soon returned to the boat ... At length we arrived opposite an avenue of trees, among which were encamped four tribes of natives, who were busy quarrelling with each other ... Tranquillity being restored, we returned to the boat, and arrived at Moorunde in time to find Eyre impatient for his dinner, which he had (under the influence of that Christian sentiment of "doing as you would be done by") kept back for four hours. Thus ended my day's fishing on the Murray River.

Hamilton's article goes on to discuss playing "Torrens trout". Thus we can understand his back of picture comment as a simple observation – Aboriginal people had no need to "play trout" as their own methods well matched their interests. (Hamilton is admiring of Aboriginal fishing and hunting methods.) The "trout" phrase is a further connection, albeit minor, between Hamilton and these pictures.

Too Anatomical

Given Hamilton's artistic ability, we can make sense of the reverse note: "He drew these too anatomical – so I took the liberty of putting a Whites [breeches?] on them." Originally I'd thought the writing was by Gill who had applied greater modesty to Hamilton's rough sketch, but it's the other way round. A close examination of this picture shows the breeches and twine strings are painted over the original watercolour, indicating it was Gill's painting that was insufficiently modest and it was the writer who rectified it.

Gill painted all the people in these pictures "entirely in nature's garb" (as Hamilton's fishing article expressed it) except for the woman he clothed in Aborigine with barbed spear, wife (gin or lubra) & child. In this latter picture too, Hamilton thought the males needed modesty and he dressed them also.


So how do we understand these five vignettes? Three are of fishing and its various modes: spear, diving, and rod, line and float; and two refer to the Murray in the title or reverse notes. Perhaps the five pictures were to be illustrations for an intended book by Hamilton. Although no such book is known, Hamilton did keep writing and the fishing article was the beginning of a series of articles appearing in Stephens' Adelaide Miscellany.

The scenes may be typical of Moorunde – Eyre's Murray River base from 1841 to 1844 – which Hamilton used to visit for sport. For many years there's been a question over whether Gill visited Moorunde. W.A. Cawthorne wrote in his diary (18 April 1846) that Gill had just "been to the Murray and taken some fine views" without saying specifically where on the mighty long river. It remains unknown whether Gill visited Moorunde then (or any other time). It would not surprise if he did, nor if he didn't. But we do know Gill painted Moorunde scenes from sketches by Hamilton and E.C. Frome.2 There is no suggestion Gill was "on the spot" for these five vignettes.

I think the paintings likely date to 1847 – after Gill's lengthy absence with the Horrocks expedition – and possibly more specifically around the time of the Adelaide exhibition of artists and Hamilton's fishing article, both being February 1847. Gill's unusually stylised grass tree in Native speared in a skirmish is much like the one in Winter (NLA R3307) which is known to date to 1847.3

In their catalogue of Gill's South Australian paintings Appleyard and Radford include only three of these vignettes – omitting the two modified by Hamilton. They date them to early 18424 but this is a consequence of their mistaken dating of the The Seasons and The Months.3

Conflict. Harmony. February 1847.

It is illuminating to contrast the apparent harmony of these five vignettes with two of Hamilton's four entries in the February 1847 artists' exhibition:

These pencilled outlines show the frontier conflict and violence that seemed part of Hamilton's life as an overlander.

There is no obvious violence, conflict or disadvantage in the five vignettes. They show seemingly contented and self-sufficient Aboriginal people. Gill's scenes are devoid of European presence other than the benign fishing gear (and discounting Hamilton's later over-painting).

Gill's five watercolours and Hamilton's two pencil drawings could not be more opposite in sentiment. Hamilton's Ignoble Savage has a response in Gill's Noble Savage. And Hamilton was uncomfortable enough to alter Gill's paintings.

In 1844 Gill worked Hamilton sketches into watercolour for Eyre's benefit. In 1847 for some reason the subject matter was revisited, perhaps triggered by the artists' exhibition, with Hamilton getting the vignettes from Gill. And Hamilton felt compelled to change them.

These have been among my favourite Gill pictures. A fresh understanding makes me more thoughtful about them. I still feel all the carefree joy of the diving picture. Mostly I see in these vignettes Gill's intended celebration of life.

Acknowledgement. Thank you to the National Library of Australia for access to study these works.


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

Eyre, E.J. (1845). Journals of expeditions of discovery into central Australia ...

Sturt, Charles. (1849). Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia ...


1. The magazine reached Adelaide in August 1848 where it was reproduced in the newspaper in full .

2. For example compare "Natural Avenue ..." by Frome (AGSA 709HP82) with the same scene by Gill (SLNSW PX*D 73 f.2). Also see: Appleyard 114 (note 34).

3. See: S.T. Gill and Art History's Wrong Turn   and S.T. Gill's The Seasons and The Months .

4. Appleyard 60-61.

List of Works

The works are described below with transcriptions of the back notes and with related quotes from Eyre and Sturt.

You can scroll down to see all five vignettes along with detailed notes or select a link to jump to a specific work from the list:

Fishing practices on the Murray learned from the Whites | NLA NK7073/3

Thumbnail image for NLA NK7073/3[Native boys fishing] | National Library of Australia NK7073/3 
Artist: Gill, S.T. | Date: 1847~ | Appleyard cat. n/a
Catalogue: S.T. Gill and George Hamilton's Breeches

Three Aboriginal boys are near the water's edge where they fish with rod, line and float.

Above his signature Gill has written "Mr G H", indicating this is based on an original sketch by George Hamilton.

On the reverse is a title – "Fishing practices on the Murray learned from the Whites" – and further notes.

Reverse inscription: Fishing practices on the Murray learned from the Whites / He drew these too anatomical – so I took the liberty of putting a Whites [breeches?] on them – the most primitive of twine strings pendant before the person – said [?] quick on [one ft?] [mini sketch here] / Mr Eyre used to give them hooks &c. They are generally very Successful – but they could not play a trout. They wd [=would] dive for brim & spear brim.

George Hamilton later added "Whites breeches" for modesty to Gill's watercolour. He similarly "rectified" NLA NK7073/5.

This scene is detail from an earlier watercolour: Thumbnail image for SLNSW-M PX*D 73 f.1[Spear & net fishing from a canoe and from the riverbank] | Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales PX*D 73 f.1  – implyiing this also is based on a Hamilton sketch.

Eyre writes : "I have never seen the natives use hooks in fishing of their own manufacture, nor do I believe that they ever make any, though they are glad enough to get them from Europeans." (2: 266-7).

Sturt writes: "The yearly and monthly distribution of blankets and of flour to the natives at Moorundi is duly appreciated. They now possess many things which they prefer to their own implements. The fish-hooks they procure from the Europeans are valued by them beyond measure, since they prevent the necessity of their being constantly in the water, and you now see the river, at the proper season, lined by black anglers, and the quantity of fish they take is really astonishing, and those too of the finest kinds." (2:281)

Note: The subject of Aboriginal fish hooks is discussed at length in Gerritson, Rupert (2001). Aboriginal fish hooks in southern Australia: Evidence, arguments and implications Australian Archaeology 52:18-28. <http://rupertgerritsen.tripod.com/pdf/published/Aboriginal_Fish_Hooks_in_Southern_Australia.pdf> accessed 19 May 2021

105 30/09/2021 4:06:18 PM

Aborigine with barbed spear, wife (gin or lubra) & child | NLA NK7073/5

Thumbnail image for NLA NK7073/5Two Aboriginal Australians holding spears and child by a creek | National Library of Australia NK7073/5 
Artist: Gill, S.T. | Date: 1847~ | Appleyard cat. n/a
Catalogue: S.T. Gill and George Hamilton's Breeches

An Aboriginal woman, man and child. The woman carries a net and short spear, and the man has a barbed spear of about 9 feet (3 metres) in length. They are near water's edge. The reverse has the title of this work: "Aborigine with barbed spear, wife (gin or lubra) & child". The family is going fishing.

Hamilton has added "Whites breeches" to the males just as he did with NLA NK7073/3.

The reverse of this picture is completely covered in text and illustrations describing five different spears, their materials and manufacture and their uses for fishing, hunting and fighting.

Reverse inscription:
[Title] Aborigine with barbed spear, wife (gin or lubra) & child
Scale [text hard to read]
[Sketch: spear with 4 opposite barbs on both sides]
[Sketch: spear with 3 barbs on one side] 8 to 10 feet
Scale 12 feet [? ?] Murray Natives fish spear
[Sketch: spear with 3 prongs like a trident]
Here's a representation of this kangaroo spear – & [?] best for instances in very close quarters used for fight it is heavy & made of tea tree a hard wood when fire hardened and the barbs cut out of the solid base always almost at Port Lincoln generally tied with the sinews of Emu &c &c.
[Sketch: spear with 2 alternating barbs on each side] Scale: 12 to 14 feet
[Sketch: spear with fine barbs on both sides] Scale: 7 feet – This spear is a cruel & fiendish weapon with a [grass?] composition (grass tree gum I think) they fasten on quartz – or glass nowadays since the whites came – the wound this gives of course is almost impossible to cure breaking in the wound & is used in their fiercest encounters when close to one another & deadly in hand.

Eyre (2:305-306) describes spears to a similar level of detail including the construction of a Port Lincoln spear and he includes a plate showing five types of spear.

107 6/07/2021 8:47:44 AM

Aboriginal people diving for fish or mussels | NLA NK6897/B

Thumbnail image for NLA NK6897/BAboriginal Australians diving and swimming, ca. 1850 | National Library of Australia NK6897/B 
Artist: Gill, S.T. | Date: 1847~ | Appleyard cat. 32
Catalogue: S.T. Gill and George Hamilton's Breeches

An Aboriginal person dives from a rock into a waterhole or stream where there are already two others.

The scene looks playful and recreational, and it may well be, but in the context of the related pictures and the reverse inscription, it is likely intended to show fishing - either for fish or mussels.

Reverse inscription: This is not the way the natives seek the water except in cases of slaughter or repasts. They invert the European method – go in feet first, generally noiselessly & quick as possible avoiding wetting their head except when fishing &c &c.

Eyre makes several references to diving and swimming in his "Journals". "The Aborigines generally, and almost always those living near large bodies of water, are admirable swimmers and divers, and are almost as much at home in the water as on dry land." (2: 217) "The natives are very skilful in this mode of fishing, and it is an interesting sight to see several of them in the water diving together, and exerting themselves against each other in their efforts to catch the best fish ... I have even seen natives dive down in the river, without net or implement of any kind, and bring up good-sized fish, which they had caught with their hands at the bottom." (2: 261).

Sturt writes: "Seeing, I suppose, that we intended them no injury, these men in the morning went on with their ordinary occupations, and swimming into the middle of the water began to dive for mussels. They ... seemed to be very expert; at all events they were not long in procuring a breakfast." (2:61)

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Lighting a fire with the shaft of the grass tree | NLA NK6897/C

Thumbnail image for NLA NK6897/CLighting a fire with the shaft of the grass tree | National Library of Australia NK6897/C 
Artist: Gill, S.T. | Date: 1847~ | Appleyard cat. 31
Catalogue: S.T. Gill and George Hamilton's Breeches

In front of his wurley an Aboriginal man lights a fire by the friction method using the shaft of a grass tree (Xanthorrhoea sp.). Another person behind him – likely his wife – looks towards the viewer. In the background are two other people and two grass trees. Hills are in the distance.

Reverse inscription: Lighting a fire with the shaft of the grass tree / (you see the two shrubs in the distance.) – The top shaft is the lever to light with – the under igniter is a piece of the stem (resinous in quality) with charcoal in a hollow nicked in it – by a spinning motion – rubbed between the hands it soon takes fire from the [attraction?] of charcoal in the hollow – & dried [grass?] is [...?]

Eyre writes: "Fire is produced by the friction of two pieces of wood or stick – generally the dry flower-stem of the Xanthorrea. The natives, however, usually carry a lighted piece of wood about with them, and do not often let it go out." (2:357 footnote)

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Native speared in a skirmish | NLA NK6897/E

Thumbnail image for NLA NK6897/ENative speared in a skirmish | National Library of Australia NK6897/E 
Artist: Gill, S.T. | Date: 1847~ | Appleyard cat. 33
Catalogue: S.T. Gill and George Hamilton's Breeches

An Aboriginal man, speared through the abdomen, lies on the ground atop his wooden / bark shield and another spear which is red with blood. In the background a fight is continuing between rival groups. In the foreground is a grass tree.

Reverse inscription: [The first line of the inscription has been trimmed off] ... warrior spartan like reclining on his (wooden) shield – spears flying in – a "nigrescent" engagement. Very few are killed at these fights – they seem to think it great fun – & the agility, rapidity & contemptuous ease with which they avoid the spears is almost inconceivable their shield parries almost any ... [?] war spear [?] ease ...

This work is related in subject matter to Native Fight (SLNSW PX*D 73 f.8).

Eyre writes: "If the meeting of the tribes be for the purpose of war, a favourable situation is selected by one of the parties, and notice is sent to the other, who then proceed to the place of meeting, where both draw out their forces in opposing parallel lines. Day-break, or nearly about sunset in the evening, are the times preferred for these engagements, as the softened light at those hours does not so much affect the eyesight, and the spears are more easily seen and avoided. Both parties are fully armed with spears, shields, and other weapons, and the fight sometimes lasts for three or four hours, during which scarcely a word is spoken, and but little noise of any kind is heard, excepting a shrill cry now and then, when some one is wounded or has a narrow escape. Many are injured generally on both sides, and some severely so; but it rarely happens that more than one or two are killed, though hundreds may have been engaged." (2: 222-223)

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David Coombe, May 2021 | text copyright (except where indicated)
Updated 30 September 2021

CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2021, S.T. Gill and George Hamilton's Breeches, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <http://coombe.id.au/S_T_Gill/S_T_Gill_and_George_Hamilton's_Breeches.htm>