By Rhonda Pooley
With only sketchy biographical material available regarding the colonial artist, Samuel Thomas Gill, but using his paintings as a guide, Adrian Mitchell, has written an imagined - but convincing – portrait of Gill under the fictitious name of Ethan Dibble.
Having trained as a silhouette artist, known then as a profilist, Dibble/Gill escapes England and the disapproval of his family, and sails to the new colony of South Australia where he intends to use his artistic skills more freely. He is not prepared for the fledgling colony’s ‘unsatisfactory desolation’ that greets him on his arrival and, with wry humour, his paintings and sketches record both the hardships and pretensions of the settlers. These street scenes come to the attention of the Governor and Dibble/Gill finds himself socialising with the ‘snobs and nobs’. He seems assured of a flourishing career.
But the threatened bankruptcy of the new colony puts paid to his hopes and he is forced to fresh pastures - first to the Victorian goldfields and then to the more-established centres of Sydney and Melbourne. His paintings continue to record the sometimes bizarre activities of diggers, bushrangers and explorers, and he finds himself keeping company with colonial celebrities such as writers Adam Lindsay Gordon & Henry Kendall, and also the notorious dancer, Lola Montez.
Throughout the novel, Mitchell uses the terminology of the art world to paint word pictures of characters and landscape, for example:
“There appears to be little call for portraits, nor paintings of favoured dogs or horses. In the absence of such custom, I have been turning my attention to painting a number of street scenes….I am not altogether pleased with them, myself. There is difficulty in giving any sense of all this turbulence going on at the centre of the settlement’s arrangements. So much jostling and competition amongst the citizens, and yet you would never know it from the look of dazzling quietness in the streets – bullocks nodding off in the sun, residents doffing their hats to the ladies, standing to one side and ceremoniously bowing, horses at a walking pace, having done their dash coming through the outskirts of the town. All is sunny and sedentary, if not soporific. It looks like every day is Sunday. It misrepresents the actuality.
And a different problem I see is all those straight lines – you don’t have to inspect the town plan to realise that. They are like some sort of grid imposed on what I see as the real landscape of this place – they are perspective lines of awkward prominence - so that I cannot think that what I have depicted is altogether satisfactory. I have been searching for a way of softening those hard lines.” (p 42)Mitchell also plays with word meanings, weaving them seamlessly into the fabric of local history and politics; for example, this description of the goldfields - note his use of the word ‘rights’.
“The diggers do not mend matters. They leave an endless waste, streams turned out of their proper channels…the very earth itself heaved upside down and inside out. Utterly undone. After the diggers nothing is ever the same again. There can be no putting to rights here. But demanding rights, ah, that is quite another matter. The diggers have their grievances about the licence. They have to pay for it as soon as they are on a declared field and even the storekeepers and delivery men have to possess one, almost like a leave pass. Which is not very far from the old convict ways.”There is much to like about this book, from its ironic descriptions of early Adelaide to the sly humour used to debunk some of Australia’s heroes of exploration. But this book is not only a wordsmith’s delight; the stunning full page colour plates of S.T. Gill’s paintings throughout also make it a feast for art lovers. If S.T. Gill’s work is not familiar to you, I encourage you to seek out his original paintings at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
I recommend this novel not only for its perceptive and often humorous insights into our colonial past, but also as a gift book to delight the eye.
The Profilist is available from good bookshops or from Wakefield Press.