S. T. Gill is one of Australia's most engaging Colonial artists. His watercolours and prints - of traditional Aboriginal culture, of frontier exploration and settlement, of burgeoning towns and cities, but especially of life on the Victorian goldfields - are fluent, lively, closely observed and often highly comic.
After some initial success as an artist in Adelaide, Gill had been declared bankrupt in 1851, and in 1852 he and his brother joined the many South Australians who sought their fortunes on the Sandhurst (now Bendigo) and Forest Creek (now Castlemaine) goldfields. Progress on foot or by dray was slow, and hopeful diggers would commonly stop at the 'ten-mile towns' which sprang up on the road from Melbourne to Castlemaine: Keilor; Keilor Plains; and Bush Inn (now Gisborne). After Bush Inn came Middle Gully (now Macedon), before the difficult and bushranger infested road through the Black Forest to Five Mile Creek (now Woodend). The present work shows what is probably Patrick Callanan's store at Middle Gully.
The original ink and wash study of this subject is held in a folio of Gill sketches in the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney: Mt. Macedon, Victoria (from Old Road) [PXD 383, no. 30]. In this finished watercolour version, Gill has varied the narrative of the picture by replacing a pair of pedestrian idlers with a horseman and an aproned female storekeeper, and as foreground compositional weight he has substituted a wheel and planks from a broken cart for the original tree stump. Nevertheless, the topography of the mountain, the primitive bush architecture of the store and the waiting bullock team are as in the preliminary sketch, as is the group of five Chinese diggers on the road.
These men are evidently among the first of the thousands - mostly from China's southern provinces - who came to Australia in the 1850s in pursuit of the Tsin Chin Sha, the 'New Gold Mountain'. At this relatively early date, they are clearly a rare and exotic sight, but by the middle of the decade there were 15,000 Chinese in Victoria, and Anglo prejudice began to assert itself. In 1856 the colonial government introduced a £10 poll tax on Chinese landing in Melbourne, and immigrants soon abandoned the old Melbourne-Castlemaine road in favour of the famous overland trek from Robe, South Australia.
A slightly modified version of this scene was published as the lithograph 'Mount Macedon from the Black Forest', in the collection The Diggers and Diggings of Victoria as they are in 1855 (James J. Blundell & Co., Melbourne, 1855)
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