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Gill, Harry Pelling (1855–1916)

by G. L. Fischer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Harry Pelling Gill (1855-1916), art curator and teacher, was born on 9 March 1855 at Brighton, Sussex, England, son of Alfred Gill, master dairyman and his wife Frances Elizabeth, née Pelling. He was educated at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School and at the local art school as an evening student. In 1877 he won a scholarship to the National Art Training School, South Kensington, London (Royal College of Art), which he held for five years and combined with teaching. In 1882 the Board of Governors of the South Australian Institute (from 1884 the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia) chose Gill as master of the school of design, one of its two art departments, at a salary of £300 and some fees. He arrived in Adelaide in September and organized elementary and advanced classes, instruction in crafts, teaching of drawing and correspondence lessons. He also gave instruction to trainee teachers. On 29 April 1886 at North Adelaide he married Annie Waring Wright; they had two sons.

In 1889 Gill became director for technical art at twice his former salary. He published books on geometrical drawing and design and The Straight and Crooked Paths of Studentship (1894). In 1892 he was appointed honorary curator of the art gallery and, following the resignation in December of Louis Tannert as master of the school of painting, Gill assumed control of all the board's art teaching activities.

As honorary curator he advised the board on gallery matters and on the acquisition of works of art; he discouraged the buying of paintings by historic masters or copies of them. Following the 1897 bequest of £25,000 from Sir Thomas Elder Gill advised on the use of the money, instituting an adventurous policy of regular spending on Australian works and recommending purchase of the works of contemporary overseas artists. Among the important Australian paintings, now regarded as masterpieces, acquired were works by Louis Buvelot, Tom Roberts, Sydney Long, Fred McCubbin, Hans Heysen, John Longstaff, Walter Withers, William Lister Lister and Blamire Young. In 1899 Gill visited England and Europe to make purchases and among the eighty-eight works by living artists that he recommended were works by Frank Brangwyn, Alma-Tadema, Fantin-Latour, Giovanni Segantini, Emile Claus and Aubrey Beardsley. Gill helped to design the first section of the art gallery building (opened 1900) and in 1903 initiated the formation of an art museum and applied arts collection. He compiled the first official catalogue of the gallery's paintings (1903) and also arranged and described some of the board's coin collection.

Gill had shown promise as an artist and hoped to win repute in Australia. However, teaching and administration had left little time for his painting. His rare decorative and aesthetic compositions, and also his landscapes, are painted with meticulous detail without sacrificing the overall unified effect. This is a quality passed on to some of his students, including the Hambidge sisters and Gustave Barnes in his early work. Gill's landscapes and some of his interiors show that he was interested in the accurate rendering of light—a rare quality in Adelaide before 1900. Although he was mainly a water-colourist, the Art Gallery of South Australia holds two of his oils and some etchings as well as a number of water-colours. Gill was a disciplinarian, but his students found his help had been sound and 'true to the best traditions of English art'. His administration was efficient, painstaking and dedicated, and his constant advocacy of drawing as an important school subject led to its inclusion in public examinations.

His growing authority in art matters, his self-confidence and abrasive manner and his attitude toward other art schools, led to criticism. The sale of art work through the school of design provoked parliamentary questions in 1907 and later a lengthy board enquiry into Gill's conduct of the school. No impropriety was discovered, but even the favourable minority report concluded that Gill had been somewhat injudicious. The majority recommendation that the board's art teaching be transferred to the Education Department, was adopted and in 1909 Gill became principal and examiner of the new Adelaide School of Arts and Crafts, but he did not remain as gallery curator. He retired in 1915 and died at sea next year, on 27 May, during a voyage to England for health advice.

Critics found Gill a vain man who controlled lucrative and influential art offices and who disdained the democratic brotherhood of art. His supporters admitted that he could be uncompliant and disagreeable, but said that he had worked hard, was a good judge of the monetary value of pictures, saved the board expense, and was a courageous and incorruptible curator. He supported and reorganized the South Australian Society of Arts and was its first president elected from the fellows (1909-11). He was an Associate of the Royal College of Art, London, and a Freemason. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds his portrait, by Millicent Hambidge, and a self-portrait. A medal, awarded by the South Australian School of Art, commemorates his name.

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 31 May 1916
  • Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia, Board of Governors records, GRG 19 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

G. L. Fischer, 'Gill, Harry Pelling (1855–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gill-harry-pelling-6381/text10901, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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