“He [George Gilbert] teaches drawing and professes to be an artist. He is a man of the most active mind… and disposition I know. He is always involved in trying mechanical experiments but unfortunately never perfects anything… he is a very intelligent person and will talk from morning to night always in a fluent and agreeable manner. He appears to have studied every subject started, or at all events plunges into the midst of it and dives to the bottom of it in a very short time.” (John Cotton, Port Phillip pastoralist, describing G A Gilbert September, 1848)
Some people listening to the claims of his capabilities or of his scale of competency might have thought him a bit of an artist, but not of a type more usually found holding onto the end of a bristle brush, palette in hand and starving in a garret. There is no doubting that G A Gilbert had both the energy and the industry to match his various claims, or that as Edmund “Garryowen” Finn put it, he enjoyed “a plausible gentlemanly manner,” but when it came to the visual arts the record was more clear. George Alexander Gilbert, teacher, publisher, librarian, gentleman pastoralist, gold commissioner, mesmerist sensation and confirmed dilettante was the walking embodiment of that old adage, “Every artist was first an amateur.”
George Gilbert was a young man of about 25 years when he emigrated to Port Phillip with his much older wife and the children from her first marriage. The son of an English landscape painter, George was himself an artist of some minor talent who had determined to look for opportunities in the new agricultural enterprise that was right then emerging at the bottom end of the world. George’s wife, Anne has been described as “one of the more exotic of the early colonists”, (Serville: Port Phillip Gentlemen) and had previously moved freely in literary circles and the London avant-garde. She was the widow of Sir John Byerley and this connection allowed the Gilberts to immediately join the cultured set of Melbourne upon their arrival at Port Phillip in 1841.
With his winning ways and refined manner George Gilbert soon befriended some of the leading men in the settlement including Dr Godfrey Howitt, Superintendent Charles Joseph La Trobe and the Oxford-educated clergyman turned squatter, Joseph Docker for whom he began acting as agent. Gilbert’s own property ambitions quickly followed suit and these included the lease on a farm on the Plenty River of which he wrote in March, 1843:
“I have taken up a farm of 200 acres 10 miles from town where I intend to train and cultivate the trees while mi cara sposa intends to train the idea [in her school] so between the intellectual and more solid requirements of this life, we hope to secure a home here by paying our rent until we can obtain apartments in that house where everything is ‘a la discretion’.
The described distance of 10 miles from town begs the question, just where was this Plenty River farm? Could it have been the Bakewells’ 200 acre “Capital Compact Farm” 11 miles from town and advertised for lease that very same month? The distance of 10 miles would put the location at a guess at the lower end of the Plenty and it is an intriguing idea that, based solely on this point, Gilbert and the Bakewell brothers may very possibly have been near neighbours at this early date. Further to this, the Bakewell survey map of “Yallambee, The Property of Messrs. J. and R. Bakewell”, produced about a decade later, surprisingly places a “school” house on the south east border of their estate, somewhere near where the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads stands today. It’s a small thing but one is left to wonder at the sort of students that might have been available at that time, the nature of the school, or indeed, the unlikely identity of its teacher.
As a gentleman farmer, George Gilbert appears to have enjoyed only limited success at Port Phillip. Like many settlers of the early 1840s he became insolvent and with his pastoral ambitions now largely forgotten, the fact is that it is as an artist of the Port Phillip District landscape that he would later be best remembered. It was probably around this period that Gilbert produced drawings of Joseph Hawdon’s Banyule and Thomas Wills Lucerne, both early and prominent properties of the Heidelberg district, and also the now well-known pastel of John and Robert Bakewells’ Station Plenty, (Yallambee) an art work which has been reproduced on numerous occasions within these pages.
La Trobe University’s founding professor in Art History, Lucy Ellem has suggested that The Station Plenty pastel comes from an English tradition of estate portraiture, quoting from Daniels that “flourishing plantations, pasture and tillage displayed the economic, social and patriotic virtues of progressive estate management.”
Following this English aesthetic, Gilbert has in the Plenty Station picture composed his view of the Bakewell farm in a frame of trees in imitation of an English picturesque landscape. The little prefabricated house has its back turned on its Australian bush land setting while the garden of Robert Bakewell is shown in its early infancy. A ploughman speedily turns over the virgin soils of the Plenty River flats, vines grow in rows and hay stacks float with a ghostly, ethereal quality at top of the ridge, evidence of the bounty being harvested from this new land. Smoke from a chimney on the cottage indicates the settled lives of the Quaker brothers who live here, the enclosures of fences and paths imposing an order seemingly at odds with the wild land beyond view.
With the end of Gilbert’s brief farming endeavours on the Plenty, the erstwhile artist threw himself into a variety of other pursuits. He was a member of the Horticultural Society, the Society of Saint George, the Melbourne Hospital and Melbourne Debating Society committees and served for a time as Secretary of the Medical Board of Port Phillip. In addition to these endeavours, Gilbert was also the Secretary of Melbourne’s Mechanics Institute for six years from 1844, an institution which boasted the membership of some of the leading and most influential figures of Port Phillip Society at that time, including Dr Godfrey Howitt and Howitt’s Bakewell brothers in law. At the MMI Gilbert taught art and acted as a secretary, librarian and museum curator and by the time he moved on in 1850, he had overseen its teething pains and “helped establish it as an important and enduring cultural organisation in the colony.” (Bowman)
Gilbert’s biographer, Margaret Bowman, who recorded the above line and who wrote the definitive history of the artist, “Cultured Colonists” and upon whose research a large part of this article is based, wrote that his contemporaries found Gilbert a talkative although sometimes tiresome fellow and that he seemed to know “something about everything” while at the same time “not being entirely successful at anything.” (Bowman: Cultured Colonists, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014) It is true that Gilbert was apparently “personable, intelligent and good hearted” (ibid) but it was also said that he appeared sometimes to present better than he performed. He is known to have dabbled in Daguerreotype photography and entomology, both subjects that were of interest to the Bakewells and their circle, but in Gilbert’s case, it seems these interests did not extend beyond early experiment and examination.
With the discovery of gold in 1851 Gilbert was appointed by the newly created Lieutenant Governor, Charles Joseph La Trobe, as an Assistant Gold Commissioner at the Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Forest Creek (Castlemaine) gold fields where he served, funnily enough, alongside this writer’s own Great Grand Uncle, the Police Magistrate, Lachlan “Bendigo Mac” McLachlan. By the end of Gilbert’s gold fields appointment which ended in clouded circumstances a year later, the marriage of George and Anne Gilbert had broken down and in 1857 George returned to England, sans “mi cara sposa”. This was the same year that John and Robert Bakewell also returned “home” but it is unknown if these movements were in any way related.
A group of Gilbert drawings, some of which were almost certainly commissions, did find their way into the possession of John Bakewell and together with the E L Bateman Plenty Station drawings and a number of Eugene von Guerard presentation drawings, they formed a collection which remained by descent with the family of John Bakewell until 1935. In that year the Gilbert drawings were purchased by the State Library of Victoria following a Centenary of Melbourne exhibition with the Bateman and von Guerard pictures going to the NGV a little later, in 1959. Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, which had remained in the family of Dr Godfrey Howitt, was gifted to the State Library in 1967 to complete the picture.
George Alexander Gilbert appears to have returned to Australia briefly at the start of the 1860s before finally vanishing from the colonial record in Victoria. Sometime before 1863 he resurfaced in Canada with a new “wife” where he lived in style in Toronto, teaching art “to fashionable young ladies and aspiring young men.” In Toronto he was described as being “very free with his money of which he must have had plenty at that time.” Where this wherewithal had come from is unclear but by this time the “dashing Mr Gilbert” was in his early 50s and described as “impressive, tall and fair with curled grey whiskers and moustache, always well dressed and a fluent talker.” His former life in Australia seems to have been all but forgotten but after nearly a decade in Canada, he was on the move again finding another new life and another new “wife”, this time in the United States and it was there that he died in Hartford, Conneticut in December, 1877.
G A Gilbert wore many hats in his career, sometimes the cap fitting, at other times not. He reinvented himself more than once and on more than one continent in what was really a full and eventful life. In an attempt to put a perspective on his life, Margaret Bowman best summed him up with a characterization, “An artist after all,” words which she used as the title of the second to last chapter of her book. In that chapter, Bowman said that Gilbert’s output was, “historically important as a record of Early European settlement, of a land in transition, seen through English eyes.” She concludes with, “(he) not only contributed to the development of the visual arts in the colonies, but also left a substantial Victorian legacy of delightful and historically important artworks.”
As a representation of this “Victorian legacy”, a proportion of Gilbert’s artwork left Australia in the 19th century along with other more significant work by E L Bateman and von Guerard, only to return to Australia in the 20th century to form important collections at the State Library of Victoria and National Gallery of Victoria.
John Bakewell could not have known at the time that his patronage and collecting interests in Australia would one day form the basis of a serious starting point in the understanding of Australian colonial art history, but today his collection constitutes a rich resource for the annalists. Writing in an earlier 1995 paper, Lucy Ellem described the art aesthetic that established itself during the first wave of European settlement in Australia and in particular the way in which it applies to the Plenty River landscape.
“An examination of written and pictorial responses to the Australian landscape of the Plenty Valley made by European visitors and settlers suggest that its transformation from its ‘natural’ state came about not simply because of practical agrarian or farming needs, nor because of nostalgia for a distant homeland, although these factors were both important, but because of a conscious aesthetic, a way of perceiving the landscape in accordance with the English aesthetic categories of the Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque.” (Ellem: Picturesque and Panoramic)
The “Beautiful”, the “Sublime” and the “Picturesque” were all European concepts of the 18th century which came to be applied to the wild Australian landscape in the 19th. Writing specifically of the Bakewells’ Station Plenty, Lucy states that “the Bakewell brothers, rank among Victoria’s earliest and most important pioneers”, and while the Gilbert pictures might not necessarily stack up as great art, Lucy remarks that Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, together with the numerous other pictorial and written records of the Bakewell property, finds a place within the narrative of this aesthetic. Indeed, in Gilbert’s case it could be said there’s more to the story. If at heart every artist really is first an amateur, then George Gilbert was an amateur but an amateur and a gentleman of the first order.