English-born landscape artist J Miller Marshall arrived in Australia in the late 1880s. It appears that he was initially drawn to Victoria in search of gold but stayed for the art. Miller Marshall had returned to England by the mid 1890s and may have taken with him a number of works painted in Australia.
Fossicking for gold c 1893 is a rare oil painting from Miller Marshall’s time in Australia. It depicts a scene at the Creswick goldfields near Ballarat in Victoria and is from a period when a second large discovery of gold attracted many fossickers into the area. Fossickers were miners who searched through mined earth for any remaining gold and, in this painting, Miller Marshall portrays two fossickers at rest. One miner is standing with his shovel astride his shoulder, while the other is seated smoking a pipe; positioned beside him is the conspicuously empty gold pan.
While it is probable that the figures in Miller Marshall’s painting were based on models, he has successfully conveyed a sense of a momentary break from the hard work of labouring in the blistering heat of an Australian summer’s day. Miller Marshall’s response to the colours and qualities of the Australian light and landscape reveal a glowing yet heavily mined earth, coloured with rich yellows and ochres. And the roughly textured bark of the two gum trees and scattered rocks in the foreground are rendered in shades of smoky blues, pinks and greens.
For several weeks in January of 1893, Miller Marshall and fellow artist Walter Withers ran plein-air painting classes at Creswick. It is likely that Miller Marshall and Withers worked side by side at this time, with Withers painting a strikingly similar work, Fossickers 1893. This work is also held by the National Gallery of Australia and the comparison of the two paintings yields insights into the differences between the artists’ handling of paint and approach to composition.
In addition, a third, unsigned work depicting the very same scene is held in the collection of the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum. This work, also titled Fossicking for gold 1893, was previously attributed to Miller Marshall; however, it is now believed that this work may have been painted by Percy Lindsay. A member of the well-known Lindsay family, Percy grew up in Creswick and is celebrated for his paintings of the surrounding area. He and his brother Lionel were among the students who Miller Marshall and Withers taught in the summer of 1893.Little is known about Miller Marshall except that he was a founding member of the Norwich Art Circle from 1885 until 1904 and was one of five children; his father was the Norwich-based artist Peter Paul Marshall (1830–1900). Miller Marshall is most recognised for his watercolours but was also proficient in oil painting. He had a number of paintings selected for exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.
Miller Marshall’s Fossicking for gold was recently gifted to the national collection by Jenny, David and Melissa Manton in memory of the late Jack Manton. This painting is currently on public display at the National Gallery of Australia, alongside the unsigned Fossicking for gold, on loan from Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, and the Gallery’s Fossickers by Walter Withers.
Assistant Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture