Percy Hockings: Watercolours from the North

by David Payne

Percy Hockings Watercolours

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Portrait of a young Percy Hockings

Courtesy John Hockings

You can go out and buy a set of paints easily—a dozen tubes in a box, many bright enticing colours looking for a scene to compliment the palette. Viridian, cadmium red and yellow, raw umber, Van Dyke brown, Payne’s gray and Prussian blue, Indigo, turquoise and tangerine.

These are colours that speak of the bright tropics. Percy Hockings (1867—1950) had those colours, a talent for watercolours and a reason to go there. He was a cousin of Reginald Hockings (1868—1932), a prominent figure in the Thursday Island and Torres Strait pearling industry from the late 1890s onwards. So with the lure of the north pulling him away, he was off to Thursday Island.

What happened is captured here in a new collection of material from Percy Hockings, a collection that first caught our eye when some of the lugger images were shared with us by the family. And there was more than pearling luggers. The dazzling sunlight shone through, there was wildlife and plants, backgrounds with grand theatrical scenery, vignettes of people, and an overall feeling of the rich and vibrant social scene humming away. The romance of pearling in the north was coming through but at the same time we had captivating artworks, signed and dated. There were historical details and location names, along with notes and observations made first hand.

The notes were very revealing. A lugger image with the dimensions based on relative proportions hinted strongly at a very observant understanding of design, while the drawing of the diver suggested a deep interest and connection to his subject. All the time, the artist was recording much more than just a scene. He was going behind it to add detail.

Knowing there was more, I made a visit while in Brisbane to see the artworks first hand. With the collection in front of me, I could feel Hockings was having a conversation, bringing out the pictures to show where he had been. Here was an illustrated logbook of his travels, what he saw and what was special to him.

Sketch book of watercolours by Percy Hockings
Sketch book of watercolours by Percy Hockings

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection, 00054409

Pearling Luggers

Pearling luggers with Prince of Wales Island to the right and Horn Island to the left
Pearling luggers with Prince of Wales Island to the right and Horn Island to the left

Percy Hockings watercolour sketchbook. Australian National Maritime Museum Collection, 00054409

The entry point to the pictures was one with the luggers at anchor, silhouetted against an afternoon sky. It was like a sepia print, blacks and delicate shades of brown, and like a photograph it caught what was happening at the time rather than posing and adjusting things to suit as you might with a formal painting.

It’s a sketch, quickly taking in the craft in different stages of unrigging, someone rowing out—they would be gone from the scene in a moment. In the foreground the vessel has no mast. It’s an everyday scene, clouds build on the horizon. Underneath Hockings notes in handwriting ‘Prince of Wales Island to right- Horn Island to left’, so we are looking roughly south east and the craft ‘vary in size from 48ft long 12 across 9 deep up to 62ft long – 10…’ Such facts are useful and compliment the artistic value.

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Profile of a pearling lugger

ANMM Collection

His profile drawing of a pearling lugger is a classic draughtsman’s outline. There are grid lines and reference lines for proportioning drawn in lightly, with the craft then constructed around these margins and pencilled in strongly over the top. There are further notes around the edges: ‘mainboom = half height mast, out of ballast—sails- light cream, spars dark cream’. The light horizontal line though the sheer shows someone with a very keen eye  who wants to get this important curve right, lower at the stern than the bow with the tangent touching the sheer curve well aft. That’s how the designer works when he is creating a plan to build from.

Watercolour by Percy Hockings titled Thursday Island Rain Squall from SW
Watercolour by Percy Hockings titled 'Thursday Island Rain Squall from SW'

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection, 00054406

Pearling luggers laid up at Thursday Island
Pearling luggers laid up at Thursday Island, Prince of Wales Island in the background

Photograph by Frank Hurley, taken between 1910 and 1962. Courtesy National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23358066

Others images show the fleet careened on the low tide, scenes photographed in black and white by others including Frank Hurley, but here was an interpretation of the fleet, coloured, and accurately portrayed. The angle of heel is not accentuated. A coppered bottom is depicted in panels just as it would be tacked on, the luggers slightly scrambled and uneven orientation to the sea is in place. A bit of action comes from people heading out in a skiff, one lugger is under sail, and the steamer approaches a landmark—the Thursday Island wharf. It’s a background familiar to many. People in the know will realise they have stood there too, and watched things happen, maybe putting it on film whereas when Percy was there his picture came by hand. You can stand there today and see the same outlines of wharf and land, people working their craft, but the luggers are now only ghosts from the past.

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Pearling luggers leaving from Thursday Island, Torres Strait, c. 1906

Another scene picks up the strong sunlight and a rare clarity to the air. It helps depict the details of Prince of Wales Island opposite. Then we can go back to another lugger portrait, one picked out in blue, golden tans and chocolatey brown giving that weathered brightness that so many working craft wear to work once that yearly coat of paint has taken a toll by the elements.

These are more than pictures of luggers. They are also scenes of the area, capturing the moods of the weather as Hockings felt the changes that sweep through. In tiny writing the steamer’s scene notes what is clearly apparent: ‘rain squall from SW’. You can see it rolling over Prince of Wales Island just opposite and you just know it was coming his way within minutes, just as the steamer berthed.