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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. Australian National Maritime Museum Collection, 00054409

Pearling Luggers

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.

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

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.

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.