Peter Kingston’s “Ferryspotting” runs for 40  kilometres. Our journey starts from where he lives above Sydney Harbour’s Lavender Bay and ends up at Mackerel Beach in Broken Bay where he has been painting on weekdays. Both termini are served by small ferries.

Like the title of the film Trainspotting, “Ferryspotting” is about more than a means of transport. Here is another of those sounds with two spellings - ferry/fairy -and multiple meanings.

Some of that overlap was caught in an anecdote about a Mardi Gras tourist. When his host says  “That’s the Manly ferry”, the visitor replies, “Gawd, I knew you guys were organised but I didn’t realise you had your own navy”. One does not need to be an importuning policeman to spot this kind of fairy around Sydney, though some otherwise prominent ones remain cloistered.

Tourist is the favourite role of too many Sydney artists who are content to contemplate the scene from the outside. Around 1890, Arthur Streeton brought a holiday mood to McMahon’s Point wharf. By contrast, Tom Roberts pictured the smog over the harbour from the steam ferries.

To treat the port’s expanse as one big Luna Park is to fail to appreciate its significance as a work site. As Mary Gilmore put it in “Old Botany Bay”: “Shame on the mouth/ That would deny/ The knotted hands/ That set us high”. For good or ill, the harbour we have today is the product of barbarism and ingenuity, its foreshores reshaped to serve industry and commerce. The ferries that Peter Kingston spots carry thousands to and from work each day. These vessels are workplaces for their crews, casting off lines or collecting fares. John Passmore (1??? -19    ) pictured this strand of the waterfront, just as he apprehended that every draught of fishes can seem miraculous, and life find some meaning in the mundane. His vision continues in canvasses by Ann Thompson and Brent McMahon.

Kingston found his fun and games at Luna Park by working there as a painter. That experience confirms the view that art is the proper kind of work for human beings.  

The representation of Sydney is often about leisure. The Harbour as fun palace prevails in the paintings of Lloyd Rees, Brett Whiteley and John Firth-Smith. All three offer smooth surfaces and knot-free lines. By contrast, Peter Kingston’s paintings look choppy, like the water in a squall. Similarly, his drawing is a tangle of tackle, a conundrum of ideas. His works are subversive in their rawness. Their truth is in their untidiness, their textures disturbing the relaxed and comfortable fog that has enveloped Kirribilli House.

“Girt by sea” is the title of Kingston’s recent exhibition at the Museum of Sydney. That phrase is apt for this show too, providing that “girt’ is not taken as limiting his subjects.

Kingston’s range includes yet another form of ferry-fairy as a figment of the air, an enchanted creature. A touch of that mystery appears in the Phantom who haunts Kingston’s imagination as a passenger on the ferries. His companion, Boofhead, expresses the defiance of someone too honest to be taken in by any smart set.

The final form of fairy is the penguin. At Mackerel Beach, Peter helped rescue one from a fishing line. After letting it rest under the jetty, the locals returned it to the colony on Lion Island. But the bird came back to take up residence where the ferry docks, swooping through the clear shallows to catch tiddlers, its velveteen back bluer than the water.

Peter’s Scotty terrier, Denton, demonstrates an agility that is improbable when you look at the proportions of his legs, head and body. Yet, in his element, Denton is a match for ‘Mac’, the fairy penguin. It is easy to imagine that odd couple starring in a series of books for children, solving crimes against the environment.

As citizen and artist, Peter Kingston has contested the demolition of ramshackle wharfs and elegant residences along the foreshores. Their disappearance is part of a rush to erase memory.

Although suburbia has reproduced itself at Mackerel Beach, its tranquilly is threatened by disputes among the residents, as documented in The Australian Magazine ( ?? May 2001). Peter Kingston images of labour and destruction show that there is no haven. The cliffs around Lavender Bay are blotted by maximum security detention centres for millionaires. Kingston’s own house defies this vandalism in its dilapidation as resolutely as does his art in its refusal to tack with the breeze of fashion. The depth of his observation is obvious in the opalescence he allows in the green water or the pinkness to the iron-rich sands.

In settler Australian culture, wilful forgetting runs second to never having known. Arthur Stace has been granted immortality for the monotony of his “Eternity”. But the fecund strokes from the city’s most incisive caricaturist and cartoonist, George Finey (18    -198  ), are far more deserving of recognition, though not a marketing campaign. Although the surfaces of Finey’s and Kingston’s work could not be further apart, there are parallels in their temperaments and concerns. Like Finey, Kingston is a mix of whimsy and toughness.

The compleat outsider, Finey once set out to row his worldly goods in a dinghy from Circular Quay to Palm Beach. With the luck of the joker in the pack, Finey and his boat sank within a few metres of departure. With Peter Kingston’s expertise in messing around with boats, they would have made it to Pittwater. Through his skill with oil and ink, we all have a better chance of seeing through the destructive to the innovative, gathering steam from the past to make a surer landing in the future.

Humphrey McQueen is the author of three books on Australian art, including Suburbs of the Sacred (1988), which analysed the post-war art scene through the career of Peter Kingston’s North Sydney neighbour, Keith Looby.