Vale painter Peter Kingston

A chronicler of Sydney Harbour, painter Peter Kingston has died, aged 79.

Known for his paintings of life on Sydney Harbour – in particular grunty tug boats and the Opera House – landscape artist Peter Kingston (b. 1943) has died peacefully at home after a lengthy battle with cancer, aged 79.

In a formal statement (30 September) gallerist Stuart Purves, of Australian Galleries, said: ‘Peter joined us shortly after we opened our gallery in Sydney… He adored Sydney Harbour and is famous for bringing us the joys of our old and working Sydney Harbour, with its ferries, jetties, Wylie’s Baths and of course his great love of the Opera House. He was constantly reminding us of the Harbour’s importance, and although he saw its activities modernised he loved and painted its history.’

The gallery represented Kingston for the past 30 years, adding that he ‘possessed an unwavering integrity.’

Lesser known, Kingston had an activist zeal in his passion for preserving the harbour.

Fellow artist Luke Sciberras writes of that passion to preserve in Artist Profile magazine: ‘Along with the unmistakable appeal of Kingston’s sentimental inflections comes a lifetime of absolutely fearless campaigns to champion his heroes and to fight the good fight against those who threaten that which he holds dear.

‘He is one of the very few artists who embeds a political or wry tone into almost every work he makes, however tacit or overt. In his own way he staunchly protects everything he stands for.’

Purves continued: ‘He was an extraordinary man, totally dedicated to his attitude of preserving the best of our world rather than have it constantly run over for something new.’

A painter of everyday icons

Kingston – or ‘Kingo’ as he was known by many – had a natural ability for drawing / drafting, and his career moved across illustration, painting, drawing and even filmmaking.

He had always loved films and comics, and as a young artist contributed to Oz magazine in the 1960s – an iconic publication that shaped a chapter of the Sydney art scene. In turn, it led to Kingston’s involvement with the Yellow House Artists Collective in Potts Point, along with fellow artists such as Martin Sharp, George Gittoes and Brett Whiteley, and known for its experimental, bohemian embrace.

His friendship endured with Whiteley – the pair neighbours in Lavendar Bay, where they both found incredible inspiration overlooking Sydney Harbour. These are the paintings that Kingston is most known for, and captured the psyche of Australian audiences.

His home is a collection of objects, memorabilia, artworks, cartoons – and he was known for film night filled with hearty discussion. It is a celebration of Sydney itself.

In 2019, that friendship and shared vision was captured in an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, titled Bohemian Harbour: Artists of Lavender Bay.

Kingston’s works of Sydney Opera House and Luna Park have also become iconic. But equally, Kingston’s everyday landscape that capture the weather and light shifts have proved him one of Australia’s great landscape artists.

Sciberras further adds: ‘Moreover his work has a memory of its own – charcoal is lost and found, paint is applied and removed, a shadow or pentimento exists to always remind us that there’s a backstory, creating a slight imperfection around the image that leaves most of Kingston’s work far from slick.’

Sciberras says Kingston’s most basic urge in making was ‘to share a story or a moment through an image.’ A prolific creator, he was always working. In an interview with his local paper Northsider (2019) Kingston said: ‘I hate holidays. I’ve got to do something every day.’

He never chased stardom and was an unwavering giver through his artistic eye for his entire life.

Stuart Purves, Australian Galleries

In the tributes that have flowed these past days, many have recognised Kingston’s ability – through his artworks – to offer a fresh view to his audience, to ‘re-see’ things, and to appreciate the smaller details.

Read: Why painting en plein air is booming

Who was Peter Kingston

Peter Kingston received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales in 1965, kicking off a career as a prolific painter, with over 35 solo exhibitions reaching back to 1978.

While he has often been a favourite inclusion in countless group exhibitions, his paintings have regularly found a place in the Dobell Drawing Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales between 1993 and 2000, the Wynne Prize between 1995 and 2003, and the Sulman Prize between 1998 and 2001.

A highlight of his career was the survey exhibition of his work titled Habourlights that was toured by the Manly Regional Gallery in 2004, and coincided with the release of his first monograph. 

Later, in 2019, another monograph was published by Beagle Press edited by Art Historian Barry Pearce.

Kingston’s works are held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney; the Museum of Sydney, several regional galleries and internationally by the Biblioteque de la ville, Belgium; Costen Library, Los Angeles and the National Film Library in Tokyo.

Kingston was also an activist with a desire to preserve the harbour. ‘It’s a sign of a great city that looks after the best of its heritage,’ Kingston told Northside. ‘I just like things that are well made and they’re from another era where work was king. I respect it. People were proud of their jobs and what they made.

‘Peter’s wish was for no fuss, funeral or speeches,’ concluded Purves. The show that he has been working on for December this year will now go ahead as a memorial exhibition.

Peter Kingston, at Australian Galleries Sydney, from 6 – 22 December 2022.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina