Gil Docking 1919-2015
In March 1952, the students and staff of the Theological Hall in Queen’s College, at the University of Melbourne, met in retreat before the beginning of the academic year. At the opening session in the Chapel, a young Adonis followed the sombrely dressed clerical professors to the lectern.
A handsome giant of a man, he was dressed in cream slacks with a white polo-necked cable pullover, as though just in from sailing. As president of the Theological Students Society he welcomed the newcomers, who seemed but schoolboys compared with this ex-RAAF serviceman, Gil Docking, who had returned from the war and enrolled at Queens College to study fine arts and theology.
Gil Docking. Photo: Dean Beletich
Gilbert Charles Docking was born on February 16, 1919, in Bendigo, Victoria, the son of George Docking and his wife, Gertrude (nee Ebbott). He grew up in the Depression in frugal but happy conditions.
After finishing school at Melbourne Boys High, Docking won a scholarship in Industrial Design to the Royal Melbourne Technical Art School. When he arrived he discovered there was no such course, so he enrolled in General Art, which included life painting, design, drawing, lettering and pottery, with Thursday afternoons free for sport.
Nevertheless, after two years, his first job was as industrial designer at a glass factory. In shocking work conditions he produced, day after day, glass panels for domestic shower screens, decorated with fish, bubbles and seaweed. On every screen the same fish, same bubbles, same seaweed. He began to question his future in art.
At home his Methodist family were disturbed by the reports from Nazi Germany, and the conditions under which so many people were living in Australia. Docking later wrote, “the Methodist Church emphasised justice, fair play and trying to improve social conditions against corruption. I began to think that I could be of service to the church producing film strips for religious education”.
Docking entered Otira, a grand house in Kew, Melbourne, and the training college for Methodist Home Missionaries. He then served in the circuit of Omeo, in Eastern Victoria, centred on the small town of Swifts Creek. In his own words, “You couldn’t find a more remote and primitive place to send a 20-year-old, ill-trained pastor.”
He was later moved to Bayswater, in suburban Melbourne, but his arguments for peace were drowned under the immediate threat of a hostile invasion of Australia. Docking enlisted in the RAAF.
Posted to Australian Coastal Command Squadron 455, stationed at Langham, Norfolk, his first sorties across the English Channel were fairly uneventful, until June 13, 1944, when the plane he was in was hit by an exploding shell and the engines failed. His pilot, a well-known cricketer, Keith Carmody, captain of the Allied Team playing at Lords, prepared to ditch and successfully carried out the difficult manoeuvre at 322km/h.
Both Carmody and navigator Docking were thrown from the plane. After a cold dark night in a rubber dingy they were sighted and picked up by the German crew of a motor torpedo boat.
For more than 50 years, Docking did not talk about his war experiences, or of being in Stalag Luft 3 POW Camp on the Polish-German border. But on the 60th anniversary of his rescue, his friends were called to lunch to celebrate the miracles that eventually brought him home.
Docking recalled on the last day of the war the German guards stoking a large bonfire with camp paperwork. The next morning the gates were open and the guards were gone. Docking wrote: “at last we could hear the rumbles of cannon as the Russian Red Army tanks rapidly advanced into our compound, stopped to make contact and amuse us by dancing and clapping, then racing on to Berlin 30 miles away.” Docking had survived and was going home.
In 1952, Docking married a young artist, Sheila (known as Shay) Lawson. He was then posted to a parish in Chelsea, but married life was not easy in the parsonage. Docking again left the Methodist Church, and he returned to the art world as education officer for the National Art Gallery of Victoria. So began a long creative career in art administration.
The newlyweds bought a second-hand car and caravan and set off with an accompanying van to exhibit paintings that Docking selected from the gallery to the people of country Victoria. The gypsy life of this “long honeymoon” suited them both, providing the inspiration for Shay’s painting and the foundations of Gil’s career. The exhibitions in 50 towns were an outstanding popular success and a long-term result of Docking’s pioneering work was the establishment of regional art galleries in Victoria.
There was also no art gallery in Newcastle, NSW, and when a benefactor made it possible, it was not surprising that the young Docking, who had demonstrated his flair in Victoria, should be invited to establish it. It was he who identified Brett Whiteley as a major talent at only 19, and Newcastle Art Gallery became the owner of Whiteley’s first purchased work,Autumn Abstract (1959). It is still in the gallery’s collection.
When Docking left Newcastle only seven years later, the gallery was already widely recognised as the leading provincial art gallery in Australia.
In 1965, Docking was appointed director of the Auckland Art Gallery, in New Zealand, a different challenge. Here the task was to have a tired old building completely rebuilt. While this was being done the collection had to be stored safely out of the way. So Docking combined his meticulous planning and management of the building project with researching and writing the definitive history of New Zealand art, Two Hundred and Forty Years of New Zealand Painting (1971). It was awarded the Watties Prize in 1972, as the best publication for the year.
In 1972, the Dockings came to Sydney, to the Art Gallery of NSW. Docking served first as the senior education officer, then deputy director, and for a period as acting director. He retired in 1982 and became a full-time champion and curator of Shay’s works.
To his surprise, he was awarded a Medal of Order of Australia in 2014, for service to the arts. The surprise was because he thought he was too ancient for awards and had always enjoyed his work and had never sought or desired accolades.
In early 2015, Docking placed the largest of Shay’s paintings in the permanent collection of Macquarie University. The multiple boards of this painting of the Warrumbungles had dominated the hallway of their Paddington home since it had been lowered through the ceiling from Shay’s second floor studio into the hall.
Gil Docking died at home, seated in his favourite chair, the washing up done, a gingernut and a cup of water by his side. The next morning, four of his favourite women gathered together with him. He loved and was loved to his last day.
He is survived by his brother Fred and the many friends and colleagues who loved him. Shay died in 1998.
Originally published in SMH.