Garling, born in Holborn, London, emigrated to Australia in 1814, arriving in Sydney in August 1815. He joined Stirling's expedition to the Swan River in western Australia in 1827 as artist, before taking up the post of landing waiter to the Customs Office in Sydney. He is reported to have painted only in his spare time, in mornings and at weekends, but is listed as a professional artist in Sydney at various stages in his life and exhibited regularly. He became Sydney's most prolific artist, reputedly painting every vessel that came into the harbour.
Circular Quay, a contraction of 'Semi-Circular Quay', the original name of the half-moon stone wharf and seawall lining Sydney Cove, was built by convict gangs labouring under the military engineer George Barney, the first stage begun in 1837 and completed in 1844. It formed part of an ambitious reclamation scheme which saw four hectares of tidal mud flats filled in for maritime building projects, including Garling's Sydney Customs House. The quay's city end was much later squared off for the ferry terminal which survives today.