Wendy’s Secret Garden

Wendy Whiteley was a complex woman, most famous as Brett Whiteley's wife. Among many achievements in an eventful life, is a remarkable secret garden that she created out of an old dump, on the banks of Sydney Harbour.

Forgotten Places FORGOTTEN PLACES

 ENIGMATIC CHARACTERS

Born in Sydney in 1941, Wendy Julius showed artistic ability from a young age.

Attending the Hornsby Girls High School, in the northern suburbs, she won the David Jones Drawing Prize, a prestigious local art contest, in her early teens. She later attended the East Sydney Technical College, where she studied drawing and art history.

In 1957, at the age of 15, she met Brett Whiteley.

Brett and Wendy Whitely as a young couple.

Two years older than Wendy, at seventeen Brett Whiteley was working in the layout department for a Sydney advertising firm. 

But he was passionately committed to becoming an artist.

In his spare time he wandered around the Rocks area, near Circular Quay, or McMahon's Point in North Sydney, sketching. He also ventured out to the old gold mining towns of Hill End and Sofala, to imitate the landscapes of one of his idols, Russell Drysdale.

Brett and Wendy were introduced by mutual friends, and met for the first time at Brett's parents house. They clicked instantly, and shortly started a passionate love affair.

'The City from Dalring Harbour' (1958), an early Brett Whitely work.

In 1959, Brett won a travelling art scholarship offered by the Italian government. This provided for him to study in Europe for two years, and he departed for Italy in early 1960.

Wendy stayed behind initially, but after saving some money followed later the same year. The couple were reunited in Paris in June, and by 1961 were living together in London, where Brett set up a studio. 

He held his first solo show in London, at the Mathieson Galleries, in 1962.

The show was a financial, and critical, success and the couple were married shortly afterwards. Wendy would become heavily involved in the city's fashion scene, vibrant in London in the 1960's, and would work as a buyer for local labels.

They were an attractive, exciting pair, the life of the party, dramatic and flamboyant. People compared them to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

The Whitely's in Sydney, 1969.

Wendy gave birth to a daughter, Arkie, in London in 1964.

After that, the Whiteley's adopted something of a nomadic existence. They lived in New York for a few years, staying at the famous Chelsea Hotel, then decamped to a shack and the simple life on an island in Fiji. Later they returned to both the US and England for additional periods.

The roaming reflected a turbulent time in their lives. 

Brett and Wendy both became addicted to heroin, and both had extra marital affairs. The drugs lead to legal troubles - they had to leave Fiji after being caught with marijuana in a police raid - and the infidelity lead to the couple spending time apart.

Finally, in 1974, they decided to settle down. They returned to Sydney, and bought a house in Lavender Bay, a small suburb on the north shore of the harbour.

Lavender Bay.

Despite the idyllic name, Lavender Bay has a rugged history.

In the early days of the settlement, prison ships, or 'hulks', were anchored there, and the area was first known as 'Hulk Bay'. An especially notorious hulk, the 'Phoenix', known for its rotting timbers and dishevelled condition, was stationed there for many years.

The bosun on the Phoenix was George Lavender.

When he had completed his service, he bought land around the bay where he had served, and built a house. The area became known by his name; Lavender Bay.

Lochgyle, Lavender Bay

By the 1970's, Lavender Bay had developed into a quiet, secluded suburb. Despite its proximity to Sydney's bustling harbour, the area had a sleepy feel, and had already attracted several members of the local arts community:

'We came to visit a friend who was on the lower floor of this old, shonky Federation house that had been turned into two apartments. We took the upstairs flat because we just fell in love with the bay.'

-Wendy Whiteley

In 1974, the Whiteley's bought a house at 1 Walker Street. Known as 'Lochgyle', the three storey, Federation style house, with corner tower, was a comfortable, roomy residence, but modest for a famous art celebrity.

Brett painted many famous [pictures form the house's garden, and balcony. Wendy Whiteley would live there for the rest of her life.

'The Balcony 2', by Brett Whitely. Painted from the Lochgyle balcony. Photo: Art Gallery NSW.

The couple separated in 1989.

After years of heroin addiction, Wendy finally determined to get clean in 1988, and went overseas for treatment. This was successful, but on her return she found Brett, who had also promised to detox, still using. He was also engaged in an affair with a local woman, who he had met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

Brett subsequently moved out of Lochgyle and took up residence in his Surrey Hills studio. He died of a heroin overdose on June 15, 1992.

Arkie Whitely with her grandmother.

Talented, bold and vivacious, Arkie Whiteley had also made a name for herself in the arts.

But rather than painting, she had become a successful actress, appearing in a string of Australian movies; 'The Road Warrior' the best known of these. Later, she would relocate to England, where she became a fixture on television.

Arkie was close with her father, and inherited some of his troubled spirit. Through her teens and twenties, she had her own struggles with drugs and alcohol, and a series of stormy, turbulent relationships.

Deeply affected by her father's death, after his passing she resolved to clean herself up; successfully giving up drugs, and throwing herself into preserving Brett's legacy, cataloguing his work and establishing a web archive.

She also met, and fell in love with, a Sydney doctor, and the two planned to marry.

'She looked ravishingly beautiful. She was deeply in love, and couldn't wait to be married and have a baby. She had finally found a sense of completeness, and happiness.'

-Beryl Whitely, Arkie's Grandmother

But shortly before the wedding, Arkie began to feel ill.

A series of tests would subsequently reveal that she had cancer, in both her lungs and liver. While she started chemotherapy shortly afterwards, the disease was already advanced, and was soon detected in her adrenal gland as well.

Arkie's health declined rapidly. Wendy would later say it was like she had been 'hit by a train.'

She died in her fiancee's house in Palm Beach, in Sydney's northern suburbs, a week before Christmas in December 2001. She was 37 years old.

The disused land across the road...

Lavender Bay slopes downhill to the water's edge.

Across the road from Lochgyle, was a tract of vacant, rubbish strewn land, sloping down to the harbour. It belonged to the NSW Railway Corporation, but was only fenced on one side, and was entirely disused. 

A few scrubby trees grew among the litter, and stacks of old railway supplies.

After Brett's death in 1992, Wendy turned her attention to this area, determined to make something out of it. She needed a project, something to take her mind off things, and she went at it with vigour:

'Wendy hurled herself into the forlorn site, hacking away at lantana, blackberry vines and privet, clearing up dumped bottles, rusty refrigerators, rotting mattresses, labouring till she was too exhausted to think or feel, then collapsing into sleep each night. Then doing the same, the next day and the next.'

'Wendy's Secret Garden', official site.

After Arkie's passing, Wendy redoubled her efforts.

She was not a gardener, she didn't know anything about horticulture, she didn't even have permission to access what was government land. But she had always had a good eye, and approached the park like an artwork, projecting painterly ideas onto the space to give it a sense of style and shape.

The government left her to it. Perhaps they understood she was doing them a favour.

What slowly emerged was a unique, idiosyncratic garden, full of secret pathways, hidden alcoves, antique furniture, and breathtaking views:

A  number of artefacts lined the paths, or nestled between the trees. These included sculptures and assemblages from local artists, pieces of bric-a-brac that caught Wendy's eye, even bits of old railway detritus:

The garden became known as Wendy's Secret Garden, although it has always been open to the public. But the name is apt, as it is a proper little hideaway, right in the middle of Australia's largest city.

In the early 2000's the Railway Corporation turned the lease of the land over to the local council, prserving Wendy's work for generations to come. A small army of volunteers provides the maintenance, to keep the garden in its original, perfect shape.

Wendy Whitely still lives in the house across the road. She scattered the ashes of both Brett and Arkie in her garden, once it was finished.

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