By Michel Lawrence
Wendy Whiteley now sits atop the Australian art scene as one of the great Grande Dames. A very talented painter herself she met Brett Whiteley as a teenager and lived through great times in post war art. Travelling with Brett as his star rose like a rocket ship, first in London where he was the youngest painter ever collected by the prestigious Tate to travelling bursaries to Italy and France and then to the USA where they lived in the penthouse at the legendary Chelsea Hotel.
Wendy, has had a view of art from the most privileged of positions. She has also had her share of tragedy. But Wendy is a survivor and she is now putting her stamp on the things that are important to her: most notably, her home for the past 40 years in Lavender Bay, the garden she has carved out of the scrub on the foreshore at Lavender Bay and the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, now a part of the Art Gallery of NSW.
She speaks about all those things with Michel Lawrence of The Stock Rooms on the introduction of the new Brett Whiteley limited edition fine art reproductions. The interview took place in the living room of her Lavender Bay home.
Michel Lawrence (ML): Was this house the beginning of the love affair with Sydney Harbour?
Wendy Whiteley (WW): Who doesn’t love Sydney Harbour? I lived on the north shore at Lindfield. Brett lived at Longueville so we used to get ferries everywhere. We’d go to Luna Park as kids…so we were always aware of the Harbour.
We came here (Lavender Bay) to visit a friend who was living downstairs and this was a VERY rundown dark and gloomy Federation house built in 1907 which had been converted into flats and he (our friend) had the downstairs flat.
The upstairs flat had just become vacant. Which is where we are now!
ML: So it was three apartments?
WW: It was two! Because the basement level wasn’t there. It was a basement but it was just really crummy…under the house kind of stuff and we went up to the roof.
ML: Were the paintings all done upstairs?
WW: No downstairs. First off, that room was Brett’s sitting room/studio, this was our bedroom, so we just squashed into this thing and then Brett got the Gasworks studio. This was just too small. Then we bought the house and started converting it back into a house! We built the tower and did all that stuff.
ML: That must have really opened up the vista?
WW: Well, we fell in love with Lavender Bay. It was extraordinary. Hardly anyone knew about it. Luna Park was still functioning in the old fashioned way…the old dipper and the old river caves and all that kind of stuff. Really, no one came over here! There was no access to Luna Park from here before. So people just used to have to park and walk down the stairs.
The tree out the front was much smaller then so you could see over the top of it. There was a great view of Lavender Bay from here- from this balcony, which was also a closed-in cronky thing with a window you couldn’t open.
(Brett’s first Archibald Prize, Self Portrait in the Studio shows a view of his studio at Lavender Bay overlooking Sydney Harbour.)
We had a bit of chicken wire across that opening with birds in there – so you couldn’t really use it for anything else. We had a whole lot of pigeons, doves, rescued peewees (a small Magpie like bird). We had a cat and two dogs. The cat used to bring home a bird occasionally. We’d grab it and put bit in the cage with all the other birds. We ended up having some parrots but they started eating all the plants!
Brett made quite a lot of drawings around this time of white doves – fantails – like Picasso’s doves. They got out eventually! Then we decided to open up the balcony properly.
ML: So you really had an aviary right here?
WW: Oh Yes! We had a bit of an aviary when we lived in New York too. We had a couple of exotic birds that used to fly around the apartment (The penthouse in the Chelsea Hotel). And then they’d escape and Brett would be running around 23rd Street trying to catch them. Brett always loved birds.
ML: This view really is the Sydney view isn’t it. You’ve got Luna Park, Lavender Bay, The Bridge, The Harbour and they really became Brett’s iconic Sydney images didn’t they?
WW: This bay in particular because it doesn’t have any high rise in front of it. Ironically Harry Seidler (architect) and Leon Fink (developer) wanted to buy all the houses and build some huge Miami-type high-rise apartments all around the bay.
And that garden that I’ve made down there was just a rubbish dump with weeds all over it – impenetrable really- so basically that’s the change that I’ve made plus the renovations to the house.
ML: Was it all driven by you to get more space here?
WW: The scale of Brett’s paintings got much bigger – it was a bit like the old days when painters got commissions to paint churches and cathedrals.
ML: So where did Brett paint the really big canvasses like Alchemy?
When Brett painted Alchemy he got the Gasworks Studio and then he moved over to another studio and then on to Surry Hills- which is still there (managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales) just to have enough space.
It’s always a problem for painters and their families. It’s about space for work and kids and then starting to own things!
(This is a segment of the interview recorded with Wendy Whiteley for the introduction of the Brett Whiteley limited edition fine art reproductions. The second half of the interview will be included in our next edition. ML)
Portrait of Wendy Whiteley by Michel Lawrence.