By Sharon Lapkin
Wendy Whiteley has called her house in Lavender Bay home since late 1969, when she and her husband, renowned artist Brett Whiteley, moved in as tenants to the upstairs flat.
While the flat itself ‘was gloomy and dark’, she told the North Sydney Council in a 2015 interview, ‘we just looked out there and saw the bay’.
Four years later, in 1974, when the owner gave her and Brett first option, they obtained a mortgage and bought the home.
Soon they were ripping out walls and building an adjoining brick tower. They found a local boat builder to construct the tower to their specifications, and ‘that’s how Brett got his tower that he dreamed of having’, Wendy said.
The boat builder turned out to be a great brickie who ‘built it brick by brick starting from the bottom working his way up to the top.’
They stripped the walls and painted them white, along with the floors. ‘I’ve never lived anywhere that isn’t white,’ Wendy said. ‘Apart from loving the light, and that’s why the floor’s white too, I just like this thing of the house being a canvas for things on top of it, or in it.’
It was in this beautiful light-filled house and studio that Brett painted his Lavender Bay series—paintings that are now regarded as his best-known work.
In 1978, an anonymous buyer bought Brett’s The Jacaranda Tree on Sydney Harbour for almost $2 million, and in 2013, his 1976 canvas My Armchair sold at auction for almost $3 million (including the buyer’s premium).
Tragically, though, their lives were soon to take a savage turn.
Brett and Wendy’s marriage began to crumble. In 1974, they had both begun experimenting with heroin, and by 1978 Wendy had quit the drug and banished it from her life. But Brett couldn’t overcome his addiction.
In 1989 they divorced and then just three years later in 1991, when Brett was 53 years old, he was found dead in a motel room in Thirroul on the New South Wales coast. He had died from a methadone overdose.
Janet Hawley writes about Brett’s death in her remarkable book Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden, and in it she describes how Wendy dealt with her loss.
‘In the weeks that followed, Wendy’s grief-stricken need to regain some control in her life … found her obsessively attacking the piles of overgrown rubbish on the large landfilled valley of unused railway land at the foot of her house.’
And this is how Wendy’s Secret Garden began.
‘She hurled herself into the forlorn site’, Hawley wrote, ‘hacking away at lantana, blackberry vines and privet, clearing up dumped bottles, rusty refrigerators, rotting mattresses, labouring until she was too exhausted to think or feel, then collapsing into sleep each night’.
Wendy didn’t seek permission from any local or government authorities to clean up the site, and nobody requested that she stop. So she kept working at it day after day.
Eventually, realising the dimensions of the task she’d taken on—as well as the possibilities of it—Wendy hired two or three people to help her transform the decaying landfill into a garden.
With no horticultural training, or even a keen interest in gardening, she turned the land into a giant living canvas.
Wendy’s Secret Garden had several previous lives. Prior to 1890, it was a well-loved natural inlet beach. But New South Wales Railways needed a railway line, so the beach was filled in to provide a foundation for railroad tracks.
The railway line was used until the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built and then was rerouted, leaving the Lavender Bay line as an isolated rail siding.
Almost 100 years later, when Wendy turned her grief and loss towards the restoration of the wasteland before her, the end result was an extraordinary gift for garden lovers.
The steep topography made the physical work gruelling and stabilising the ground proved difficult. The first effort failed when heavy rains washed newly built terraces down into the valley, but Wendy and her team persevered with railway sleepers and lengths of angle iron.
Instead of placing the old railway sleepers directly into the soil to form a base for the terracing, Wendy built a foundation of rocks and set the wooden sleepers over the top of it. This ingenious idea provided a drainage route and minimised the water damage to the terracing.
Designing the garden was done on a piecemeal basis, which was well suited to the characteristics of the terrain, and the process of construction revealed many forgotten objects lurking beneath the surface waiting to be unearthed.
These discarded objects are now cherished keepsakes scattered throughout the garden each telling their own visual story. An old tricycle, an odd set of vintage spades, a metal letterbox, a scooter, an ancient wheelbarrow, urns and assorted bowls—all treasured objects trouvés.
But not everything is rediscovered in Wendy’s Secret Garden. A splendid Italianate fountain that once lived in the late Margaret Olley’s Paddington home sits perfectly beneath a giant Moreton Bay fig tree. It features a cherub with a tortoise and a frog—both spraying water playfully into the air.
On the other side of the Moreton Bay fig is the striking bronze sculpture Head by the late sculptor, Joel Elenberg, who was Brett’s best friend until his premature death from cancer at the age of 32. Further on a second sculpture by Robert DuBourg graces the grassy green.
Singer Van Morrison’s words have a place here too. A magnificent stone monument by artist and lettercutter Ian Marr features the lyrics of Morrison’s song Sweet Thing carved in stone:
& we shall walk & talk in gardens all misty & wet with rain & we shall never never grow so old again.
‘She’s treated that garden just like a giant painting,’ Hawley told ABC’s Australian Story in 2015. ‘It’s about the play of light and shadow—it’s shape and form and colour. It weaves and it winds and it’s like a sequence of rooms that you move through.’
Corrado Camuglia, the first gardener Wendy employed, told Hawley that ‘Wendy wasn’t too keen on having paths in the early years, when the garden was more of a secret.’
She also didn’t want to tempt fate by providing access to her garden-in-progress, in case authorities tried to stop her. ‘We used to hop like goats from terrace to terrace,’ Corrado explained.
All types of plants were relocated, trialled and propagated for the garden. Along the top Wendy planted lavenders, roses, echiums and other sun-loving plants, but as the garden descends into the valley the shade calls for hardier plants.
Tree ferns, iresine (bloodleaf), bird’s nest ferns, hydrangeas, tropical milkweed, flowering ginger and multiple apricot and white daturas (angel’s trumpets, or now officially named ‘brugmansia’) overflow onto the shady stone pathways and dry rock walls.
Striking timber bush rail balustrades frame the pathways and twist and curl out of sight as they wind around corners in the garden. Everywhere people are rejoicing, relaxing, chatting and having fun—and even, on occasion, getting married.
Wendy and Brett’s daughter Arkie gave her mother some Bangalow palms that now grace the floor of a sunken grassy area. Their long skirts of seed fronds hang down the crinkled palm trunks glistening in both the sunshine and the rain.
It was while Wendy was hard at work creating her Secret Garden and still recovering from Brett’s death that she was hit by another tidal wave of catastrophe.
Her only child Arkie was taken ill in Bali while preparing for her forthcoming wedding. She flew back to Sydney where she was diagnosed with adrenal cancer and given just a few months to live. Arkie died in December 2001 at the age of 37.
‘Wendy was absolutely gutted after Arkie died’, Hawley told Australian Story. ‘She was just a grief-ravaged shell of a woman, and I actually used to often think it was Wendy’s salvation working with Reuben and Corrado [the full-time gardeners] in that garden.’
And Wendy worked hard. She threw herself into creating and nurturing her Secret Garden and along the way she healed enough to live with her grief. ‘She transformed the garden, and along the way its transformed her,’ Hawley said.
To date Wendy has spent millions of dollars on the garden—one of the most meaningful philanthropic gifts to the Australian people ever made. ‘There’s not a lot of point doing anything unless you can share it,’ she told ABC’s Australian Story.
Brett’s and Arkie’s ashes are scattered in an undisclosed location in Wendy’s Secret Garden.
‘The house and the garden are kind of almost as much a part of him as much as they are of me and Arkie, so we’re all kind of still there in a way. I just happen to be still walking around,’ she explained to Australian Story.
Wendy’s Secret Garden is officially owned by NSW State Railways, but after a lot of lobbying and hard work the government agreed to lease the land to North Sydney Council on a 30-year-renewable lease. This means, thankfully, that the garden’s future is now confirmed.