Wendy Whiteley's (not so) secret garden and her one-woman mission to save it

Born out of grief following the death of Brett Whiteley, Wendy has tended an unofficial garden overlooking Sydney’s Lavender Bay for 23 years

Whether by accident or adventure, Sydneysiders seem to stumble on Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden when they need it most – in my case, on my very first day in Australia. Landing in the small hours of a Saturday morning, I was surprised to find the city as drizzly as the London I left 24 hours earlier. I arrived with a colleague and our editor had told us to stay awake for as long as we could to fend off the jet lag.

Dumping our bags, we caught a bus from the CBD over the harbour bridge, thinking it would be a good way to take in the view. It wasn’t. You couldn’t really see the bridge as you crossed it and even Sydney Opera House was hard to make out through windows still misty with condensation.

Having overshot a couple of stops, we wound our way back towards the water, down some steep steps and past an old hotchpotch of a house with a turret and plunge pool just visible over a low-rise hedge.

So this is Sydney, I thought, as I rounded the corner and suddenly caught my breath.

That view: gunmetal bridge, gleaming skyscrapers, green palms, lavender sky (the rain had stopped), not to mention the deep, dark blue of the harbour itself, cut through with flecks of white as boats tacked across the water.

It looked like a painting, framed by a huge fig tree rising from one of the prettiest parks I think I’d ever seen. As Whiteley herself writes: “Everyone needs a secret garden in their life.”

Now more than a year later, as I walk along the boardwalk from Luna Park to Lavender Bay where I’m due to interview Whiteley, a couple of tourists approach. “Which way to the garden?” they ask, tentatively. “Up the steps and turn right,” I tell them. “There’s no gate. You just walk right in.”

They’ve probably seen “the TV show”, says Whiteley, beeping me up to her turret. The glamorous and formidable widow of the Australian artist Brett Whiteley was the subject of a recent ABC documentary, Wendy’s Way. That, and her book – a new glossy tome full of lush photographs – have sparked fresh interest in the garden. Unlike some secrets, this one needs sharing.

Not many coffee table books come with a political agenda. But as well as celebrating two decades of the garden, Whiteley wants people to know its future hangs in the balance. Google Maps and TripAdvisor may label this oasis “Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden”, but she has never owned it and never will.

Known as Quiberee by traditional Aboriginal landowners, Lavender Bay was a harbour beach up until the railways filled it in to make way for a new North Shore line. When Brett and Wendy moved into the neighbourhood in 1969 after a decade living it up in London and New York, the area below the neat council-owned Clark Park was nothing but landfill and lantana.

For years, the Whiteleys were too busy being the Whiteleys to mind. But when Brett, by this point divorced from Wendy, died of a heroin overdose in 1992, his one-time muse fell into a hole so dark that only another one – the landfill site – could save her. She waded in and got to work.

“I was just cleaning up a mess. Literally and, I suppose, symbolically too,” Whiteley tells writer Janet Hawley in the book. “We’d all tried so hard but lost the fight to clean up Brett’s addiction. I had this urgent mental and emotional need to get some order back into our lives.”

Wendy Whiteley and Janet Hawley in the Secret Garden.
Wendy Whiteley and Janet Hawley in the Secret Garden. Photograph: Lantern Books/Jason Busch

What functioned as therapy, doubly so when Brett and Wendy’s only daughter, Arkie, died of cancer in 2001, grew more vital in the truest sense: a living ecosystem where previously there had been nothing. Wendy Whiteley was not a trained gardener – “we don’t do haute horticulture here,” said the woman who had only ever tended pots on the Chelsea Hotel roof. But with her keen eye for colour and detail, she’d found a new calling.

“It’s a garden made by one woman, not by a committee or a council, or a professional landscape designer ,” she says in the book. “One obsessive woman, approaching it like a painting. But you can’t control a garden the way you can control a painting.”

Does she see herself as curator, the way she is of Brett’s art? Shrugging off the analogy, she says: “I just do it.” Bit by bit, I propose. “Well, it has to be that way. You can see from the old photographs that half the time that we were clearing, you’d pull out a weed and end up tumbling backwards down the hill.”

It was one of those tumbles – off a sheer rock face that turned out to be part of the original cliff – that led Whiteley to her longest-serving gardener, Corrado Camuglia, who was walking by as she fell. He started work that week, soon joined by Ruben Gardiol, the husband of Whiteley’s housekeeper – and the trio became an industrious combo.

“A lot of the planting was literally to hold the thing together,” Whiteley recalls. “I had no intention of doing a ‘bush thing’, just sticking to local plants. There hadn’t been a garden there before so why would I? I just bought things I loved the look of and then we worked out what needed to be in full sun and what didn’t.”

No one dared mentioned that they didn’t have the right to be there. “The first rule I broke was doing it at all,” says Whiteley. Or put another way: “No one’s ever tried to stop me, so I didn’t stop.”

Now, thousands of other people have found this quiet spot, too. On the day I visit, there are already two artists working at their easels, a gaggle of office types nursing coffee with a pile of paperwork atop a picnic table, and a couple smooching on a rug on the lawn. However many people it attracts, says Whiteley, it retains its intimate quality.

“The only thing that could wreck it is if they finally take away the garden.” By they, she means RailCorp, who own the land despite no train having run for decades, and the many developers snapping to buy it.

The garden is leased to North Sydney Council until March 2018. They charge small fees for things like weddings that are then ploughed back into the garden’s upkeep, though it’s Whiteley who has personally financed the garden over the past 23 years to the tune of millions of dollars.

A spokesman from RailCorp later tells me according to the terms of the lease this half a hectare of land must be used for beautification and passive recreation only. The land is part of a larger area used for parking trains between morning and evening peak periods and he says they have no issue with the garden remaining, unless the land is needed to help deliver “essential train services”.

But Whiteley remains uneasy and longs for the government to extend the lease, “not override it, which they can do. For infrastructure, they can override anything.”

There was a time when Whiteley considered selling up, moving on and reinventing herself. “But I thought: are you mad? Where would I ever wind up? There’s nowhere, anywhere, in the world that’s as good as this.” The phone rings and as she takes the call, I wander out to the balcony where Brett Whiteley painted some of his most famous canvasses. I can see her point.

“It’s that harbour,” she says when I return. “I’m just completely addicted to it. And I’m never lonely, never bored.” Now in her 70s, she is, however, aware of her age. “And I worry when I’m gone what’s going to happen to it all. I don’t believe in an afterlife – I don’t think I’m going to know what’s going on. But I think it will be very sad for everyone else if the garden is lost.”

Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden by Janet Hawley.
Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden by Janet Hawley. Photograph: Lantern Books/Jason Busch

With no assurance that RailCorp won’t reclaim the land, Whiteley can’t set up a trust fund to protect the garden in perpetuity, as has been done for the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, run by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She can only remind people to visit or even volunteer, as increasing numbers do.

“The irony,” she points out, “is that the garden is only there because of what the railways did.” And there’s a second irony, one she reflects on in the book: “I doubt I could have made this garden if Brett was still alive and we’d stayed together. We were both so busy living life – and Brett’s art and everything associated with it.”

When she was just a little girl, Whiteley would crawl into the bamboo in her mother’s backyard and read her favourite book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. One line feels especially apt:

At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done – then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.

“Things that are happy in this garden just go mad,” says Whiteley. “They grow and grow and grow and grow. The bay has always had that magic element. Something about it being tucked in – it feels very protective.”

Even the Moreton Bay fig has doubled in size since the Whiteleys first arrived. “All I ask is that people go on using it, enjoying and watching it to make sure nothing happens, that it doesn’t disappear.”

Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden by Janet Hawley with photographs by Jason Busch is published by Lantern/Penguin


Nancy Groves

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Wendy Whiteley's secret Sydney garden is safe for decades to come
The lease on the Lavender Bay site that Brett Whiteley’s widow transformed from landfill to lush urban oasis has been extended by at least 30 years

Nancy Groves

09, Oct, 2015 @5:58 AM

Article image
Wendy Whiteley on art, gentrification and Brett: 'I felt a bit Whiteleyed-out'
A visually splashy documentary on two-time Archibald winner Brett Whiteley works, says his wife, because it lets Brett speak for himself

Luke Buckmaster

09, May, 2017 @3:29 AM

Article image
Ken Done: sell-out, one-hit wonder, or Australia’s most underrated artist?
In the 80s it seemed like every Australian family owned at least one Ken Done handbag, mug or doona cover. But he still battles the prejudices of the Australian art establishment

Monica Tan

29, Mar, 2016 @3:29 AM

Article image
A powerful moment for the Archibald prize: could a portrait of a black woman win? | Shantel Wetherall
Only 15 paintings of women and three of non-white Australians have been Archibald winners in 97 years

Shantel Wetherall

02, May, 2019 @2:20 AM

Article image
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse review – thrillingly cosmic
Royal Academy, London
This exhibition of psychedelic modernist pastoral art is a ravishing joy and takes Monet out of the chocolate box, revealing one of art’s great humanists

Jonathan Jones

25, Jan, 2016 @7:30 PM

Article image
Tim Olsen on getting out from under the shadow of his famous father John: 'He’s not a demigod'
John Olsen’s Australian landscapes captured the world’s imagination but to his son the artist was akin to a deity – until he wasn’t

Susan Chenery

10, Nov, 2020 @12:46 AM

Article image
Early bird’s-eye painting of British garden expected to sell for £600,000
Painting of lost Italianate garden in Wales has been in same family since owner Mutton Davies commissioned it in 1665

Maev Kennedy

10, Nov, 2014 @7:50 PM

Article image
Doug Moran prize 2019: mysterious artist 'What' wins $150,000 for Robert Forster portrait
The artist’s portrait of the Go-Betweens frontman embodies ‘the endless possibilities of portraiture and painting’, say judges

Stephanie Convery

29, Oct, 2019 @11:56 PM

Article image
‘Mum wasn’t looking for fame’: John Olsen’s children unveil Valerie Strong’s first solo art show
Ten years after their mother’s death, Tim and Louise reveal the striking landscapes and portraits painted by the limelight-shy second wife of John Olsen

Elissa Blake

05, Nov, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Archibald prize 2015 review – three worthy winners from an eclectic mix
Nigel Milsom’s portrait of Charles Waterstreet is easily the most commanding picture in the Archibald, while Natasha Bieniek’s Biophilia is a Wynne gem and Jason Phu’s Sulman-winning ink and paper work both gentle and funny

Andrew Frost

17, Jul, 2015 @9:16 AM