Portrait

A visit to the home of artist Wendy Whiteley. By Fiona Wright.

Artist Wendy Whiteley

I feel as if I already know this view – the sweep of blue bay with its scattering of yachts, the palms and figs that frame it, the arch of the bridge to the left. Today is subtropical Sydney weather, low and humid, the sky and water both blue-grey. “Have a look around,” Wendy had said. “Look out from the balcony.”

 

The first time I saw Wendy Whiteley is imprinted on my memory. I can’t have been older than 13 or 14 – right in the middle of that most excruciating part of puberty – and was on a school excursion with my art class to the Brett Whiteley Studio in the back streets of Surry Hills, a part of Sydney I don’t think I’d ever travelled to before. I’m not sure whether Wendy was there by intention or accident, but she spoke briefly to our gaggle of schoolgirls, draped in white cotton, and with her tumble of red hair spilling from a headwrap. And I – a child from a long lineage of people with practical and reliable professions – I remember thinking, “What an amazing creature.”

 

Wendy was 15 when she met Brett Whiteley in 1957. I can’t quite imagine finding such a great love at such a tender age.

They left Australia not long afterwards, because they were “bored shitless with what was here”.

 

“People have this tendency,” Wendy says, “to fill up the Whiteley lives with drama after drama, but there were acres of it that was just working and getting on with life.” Cooking, she adds, having friends over for dinner, looking after children, “just working and being perfectly happy”. Most of the time, “it was quite peaceful”.

 

There’s an opera in production, titled Whiteley, about Wendy and Brett’s lives. Wendy went to a rehearsal on the day before my visit to her home, and I can’t quite imagine how this must feel, to watch someone singing your life. “Was it uncanny?” I ask. “No,” she replies. “I was flattered. She’s gorgeous-looking.” The singer, she adds, had tied something around her head.

 

Growing up in Lindfield, in the suburbs of Sydney’s North Shore, there were figures in Wendy’s life that she romanticised, identified with – her absent father, who was often “in the papers” for shady undertakings, and who she saw as “a rebel”; her eccentric great-aunt, the painter Kate O’Connor, who lived in Paris and wore a bright red wig; her great-grandfather, who built the world’s longest water main, from Perth to Kalgoorlie, before committing suicide by “riding off into the ocean”.

It wasn’t until much later that she considered the eight children her great-grandfather left behind, the fact that her father was “a selfish mess, really” and “hopeless as a father and as a husband”.

What we romanticise is never the whole story.

 

Wendy had a Great Dane as a child, and used to sell her sister rides on its broad back.

 

The first time Wendy went to rehab, she spent six months in a halfway house in Weston-super-Mare, a coastal town in the south-west of England, the birthplace of John Cleese. “Do you know who John Cleese is?” she asks.

As part of the program, Wendy was required to do volunteer work, and so she ran a bingo club for the elderly residents of the town. “At the time,” she says, “I thought of it as punishment, but now I consider it one of the best experiences of my life. It really bent my prejudice about middle-class people in good, plain clothes.”

They knew why she was there, and they were kind.

 

In Harare, Wendy and Brett lived in an old brothel. “The hookers were great,” she says. “They were lovely people.”

 

I can’t write about Wendy without writing about her house. It’s airy and full of light – “I get claustrophobic in the city” – with white walls, white sofas, fat black cushions. A pile of books, and another of Whiteley biographies and textbooks. A deep dish full of birds’ nests, which fall to the ground in the garden after storms; two huge mirrors that turn out to be the distorting kind, rescued from a French funhouse. And art. Art everywhere – statues and sculptures and masks, a Whiteley portrait of Vincent van Gogh, painted in vivid oranges and yellows, with eyes that look haunted and hunted. Another Whiteley, a bathroom scene, that Wendy bought at auction recently, because she remembered it and loved it. “I had someone bid for me,” she says, “because if I’d shown up, the price would have been even higher.”

Wendy has been living here since she and Brett returned to Australia in 1969. “If we didn’t find this place…” she says, and doesn’t finish the sentence.

 

“I didn’t have the drive to become an artist,” Wendy tells me, “and then I got absolutely embroiled in the life… It was completely a choice I made, I didn’t even think about it, I just did the stuff that I wanted to do.”

The life – she describes this as living in interesting and often beautiful places, as changing “each grotty rental” into “somewhere you’d like to live”, as “creating the atmosphere”. She says, “Just living the life kept you busy, and that’s a great joy.”

She tells me she didn’t feel any need to keep drawing, she didn’t want to. I love how much sense this makes, and can’t help but think about my writing: if I didn’t want to do this, if I didn’t love doing this, it would indeed be a very stupid thing to pursue.

 

The new Whiteley exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, drawing is everything, is the first since Brett’s death that Wendy hasn’t been involved in curating. She’s only just had her first look, less than a week before it opens – because “I didn’t want to start having an opinion,” she says, “and I can be opinionated.”

 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Drawing on life". Subscribe here.

Fiona Wright
is an author and poet. Her latest book is The World Was Whole.