The famous Sydney ‘secret garden’ forged from grief

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When famed Australian artist Brett Whiteley died of a heroin overdose in 1992, his wife of 32 years Wendy was plunged into grief.

That sorrow multiplied dramatically when the couple’s only daughter, Arkie, died of cancer less than a decade later, aged 37.

Wendy Whiteley’s unlikely source of comfort was an overgrown wasteland in Sydney that tangled its way down from the house she had shared with Brett to Lavender Bay, which looks out to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The railway-owned land became an outlet for Whiteley’s grief – despite her “not having a single clue” about gardening.

“I’ve always been a doer,” Whiteley tells the BBC. “I’m not one to sit around feeling depressed. But this was tough.”

Initially – as would become famous – the garden was kept a secret. “I didn’t ask permission; I just did it,” she says. “I hesitated asking anybody because they could say no and that’d be that – I’d be a trespasser.”

But far from being seen as unlawful, it would one day become a beloved escape for others.

Glamour couple

Wendy Whiteley had been Brett’s muse, his model and co-conspirator in a bohemian lifestyle which made them darlings of the global art scene.

They shot to fame young. In his 2016 book Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, author Ashleigh Wilson writes that his subject was the youngest living artist – at age 22 – to have a work acquired by the Tate in London.
They later lived in New York’s Chelsea Hotel for two years, paying for the rent with a single painting.

“They were both just so charismatic,” according to Janet Hawley, who wrote the book Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden.

“He was the rock star and she was his gorgeous wife. They were like Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall – just so sexy and glamorous as all hell.”

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