It’s an overcast afternoon in Surry Hills as we wind through its narrow, leafy streets. Now a bustling inner-city area there is little room left for urban development in the suburb.
Carefully assessing the surrounding architecture and facades would indicate its former life as a node of mixed industry and affordable residencies. Now tucked into side streets, this lineage persists with commercial spaces and designers finding the converted factories of the area the ideal environment for fabrication.
From the junction of two small streets we spot the sculpture that adorns the entrance to the Brett Whiteley Studio. Formerly a T-shirt factory, Brett and Wendy bought the building in 1985, and over a number of years it was converted into a studio and exhibition space. Brett was living and working here at his untimely death in 1992.
Twenty years after the studio was first opened to the public, Wendy, the muse of her late ex-husband, continues to play a crucial role in both the curating and character of the space. Similarly, the objects and works thoughtfully placed throughout her home in Lavender Bay betray a passionate yet critical eye. Wendy’s influence is however most keenly felt outdoors in what is affectionately known as Wendy’s Secret Garden, a luxurious though perfectly unkempt space she maintains for the public with the help of her gardeners.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Brett Whiteley Studio to the public.
Yes, that came as a great surprise. The time has just gone so quickly. It was hard work getting this place going. Since then, we’ve just worked to keep it alive, not letting people think it’s just a stagnant building with nothing much happening inside it. The publicity around the anniversary is good for that, just to tell people that we keep changing the works, changing the shows, hanging different things. We borrow from outside when necessary. It’s an ever-changing feast. If you’ve been once before you can come a second time and not see the same stuff.
Having reached this milestone, what do you have planned for the future of the studio?
I’d like to invite other artists to hold discussions and talks, though not necessarily to exhibit, unless it becomes appropriate. A show of his close contemporaries would be appropriate. We’ve thought about doing completely individual shows, and maybe just keeping the top floor for people who want to come and look at Brett’s workspace and some of his works. But it means taking down Alchemy, which is a big deal. It’s so big, that picture. People come a long way to see that picture, so we have an obligation to keep it up as much as possible. You’ve got to pivot the shows off it, while you’ve got it there. Fortunately, it’s such a complex painting that we can do this.
Are many of the works here in the studio from your personal collection?
Yes, most of them. It had been a balancing act until the building was taken over by them. You see, I didn’t want to give them everything and then have them close it down. It’s a question of trust. Directors change, curators change, people change, governments change, people change their minds. I don’t want to put all this money into this particular place and then have it all fold the minute I take my eyes off it because the money gets used for something else. A lot of people will think this is vain and selfish, and mean, but I don’t care. (laughs)
Was this the studio that Brett occupied for the longest period?
No, we bought this in 1985, and it took a couple of years to get it together. It was a filthy, old T-shirt factory. The shell had to be built inside it, including the mezzanine floor. The back of the building is very old. The front was added in a ramshackle way much later over an old courtyard. I think this must have been a barn or something in here, this brick section. We just put a floor over the old concrete floor, which was filthy. Brett didn’t move in here until the end of 1988, or just before, when we separated. I’d been living in England for a year to get off drugs. I’d bought a flat in London, and when I came back here we separated, finally.
How do you feel about the studio now, at the 20th anniversary of its opening to the public?
Well, I’ve been through it! I lived through it, and they have to take notice of me because I’m the only one here! (laughs) We’ve changed the place very little. The whole intention is for it to remain as Brett left it. He built this partition on the mezzanine level, and it had a door that he could lock so he could use in there, but I attacked the door one night when he was using and smashed it! (laughs) I considered smashing a painting but I thought, “Oh no, I won’t do that because I might have to pay for it!”
There are many of Brett’s portraits of Francis Bacon on the walls at the moment. They had a close relationship, didn’t they?
They were friends, yes. Francis actually bought this self-portrait of Brett’s when it was first exhibited at Marlborough Gallery in New York. He was fascinated with that extended nose. But he didn’t keep it. He said that he stared at this long enough to get from it what he wanted, so Brett could have it back.
I’m reminded of Bacon’s own studio being in here.
Ah, well, you couldn’t get anywhere near it! He just threw everything on the ground. But he was fetishistic about that; he didn’t throw anything away. I mean, the forensic thing they did for Bacon’s studio, to take it to Dublin, was extraordinary.
I was curious what you thought about that.
Well, Bacon’s studio would have been impossible to open to the public. It had a tiny, narrow opening in a tiny, little street, with a narrow staircase with a rope to hold on to. You just wouldn’t have been able to get people in and out of it. This studio is hard enough. When you get inside it is fine, but the street itself is kind of unsuitable.
Did the inaccessibility of Brett’s studio give him privacy?
There was privacy here, certainly. He needed it. When we ended up coming back from overseas together after the first time I stayed away, I said, “No, we can’t live together, you go and live in the studio, and I’ll live in the house, and then when you get off drugs we’ll sort ourselves out.” But he’d ring me up and ask if he could come back to the house because he was lonely. I’d go to a meeting or something and come home and he’d be sitting on the floor drawing away happily, and I’d say, “You’ve scored, you’ve gone out and scored.” Then there’d be a huge row. I’ve done it myself to other people, so there was nothing new in it. He could be very convincing, and I’d think, “I’m going mad: I’m wrong, I’m wrong!” Then I would think, “Don’t be crazy, of course he has gone out and scored!”
How do you think Surry Hills and the area around here has changed since Brett’s death?
Enormously. It has really changed; in the way that London or anywhere else has changed in the last 20 years. Certain areas get gentrified quite fast, and that’s usually where the artists have been first and found some cheap rent. In London I lived in Ladbroke Grove, and I eventually bought a flat at the top of the hill and it was very gentrified. But when we first went there in 1960 it was immigrant-ville: Jamaicans, Irish, poor young Australians that had to find cheap rent. Inevitably those places get taken over. There are probably very few artists that could afford to live and have a studio space in Surry Hills now. Studio spaces are hard to find in Sydney. A lot of young artists are going bush.
We probably wouldn’t have stayed in Australia if we hadn’t found the house in Lavender Bay. We literally fell in love with the Bay. It is a stunningly special place, so beautiful.
Surry Hills is an inner-city area now.
Well look, I’ve just been to a Japanese restaurant around the corner: fine dining, expensive, beautiful decor, wonderful service, great food. That didn’t exist back then. Brett used to have a BMW with a soft top, and the roof used to get slashed every time out there. The place was full of junkies. I mean, we were also junkies, and junkies that needed to get money surrounded him. He didn’t need to do that, so they would annoy the shit out of him. There were Narcotics Anonymous meetings over in the old hall nearby; meetings were there all the time, and a lot of people looking very sick wandering around the street. They’re all gone; they can’t afford to be here anymore.
Do you consider yourself a curator?
I curate for the Brett Whiteley Studio, yes. I know the work so well and I worked with Brett, and I know the way he’d like it done. So, yes, I’m an important curator for Brett’s work.
I think I’ve got a good eye, and I think I’ve spent my entire life training it. It’s a visual head, mine. I’ve been training my eyes for a long time, looking at museums and things. With Brett, that was our life. To learn to see was the only thing that I learned at art school that’s of any use to me whatsoever, apart from how to mix paint, which took about five minutes. The visual arts are about actually seeing, using your eyes. I bore my gardeners to death because I’m always going along behind them going, “Use your eyes! Just look, look, look!”
Brett has written a lot of text on the walls of the studio. I can see quotes from Bob Dylan, Baudelaire and Brâncuși, amongst others.
They’re all his heroes.
There seems to me to be a very particular attitude towards being an artist, and towards looking at art, reflected in the quotes here. This line from Brancusi for example, “The moment you are no longer a child, you are already dead,” suggests a fatalistic attitude.
You think it’s fatalistic? Y’know Dylan also said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” It’s not fatalistic in the sense of the depressing kind of fact. It’s just truth. It’s an essential. Western culture has been very bad at accepting it. I’m not religious, and neither was Brett, but I do believe in creativity, and I believe in special people that have the ability to do whatever they do particularly well. The rest of it is just decoration, just coloring in.
There are way too many people calling themselves artists. It’s a very heavily abused word these days. I suppose we grew up in the era where our parents thought that if you wanted to be an artist then you had to starve in a garret for 20 years, and then you’d be discovered, if you were lucky. It wasn’t considered then to be a particularly safe thing to do. You had to be a bit of a wild child to insist on it, or be born to parents that were willing to support you financially. This is all without going to art school, or growing up safely in a bureaucratic environment. Jumping in the deep end was very much something to do with the 60s, and a lot of the time we made big mistakes, and some of us survived them. We experimented with everything, including drugs.
Do you think that by keeping the studio and exhibition space open you are able to help keep those notions vital? Is this why you recently donated $2 million to the Brett Whiteley Studio?
Yes, that’s the meaning of it. But if my daughter Arkie had survived and had children then probably most of it would have gone to her and her children. The fact is I have no grandchildren, and I have no children, and I don’t have a husband anymore, so I’m left here with all of this stuff. I think the best thing I can do is to leave it to the nation, and hopefully it will act as an inspiration. And hopefully the garden will remain as a gift to people, too. They love it in the same way they love coming here. It’s different.
Could you tell me about the masks you have in your home? Are some of these works of Brett’s contemporaries?
The masks, they’re from the Congo, in Africa. The bronze work is Brett’s. That’s the first work that he made in plaster. He had it cast in Rome when we first arrived in Italy in 1960 at the same foundry that Henry Moore used. He was really thrilled to get it cast there. It was a beautiful cast actually. The back of the work is very interesting because it is very similar to his abstract paintings.
The white marble is a portrait of me by Joel Elenberg. Joel came here to live when he was ill with cancer. He died when he was 32. He was a very interesting sculptor. Brett has done a series of portraits of Joel when he was ill, and a big portrait of Joel with some sculptures. Brett and Joel, they really loved each other. They were extraordinary; they made each other laugh so much.
The portrait was made when Joel borrowed Arthur Boyd’s house in Italy. Boyd had a big, old farmhouse, and used to lend it out to young artists. Joel had it and we went to stay with him quite a few times. I was sitting for it, chips of marble flying around.
Do you open your house to the public?
I don’t like the idea of things just being static. I don’t like the idea of things just being a museum kind of establishment. I used to open it for the Royal Art Society, but that got a bit busy, so I stopped doing that. But I know that people are interested in seeing this house because it’s where Brett painted all of his really popular Lavender Bay pictures. So Lavender Bay has become a lot more famous too since we first came here in 1970.
And this house has been massively renovated from being a dark gloomy federation house. We just had this one floor for the first 4 years. We were all squashed in here. Brett’s studio was here, so was our bedroom. There was chicken wire up because the balcony was falling off the house, and there was an aviary. We painted all the walls white. The house had terrible wallpaper.
What was in the garden when you moved in?
The garden was a just a big green lump. You couldn’t tell what was in there. It was obviously quite dangerous; full of rubbish, and over the top of all the rubbish had grown all kinds of weeds. So it was just this undulating green lump. Occasionally you’d hear about some homeless person that had hacked their way into the middle of it somewhere and was maybe living down there. When I decided to start clearing it I fell off the edge of the cliff. You couldn’t see the edge; it was so overgrown with weeds.
Do you try to curate the studio and garden as a whole?
Curating is a funny term. Well, I have to say, yes as that’s the term you use, but on the other hand I talk to people that call themselves curators and I just wish that they’d go away.
How would you describe what you do? What word would you use?
In my head, and in my whole life, it’s a visual thing. I work visually. I knew nothing about gardening, so I just planted what I thought would look nice, one thing next to the other, and I didn’t stick to strictly Australian native plants because I thought they were all a bit scratchy. They’re great survivors, but they’ve all got little leaves, little flowers. There was nothing big and voluptuous. A lot of the stuff down there is Australian, but it’s from rainforest regions. There is a kind of microclimate down there. It’s very much a hands on experience that garden, and I deliberately wanted there to be a sense that people could go to a particular spot and feel that they had a little nook to be in.
Thank you Wendy for sharing your secret garden, Brett’s studio and most of all for the unique glimpse into your life.
Get acquainted with more interesting people in Sydney.
Interview: Patrick Quick
Photography: Traianos Pakioufakis