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Brett Whiteley – Bohemian Artistry


Acclaimed artist Brett Whiteley spent the last four years of his life in Surry Hills, where, in 1985, he purchased an abandoned warehouse and converted it into a studio and exhibition space, which remains a testament to his prolific and varied output.

Brett Whiteley - Self Portrait - 1977

Brett Whiteley - Self Portrait - 1977

Brett Whiteley Growing Up

Whiteley was an internationally renowned artist, Bohemian, peace campaigner and influencer who crossed mediums and continents in a relatively short but prolific career spanning 33 years. His paintings ranged between abstract, figurative, erotic, collage, portraits and landscapes, sometimes fusing different styles and mediums.

He lived at his Surry Hills warehouse at #2 Raper St from 1988 to June 1992, when he died, aged 53.

Born 7 April 1939, Whiteley grew up in Longueville, on the Lane Cove River, and was educated at Scots College in Bellevue Hill followed by Scots School in Bathurst. Showing artistic talent at an early age, during his teenage years he often travelled to inland towns of NSW and Canberra to paint landscapes, then, from 1956 to 1959, he studied at the National Art School in East Sydney.

In 1957, aged 17, he met Wendy Julius, 15, also from Sydney’s North Shore, when she was brought over to his family home by a mutual friend.

Herself an artist, Wendy joined Whiteley in the life drawing classes at Sydney Art School in The Rocks and they began a 30-year-relationship. At the time of their meeting, Whiteley was working for Lintas Advertising and living with his father Clem, who subsequently employed Wendy in his interior design business after she moved in with them (Whiteley’s mother had recently separated from his father and emigrated overseas).

Painting by Brett Whiteley was 14 years old

'Woodford Bay, Longueville' c1953. Painted when Whiteley was 14 years old, near his childhood home


Italy, then London

In 1959 Whiteley won an art scholarship sponsored by the Italian Govt. (judged by Australian artist Russell Drysdale), then left Australia for Europe by ship on 23 Jan 1960, arriving in Italy the following month. Wendy saved and also emigrated, the couple reuniting in France in June and residing awhile in Florence.

In 1961 the pair relocated to London, where Whiteley set up a studio. There he was discovered by the distinguished Whitechapel Gallery, known for promoting contemporary artists.

Whitechapel Gallery was distinguished in 1938 for exhibiting Pablo Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica, which featured the 26 April 1937 massacre of civilians in the Basque town of Guernica by the combined air forces of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascist Italy at the request of Spain’s autocratic General Franco. This airborne massacre of civilians, known as Operation Rügen, presaged World War Two.

Whiteley was included in Whitechapel Gallery’s 1961 group show Recent Australian Painting, where one of his works, Untitled red painting was purchased by the prestigious Tate Gallery - the youngest living artist to have work purchased by the Tate, a record that remains.

Brett Whiteley paints Untitled Red Paining

'Untitled Red Painting', which London's Tate Gallery purchased when Whiteley was 21 years old.

In March 1962, Whiteley hosted his first solo exhibition at Matthiesen Galleries, earning enough to finance his and Wendy’s marriage and honeymoon in France. Afterwards, as well as producing paintings of London Zoo animals and beach scenes from a holiday in Australia, Whiteley began his Bathroom Series – nudes of Wendy – followed by the Christie Series, inspired by serial killer and necrophiliac John Christie. Hanged in 1953, Christie murdered at least eight people, including his wife, strangling them in his flat at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, near where the newlywed Whiteleys resided in Ladbroke Grove.

Sydney, then New York

In Nov 1964, the Whiteleys’ daughter Arkie was born, and in Dec the following year, they returned home to Australia and settled awhile in Whale Beach.

In Sept 1967 the couple sailed on the final voyage of the RMS Queen Mary to New York, after Whiteley was awarded a Harkness Fellowship creative sponsorship. In Manhattan, after visiting the notorious Hotel Chelsea, the Whiteleys were offered the penthouse apartment.

Hotel Chelsea, at 222 West St Manhattan, is renowned for a number of celebrity deaths: it’s where writer Dylan Thomas succumbed to pneumonia in Nov 1953 and where Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in Oct 1978.

Here the Whiteleys socialised with notable movers and shakers of the arts and music world, including Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Robert Mapplethorpe and Janis Joplin (the latter sometimes babysat Arkie), became louche Bohemians and developed lifelong drug and alcohol habits (years later they developed crippling addictions to heroin). Whiteley was twice admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning, although his recreational experimentation with marijuana and psychedelic drugs profoundly influenced his work.

Meanwhile, Wendy set up a fur and clothing shop called Put On and the pair often bickered and had adulterous affairs, whilst Whiteley worked on his paintings in a first floor studio on 23rd St as well as creating major pieces, from New York streetscapes to abstracts with topical and historical figures including Van Gogh, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ.

Brett Whiteley's monumental 18-panel mixed-media artwork

Brett Whiteley's monumental 18-panel mixed-media artwork, 'The American Dream'

From June 1968 Whiteley gradually immersed himself in his monumental 22-metre-long, 2.4 metres high obsession, The American Dream, which covered 18 wooden panels. Taking a year to complete, and merging collage, photography, painting and illuminations, the piece began and ended with tranquil scenes but was divided by a chaotic, nightmarish nuclear Armageddon.


Read left to right and starting with a surreal ocean scene, sunshine and lightness (representing Whiteley’s arrival in USA), the calm imagery then changes to birds, dollar signs, clock faces, flowers and I Ching symbols. These are followed by fighter jets, explosions, body parts, glimpses of Hitler and Bob Dylan; the topography now overwhelmed by crimson and chaos and illuminated with flashing lights to symbolise the bloodshed of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King.


At the artwork’s centre is a nuclear explosion painted in day-glo pink, shimmering and nihilistic. The panels succeeding the explosion return to an Australian-themed calm ‘normality’: animals and imagery, an ant with ‘me’ written upon it, a bird on a nest, an American flag atop Uluru, and, finally, a small island in a tranquil sea of blue.

Small hand-written notes appear all over the artwork, such as ‘1/5/1969 LSD first’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘love’, ‘revolution’, ‘Vietnam’ accompanied by quotes from Baudelaire, John Cage, Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats and, finally, on the last panel, “the (attempted) solution”.


Inspired by his association with the Anti-Vietnam War peace movement and associations with American counter-cultural icons, Whiteley was incensed when the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in Manhattan, which exhibited 23 of his sponsored Harkness Fellowship era works in May-June 1968, refused to display The American Dream when it was completed in July 1969.

Brett & Wendy

Brett & Wendy. Taken from 'Bohemian Harbour: Artists of Lavender Bay' Museums of NSW documentary

Fiji, then Sydney again

Distraught that his piece-de-resistance was denied an opportunity to impact upon the American public, the couple immediately abandoned the USA and departed for Fiji.


There, in the Pacific, like Paul Gaugin in Tahiti, they resided for five months in the remote tropical village of Navutulevu, about eighty kilometres from Suva, with a pet rooster and an old car (reportedly gifted to them by the village chief). However, a drug raid cut short their plans and they were forced to flee to Australia.


With intentions to settle permanently in Fiji, after months of creativity Whitely rented a barn in Suva to exhibit some of his new paintings of birds, landscapes and portraits of villagers.

However, on the opening night, Whiteley naively discussed his recreational drug usage with some local officials, who took a very dim view.

The following day the barn was raided by police and a small quantity of marijuana found. Whiteley was subsequently fined £F50 and given short notice to pack up and leave Fiji.


The Whiteleys returned to Sydney in Nov 1969 and moved into a 1907-built Federation house on Walker St in Lavender Bay originally known as Lochgyle, initially renting one floor, before buying the whole house in 1974.

The interior of the premises and exterior views of the harbour often appeared in Whiteley’s paintings, the former frequently featuring a naked Wendy reclining on furniture or in the bath.

he Whiteley's house overlooking Lavender Bay, Sydney.

'Lochgyle', The Whiteley's house overlooking Lavender Bay, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart

In 1970 The American Dream was exhibited for the first time at the Bonython Gallery in Sydney, to mark Whiteley’s return home. After it was shown in Melbourne, Whiteley took it to Perth and left it on consignment with an art dealer. The dealer gave it to Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), then died.

Whiteley received nothing for his magnum opus, the subsequent fallout raging for years until the deputy director of AGWA organised for Whiteley to receive $18,000 after the gallery’s board conceded it had a ‘moral obligation’ over the painting.

However, the gallery retained copyright over the reprinting and use of The American Dream’s imagery, something unique among Whiteley’s vast portfolio of creative works.

Throughout the 1970s, Whiteley’s creativity continued with pieces inspired by Japanese art, studies of rural towns, portraits of friends and numerous Sydney Harbour scenes.

Another multi-panelled work that fared far better than The American Dream was Alchemy (1972), which was featured on the cover of the Dire Straits’ live album of the same title (modified for the band to feature an additional guitar with lips, held by a hand).

It’s now on permanent display at the Surry Hills gallery, although the painting was for several years in private ownership until returning to Whiteley in 1981.

Dire Straits 'Alchemy' album cover

Dire Straits 'Alchemy' album cover, adapted from a section of Whiteley's 18-panel 'Alchemy 1974'

Whiteley also won three of Australia’s most prestigious awards, twice each: the Archibald Prize for Australian portraiture in 1976 and 1978, the Sulman Prize for landscape in 1978 and 1978, and the Wynne Prize for landscape painting and figurative sculpture in 1977 and 1978.


Brett Whiteley Moves to Surry Hills

In 1985, Whiteley purchased an abandoned T-shirt factory at 2 Raper St, Surry Hills and converted it into a working studio. However, in 1987, his and Wendy’s heroin addiction overwhelmed their relationship, and Wendy flew to England with their daughter Arkie to rehabilitate while Brett remained in Sydney.

Wendy returned in 1988, finding Whiteley was now in a relationship with 29-year-old Janice Spencer, a fellow addict whom he met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting earlier that year, although the pair continued using heroin.

Wendy, now free from addiction, refused to share the Lavender Bay house with Whiteley while he was still using heroin, so he relocated to his new studio in Surry Hills. The following year they divorced.


Studio used by Brett Whiteley

Whiteley's studio at 2 Raper St. Surry Hills, his creative space for his last 7 years. Photo: Alec Smart

In June 1992, Whiteley died, aged 53, from a heroin overdose in a motel in Thirroul.

Whilst in his Surry Hills studio, Whiteley rewrote his will, which was later contested by Arkie and Spencer after Whiteley’s death.

The NSW Supreme Court ultimately dismissed Spencer’s challenge, ruling that Arkie was to inherit everything. Janice Spencer was granted one painting, Sunday Afternoon, Surry Hills, a large erotic portrait of herself that Whiteley painted in 1988.

This she sold at auction three years later in 1995 for $239,000, when she had money troubles. She then moved to Byron Bay awhile before eventually also dying of a heroin overdose in Brisbane in August 2000, aged 41.


Arkie, a celebrated actress, appeared in numerous Australian films and TV series. In 1995 she negotiated for the NSW Govt to purchase her father’s Surry Hills studio, which the Art Gallery of NSW would run as a museum and display space. This was eventually facilitated and finalised by Wendy Whiteley after Arkie’s dying of adrenal gland cancer in 2001, aged 37.

Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden, adjacent to Lavender Bay, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart


Both Brett Whiteley and his daughter Arkie's ashes are buried in an undisclosed location in a patch of publicly-accessible former railway land, adjacent to their Lavender Bay house, known as Wendy’s Secret Garden.

Over 15 years Wendy Whiteley rehabilitated the previously derelict patch of ground, once strewn with railway carriages and household junk, through restoration, landscaping and planting, until it became a much-loved wooded retreat for walkers.

It is now coursed with paths and decorated with an antique fountain, various found items set up as sculptures, and benches to sit on and enjoy views of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

In Oct 2015 the NSW Govt, which still own the land, gave a 30-year renewable lease to North Sydney Council to oversee the garden.


In Jan 2019, Wendy Whiteley, aged 78, spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald after Parramatta's Riverside Theatre staged their play Brett & Wendy, A Love Story Bound by Art about the Whiteleys' complicated and passionate relationship.

“Brett does fascinate people. He was my husband and he fascinated me, as well as driving me mad. The fact is he's made some amazing work, entertained quite a few people and upset quite a few along the way. He was a charismatic character without a doubt."

An opera, Whiteley about the artist’s life, was staged at the Sydney Opera House from 15-30 July 2019.

Brett Whiteley Studio website

2 Raper Street Surry Hills 2010

Brett Whiteley Sculpture

‘Almost Once’, Brett Whiteley Sculpture in The Domain, Sydney. Photo: Martin Pueschel / Wikimedia

Bohemian Harbour: Artists of Lavender Bay Museums of NSW documentary:



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