The widow who built Sydney’s ‘secret garden’

Two people run around a tree in Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden, with Lavender Bay and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the backgroundImage copyright Jason Busch
Image caption Wendy Whiteley never asked permission to build her garden on railway-owned land in Sydney

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.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Brett and Wendy Whiteley with daughter Arkie as a child
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The couple together in the UK in 1964

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.”

That glamour persists – when I ask her to pose for a photo, Whiteley says “let me do an Anna Wintour” and reaches in her handbag for oversized designer sunglasses. She regales me of nights partying at legendary New York club Studio 54.

Image caption Whiteley prefers to pose for pictures with her Anna Wintour-style shades on

With this lifestyle, though, came a heroin addiction which, for Brett, proved fatal. “For years, we said we can stop whenever we like,” she says. “But we thought, why should we? We like it.”

Things took a darker turn, however, when she realised just how hooked they were.

Brett began relying on it for his artistic flair; she did just to function: “You’re dependent on a chemical and the people who deal it,” she says. “You feel shocking, then feel fine, then feel shocking again, then run out and have to call the ghastly dealers again.”

After a six-week joint stay in a British rehabilitation centre, the couple were using again within three days.

“That’s what eventually split us up,” Whiteley says. “I knew I had to do treatment without him, and not live in the same house as him, if I wanted to survive.”

Image copyright Jason Busch
Image caption The garden was granted a 30-year lease in 2015

Several solo stints in rehab centres followed. She has never relapsed since.

In 1992, Brett overdosed on opiates in an Australian motel room. “I had to ring his mother in the middle of the night and say he’d died,” Whiteley says, sighing heavily. “I’d always hoped he’d make it. I was shocked – but sadly not surprised.”

She points out at three Bangalow palms which her daughter gifted her. Arkie was due to have her wedding in the garden, but when the day came, was just too ill to make it down the steps. She instead married her partner in Whiteley’s house, and died days later.

All the secrets revealed

The garden holds many secrets. Arkie’s ashes are buried there, as are Brett’s and several pet dogs – all in secret locations.

Part of the secrecy of the garden itself is how tucked away it is; discovering it nestled up steep steps behind the bay is the first reward for visitors.

Image copyright Jason Busch
Image caption Artwork and sculptures are dotted around the secret garden

Its elegant design comprises an outdoor grotto of hidden nooks with surprising tables and chairs squirreled away. “People can come here and discover their very own secret garden,” Whiteley says.

But the real namesake comes from when Whiteley’s childhood family grew by two half-siblings.

She needed a peaceful space that was hers. She made a cubbyhole in some bamboo in her back garden and read The Secret Garden.

Now, Whiteley says the garden is her own artwork; an ongoing canvas that belongs to the people: “I’m a control freak – I don’t like unfinished things. The garden can never be finished. Only public support will keep it going, and keep it well maintained. It was always important to me this was a shared space; I loved that I didn’t own it.”

Image caption The garden is designed so everyone can find their own secret nook

She has spent “millions” building and maintaining it, including a team of three gardeners and 110 volunteers.

An eclectic mix of native and exotic flora decorate a series of intricate narrow pathways, which zigzag up the hill.

Fearful the land would be sold to corporate developers, in 2015 Whiteley wrote a letter to then New South Wales Premier Mike Baird and invited him for tea.

“We had cake while his minders waited on the steps. He sat there where you are now and said he’d love to see the garden,” she says.

Image copyright Jason Busch
Image caption It was this view of Lavender Bay that inspired many of Brett Whiteley’s famous paintings

“I realised then, he must’ve not even known it was here. He loved it.”

Within two weeks, the premier sent around the relevant ministers to do the same tour. It led to a huge win: a 30-year lease granted to Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden, her gift to the people of the city.

The new opera of her life

The Sydney Opera House has just concluded a production that has helped cement the Whiteleys’ place forever in local folklore: Whiteley, the opera.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” Whiteley says of the production.

The opera featured screens depicting Brett Whiteley’s most celebrated artworks, many of which he painted from the Lavender Bay home, overlooking the bay he adored and immortalised by putting it to canvas.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A screen backdrop depicts a Brett Whiteley painting in the recent opera about the couple’s life

There are future plans for a Sydney Harbour High Line, influenced by New York City’s popular High Line, which would join up to the garden.

Whiteley loves the idea, but she’s ready to let others do the guerrilla gardening: “I’m 78, I have a very comfy chair looking out to the best view in the city,” she says, surveying the fruits of her green fingers.

“It’s time I bloody well sat and enjoyed it.”

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