Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden

Janet Hawley

Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden
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Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden

Janet Hawley

For more than twenty years Wendy Whiteley has worked to create a public garden at the foot of her harbourside home in Sydney’s Lavender Bay. This is the extraordinary story of how a determined, passionate and deeply creative woman has slowly transformed an overgrown wasteland into a beautiful sanctuary for everyone to enjoy - and in the process, transformed herself.

Wendy Whiteley was Brett Whiteley’s wife, muse and model. An artist herself, with a finely honed aesthetic sense, she also created the interiors at the heart of Brett’s iconic paintings of their Lavender Bay home. When Brett died, followed by the death nine years later of their daughter Arkie, Wendy threw her grief and creativity into making an enchanting hidden oasis out of derelict land owned by the New South Wales Government. This glorious guerrilla garden is Wendy’s living artwork, designed with daubs of colour, sinuous shapes and shafts of light.

This is Wendy’s story but it’s also the story of the countless people who cherish the Secret Garden.

‘I’ve loved making this garden. It’s been a great gift to my life. It let me find myself again, and it’s my gift to share with the public.’ Wendy Whiteley


I met Wendy Whiteley once at a book launch. We sat on the steps of an art gallery and talked about the weird root systems of Morton Bay fig trees. When I next visited Sydney, I dragged myself up high above the harbour until I found Wendy’s secret garden in Lavender Bay. I cried a little there for a few reasons, but mainly because I was immensely affected by the Whiteleys’ impact on Australia’s cultural identity and by Wendy’s big-heartedness to us, the visitors. Wendy says about her gardening: ‘I’ve loved making this garden. It’s been a great gift to my life. It let me find myself again, and it’s my gift to share with the public.’

Hawley’s position on Wendy is, understandably, one of awe. Hawley records the wretched story of how Brett Whiteley’s death in 1992 forced Wendy into landscaping action. Her daughter’s death less than 10 years later compelled her to continue. This garden, so strikingly recorded here in this superb book, has become part of the glory of Sydney harbour and includes sculptures, seating, nature paths, plants selected for colour and for texture, as well as said Moreton Bay fig trees. For more than 20 years Wendy has worked to change the original railway rubbish dump into a landscaped wonderland. Hawley talks about Wendy as an artist herself, with a fine sense of placement and style. Brett Whiteley’s paintings are acknowledged and many are represented in the outstanding colour pages of this book, alongside photos of Wendy’s parkland, from all angles, by the very gifted photographer Jason Busch. This is truly a glorious book about a woman’s elegy to her family and legacy for her country.

Chris Gordon is the Events Manager for Readings.

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