A Year with Wendy Whiteley by Ashleigh Wilson

There’s something about those cool girls who hang out with dangerous boys: think Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, and of course, Wendy Whiteley. Wild, smart, stylish, artistic and hypnotic, they were often tagged with the term ‘muse’, but they were so much more.

Brett Whiteley was one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, his fame and notoriety more akin to rock-and-roll than oil and canvas. It feels unfair to start off a review about Wendy’s biography referencing her husband, but Brett is an inescapable fact of life when you’re talking about Wendy.

After authoring the acclaimed biography Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing in 2016, Ashleigh Wilson approached Wendy a few years ago to write her story. Even though many other writers had approached her before and been rejected, she agreed to Wilson because she trusted him and liked his premise: a series of conversations around her kitchen table, no holds barred, everything up for discussion. And what vivid discussions they are, roaming a plethora of subjects: art, drugs, affairs, abortions, fashion, London, France, New York, Fiji, Lavender Bay, Brett’s tragic overdose in a motel room at the age of 53, their daughter Arkie (who died tragically not long after Brett), Brett’s legacy, and of course, Wendy’s own legacy – her secret garden.

As a respite from her grief and all the turmoil surrounding Brett’s will and the divorce settlement, Wendy started immersing herself in the tangle of abandoned government land out the front of their house which stretched all the way down to the railway yards and the Sydney Harbour. She didn’t ask permission from the council (of course she didn’t), she just got stuck in and did it, pulling up ‘wild tangles of weeds, coral trees, lantana ... overgrown foliage, decades of rubbish’ transforming it into a thing of genuine, soulful beauty that is visited and enjoyed by thousands of people every year.

A Year with Wendy Whiteley is the story of an incredible woman who was so much more than the cool girl hanging out with the bad boy. She is a hypnotic artist, who was able to give full expression to her own creativity when she came out from under the shadow of Brett and into the sunshine of her own secret garden.

Gabrielle Williams is the grants officer for the Readings Foundation

Cover image for A Year with Wendy Whiteley

A Year with Wendy Whiteley

Ashleigh Wilson

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