Took the ferry from Circular Quay over to Milsons Point this morning and walked around the foreshore from Luna Park to Lavender Bay. My purpose? I wanted to have a look at the area of parkland known informally as Wendy’s Secret Garden.
The Wendy in question is Wendy Whitely, and the garden, apart from being probably the worst-kept secret in Sydney, is an area of landscaped and beautifully vegetated harbour foreshore which, until Wendy began work on it after Brett Whitely’s death from a heroin overdose in the mid-90s, was an abandoned strip of land owned by the state government. The house owned and occupied by the Whitelys since the late 1960s overlooks this strip of land and while the stunning view of Lavender Bay and Sydney Harbour feature in many of Brett’s paintings, it was this neglected strip of land into which Wendy channeled her considerable artistic talents after the deaths of Brett and then, nine years later, their daughter, actress Arkie Whitely.
This is guerrilla gardening at its best. The state Railroad Commission, which officially owned the land, assisted her endeavours by removing the dead train carriages and bits of industrial detritus that littered the site, but it was Wendy’s vision and labour that, over about 20 years, has created a magical temperate rainforest. Gone are the infestations of lantana and other weeds, and in their place a mixture of native and exotic trees, ferns, vines and flowers. The terrain slopes steeply from the road in front of the Whitely house down to the harbour level and has been terraced with railway sleepers and rocks of the ubiquitous Sydney sandstone. Paths and steps lead around the slope.
The garden is playful too, and surprising. One path ends with a wooden ladder going down to another path lower down, another leads to a sudden clearing with a picnic table under a wooden structure covered with a living bamboo canopy. There is sculpture and little tables scattered throughout the garden, inviting the visitor to stay. Be warned, however, that you stay at the pleasure of the mosquitoes!
Wendy Whitely was, and is, an artist in her own right, but always remained in the shadow of the formidable artistic genius of Brett, the enfant terrible of Australian art for two decades. She was his muse, but in his absence, her own talent has come to the fore in this giant living canvas.
All the time she was carving out this garden she was aware that it was on government-owned land and that they could come in and redevelop it any time they wanted. The good news is that the state government has officially recognised the value of the garden as public parkland and has handed it over to North Sydney Council. In this way, the garden will remain a public asset, as Wendy always intended.
The ashes of both Brett and Arkie Whitely are buried in the garden, but Wendy has never disclosed the locations. The garden and Wendy are the subject of a book by Janet Hawley just released by Penguin Australia: Wendy Whitely and the Secret Garden.