26 September 2023

A Year with Wendy Whiteley:

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Ashleigh Wilson, Text Publishing, $45.00.

Wendy Whiteley is revealed as an artist in her own right, a distinctive personality, who is recognised for creating the Secret Garden on the land below her house on Sydney Harbour. These are conversations about art, life and gardening.

Best known as the former wife of Australian Archibald-winning artist Brett Whiteley, Wendy has control of Brett’s estate including the copyright to his works. She played an important role in the establishment of the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, NSW. Her story incorporates sections of Brett’s story, but it has its own trajectory and priorities, its own colours, its own sadness, loss and light.

The exchanges between Whiteley and author Ashleigh Wilson grow gradually and organically to form an engrossing picture. Like a garden, this is a story featuring elements that push upwards into the light, shadowy layers nearly obscured by time, and paths leading to unexpected places.

Wilson paints an engaging portrait of Wendy through a succession of conversations at her table. Wendy has devoted her life to Brett’s art, but it’s also as much hers as his. Among other things they talk about legacy and memory and the passing of time. In recent years. Wendy has been busy preparing for the end of the Whiteley line: sorting through her archives, arranging her finances, ensuring the continuity of the estate.

These days Wendy Whiteley is a legendary figure in the art world. Before she met Brett, Wendy was herself a budding artist; her creative work ever since has been under-recognised. She is a survivor: of drug dependence, bitter divorce, the deaths of Brett and their beloved daughter, Arkie. More than that, she is a remarkable figure whose life has had its own contours and priorities. Now in her early 80s — reflective yet outspoken, with a dry wit — she has much to say about it.

Supplemented by extensive research and interviews with others, this is the treasured story of Wendy’s life.

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