Brett Whiteley was probably Australia’s most famous 20th Century artist, and his association with Potts Point and the surrounding area runs deep.
From his time with the Yellow House artists’ collective to his painting of celebrity ibises, we explore his association with our part of the world, including his early days with the Yellow House artist’s collective and the “matchsticks” sculpture in the Domain.
Growing up in Sydney
Born in 1939, Brett Whiteley spent his earliest years at Longueville and attended both The Scots College, in nearby Bellevue Hill, and Scots Bathurst as a boarder. By the time he was a teenager, he was already painting prolifically. Leaving school at 15 to work for the North Sydney-based advertising agency Lintas, he also took drawing classes at the National Art School, situated in the grounds of the Old Darlinghurst Gaol.
At this age, Whiteley was interested in the dynamism of inner-city Sydney, which contrasted with his suburban and rural upbringing. He would attend soup kitchens and paint the patrons gathered there. He also took an interest in inner-city architecture, painting the terraced houses of Wooloomooloo in several of his works.
When he was just 20, Whiteley won an Italian Government Travelling Scholarship, travelling to Rome before setting up a studio in London. It was here that his fame really grew, becoming the youngest artist ever to have one of his works purchased by London’s famous Tate. Then, in the late 1960s, he moved to New York and Fiji, painting Sydney’s beaches during a brief return home.
However, after his work was never really accepted in the United States (his seminal work, The American Dream, was judged ‘too political’), he returned to Australia in late 1969. He lived across the harbour in Lavender Bay with his wife, Wendy, who he had married in 1962 and credited as his muse.
The Yellow House
It was in the 1970s that his real association with our area took off. Whiteley became part of an artists’ collective based out of the Yellow House at 57-59 Macleay Street Points Point, with fellow members including Martin Sharp, George Gittoes and Peter Weir.
The early-to-mid 1970s were a prolific time for Whiteley, during which he produced many of what are now considered his masterpieces. These included Alchemy (1973), Henri’s Armchair (1974), The Balcony 2 (1975) and Self Portrait in Studio (1976).
By the late 1970s, he was again making headlines. In 1978, he became the first artist ever to win the Art Gallery of NSW’s Archibald Prize, Wynne Prize and Sulman Prize all in the same year. Whiteley’s self-portrait titled “Art, Life and the Other Thing, that took that year’s Archibald (he also won in 1976 with Self Portrait) depicted the artist’s struggles with addiction and remains one of its most controversial winners.
The ibises and Dire Straits
During his career, Whiteley became friends with several other leading artists and performers, one of the most notable being Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler. Dire Straits used Whiteley’s Alchemy on the cover of their 1984 live album of the same name.
Many years later, Knopfler told Whiteley about his experience seeing the ibises of Kings Cross and how they seemed divorced from nature. Whiteley responded by painting him a portrait of the ibis as he saw it beside a portrait of it as it would be in its natural environment. The painting now allegedly hangs in Knopfler’s own home.
Surry Hills studio and the “matchsticks” in the Domain
In the mid-1980s, Whiteley purchased a home at 2 Raper Street, Surry Hills, converting it to a studio and exhibition space.
In 1988 Matthew Dillion, who was Brett Whiteley’s assistant, sculpted the giant matchsticks that currently stand in the Domain and are a landmark and icon in our inner city area. Crafted out of Blackbutt timber from Grafton to Whiteley’s designs and specifications, the sculpture is officially named “Almost Once” and depicts one fresh and one burnt matchstick, side by side. It was gifted to the AGNSW by Whiteley in 1991. It later underwent significant restoration in 2002 and again in 2017, thanks to damage from the local weather, termites and resident cockatoos.
As his biography on the Art Gallery of NSW website writes, he “worked across painting, sculpture and the graphic arts” but was “best known for his sensual and lyrical paintings of interiors, nudes and harbour scenes … Whiteley’s art was intimately connected to his tumultuous, creative life” and traced his heroin addiction, “which increasingly impacted his life and career”.
Brett Whiteley had separated from Wendy in the late 1980s. Sadly, he died of a methadone overdose in Thirroul on the south coast in 1992.
His Surry Hills studio is now a museum owned by the Art Gallery of NSW and is currently showing an exhibition of his works, known as Eternity is Now, which features many of his best-known works there, including Self Portrait in Studio and Alchemy.
And, if you’re ever on the North Shore, make sure to visit Wendly Whiteley’s Secret Garden, where Brett Whiteley’s ashes were reportedly scattered.
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