Brett Whiteley was the second of two children, born in Paddington, Sydney on 7 April 1939. His father Clement was English and his Australian mother Beryl, née Martin, was from New South Wales. Clem, as he was known, was a publicity manager and worked at the Orpheum Theatres, a chain of vaudeville and movie theatres. He also worked as an advertising manager for Hoyt Theatres Ltd.
Brett was raised in the Sydney suburb of Longueville and attended The Scots School, Bathurst, founded in 1946, winning his first art prize at age seven. When he was nine, his parents sent him to The Scots College, Bellevue Hill as a boarder. Brett wrote to his mother asking her to obtain a second-hand easel for him as well as books describing the works of Welsh painter Augustus John and sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein. He was also intrigued by the works of William Dobell and Lloyd Rees, both acclaimed Australian landscape artists, as well as the work of Vincent van Gogh.
In 1956, he won first prize in the Bathurst Show in the Young Painters’ division. However, Brett was unhappy at school and dropped out during the same year at age 15. He found employment in the layout and commercial art department at advertising agency of Lintas Pty Ltd. From 1956 to 1959, he attended night classes in drawing at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. He joined a local open-air sketch club run by the Australian artist John Santry, where he met Lloyd Rees in person. Brett also met his future wife Wendy Julius at this time, who was a fifteen-year-old art student at the East Sydney Technical College.
Brett would visit a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Sydney, painting studies of the men in their poor circumstances. One of these early works in oil on board, Soup Kitchen Man which he painted in 1958 sold for A$6 500 in October 1987.
Brett resigned from his job at the advertising agency in 1959 to concentrate on painting a body of work to enter the Italian Government’s Travelling Art Scholarship. The four works he submitted comprised Abstract Autumn, Dixon Street, July, and Around Bathurst. The last saw him win the scholarship, as judged by Russell Drysdale.
Despite this work being estimated to sell at between A$150 000 and A$ 250 000 at auction in May 2018, it remained unsold.
Whiteley departed for Europe on 23 January 1960. He began his trip in Naples before spending time in Rome and Florence. He would frequent the Uffizi Gallery to study Renaissance art. He and Wendy Julius had long been living together and she joined him in Paris in June 1960 before they returned to Italy together. When the scholarship ended in November 1960, they moved to London, renting a flat in Ladbroke Grove.
In 1961, Whitechapel Gallery included Whiteley’s work as part of the ‘Survey of Recent Australian Painting’ exhibition. The Tate Gallery purchased one of these canvases, Untitled Red Painting (1961); Whiteley was the youngest living artist to have had a work purchased by that august institution. The painting sold for A$26 000 in August 2013.
Whiteley also had work exhibited at the Marlborough gallery and in 1962 he had his first solo exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery. The same year he was awarded the international prize at the Biennale for Young Artists.
He and Wendy married at the Chelsea Registry Office on 27 March 1962. Returning from France after an extended honeymoon, they lived in a flat near Notting Hill Gate before moving to a studio in Holland Park. Their daughter Arkie, an only child, was born on 6 November 1964.
During his time in London, Whiteley painted several series including on bathing, animals at the London Zoo and the beach. Giraffe (1965) sold for approximately €75 000 in April 1997. Wendy sat as a model for his Bath series; his Woman in a Bath I (1963) sold for A$800 000 in May 2013 and Woman in a Bath IV sold for A$300 000 in June 2000.
Whiteley became fascinated with the mass murderer John Christie, who was convicted of murdering six women between 1948 and 1953. The victims included his wife Ethel, whom he strangled in December 1952 before depositing her remains under the parlour floorboards at their home, 10 Rillington Place. This was close to the Whiteley’s home in Notting Hill. Christie was eventually convicted and hanged at Pentonville Prison, London on 15 July 1953.
Whiteley’s oil on board entitled Head of Christie was sold for A$360 000 in June 2000.
The Whiteleys returned to Australia in December 1965, where they lived at Whale Beach, 40km north of Sydney.
In 1967, Brett was awarded a Harkness Fellowship Scholarship which enabled him to study and work in New York. This was the era of the ‘Age of Aquarius’ epitomised by the rock musical Hair, first staged in October 1967.
On arriving in New York, Brett was installed in Chelsea Hotel, happening to occupy the penthouse. The hotel had garnered a reputation as a melting pot of artists of various genres which included on its guest list, amongst many other luminaries, Arthur C Clarke, Arthur Miller and Leonard Cohen. There, the Whiteleys also met and befriended Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, Joplin even baby-sitting two-year-old Arkie one evening when her parents went out.
Whiteley painted several works of the city and the hotel hung his Portrait of New York behind the reception desk, besides periodically displaying a number of his other works.
Wendy opened a clothes shop in New York, against Brett’s wishes; so much so that he threatened to divorce her. However, Wendy persevered with her venture; Brett retaliated by having an affair with an architect, Constance Abernathy, one of many casual affairs. He and Wendy were already indulging in marijuana by this time.
Wendy discovered the affair on the night Brett had held an exhibition of 23 works at the Marlborough-Gerson gallery on East 57th Street. After the unveiling, the guests continued the party at The Chelsea. During the festivities, Wendy noticed that Brett had disappeared, but as he was never at ease at his openings, she did not worry. When he failed to reappear, her suspicions were aroused. She located him naked on the balcony of Constance’s apartment downstairs.
Wendy herself had an affair with the singer and poet Michael Driscoll, which developed into a ménage à trois with Brett. Prior to the affair, Driscoll introduced the Whiteleys to heroin in 1973, which led to long-term addiction for both Brett and Wendy.
The Vietnam War, which lasted from 01 November 1955 to 30 April 1975, triggered the peace movement in the US in the sixties. This had a profound influence on Brett’s art. He was also a product of the liberal ways of life at that time, being a regular user of alcohol and drugs, including marijuana and LSD.
Partly as a result of his alcohol and drug use, Brett created an enormous piece of art called The American Dream, (1968-69), comprising 18 wooden panels, in total 2.44 metres high by 22 metres wide. It consists of oil, tempera, collage, photography, found objects and flashing lights and took him about a year to create. He believed, erroneously, that it would influence the Americans to withdraw from Vietnam and that peace would be declared. His gallery, Marlborough-Gerson refused to exhibit the epic work.
Brett was devastated at this reaction and in response, bolted to Fiji with his family. This was to be a short sojourn of only five months, despite their initial intentions to settle there. They had been given a large part of an island on which to settle by a village chief, but when Brett travelled to the capital Suva to exhibit his work, he ingeniously mentioned drugs to local politicians and officials. The following day, the barn that Brett was renting for his work was raided and on discovering marijuana, Brett was fined, and the family was expelled from the country for life. In September 1972, Brett attempted to return to Fiji but his conviction as a prohibited immigrant remained, and he was returned on the first departing aircraft from Nadi Airport to Auckland.
The family returned to Australia in October 1969, initially renting one floor of a house in Lavender Bay in Sydney. The house was originally named Lochgyle, built in 1907. Five-year-old Arkie said she was tired of the constant travelling and relocating, causing the family to buy the house in 1974.
However, by this time Brett was dependent on drugs, especially heroin, and was known to be sexually promiscuous. When his use of drugs eventually became public, he claimed in interviews that ‘that was all in the past and now he was free of all that baggage.’ This was not true but his continued habit appeared to only enhance his art.
Brett was friends with John Illsley and Mark Knopfler from the band Dire Straits. The cover of their double album Alchemy: Dire Straits Live, released in March 1984, featured part of Brett’s work Alchemy (1972-73). This comprised 18 wood panels and measured 203cm x 1615cm x 9cm and included feathers, a bird’s nest, a glass eye, pieces of shell and a brain. It also referenced the Japanese author/poet/playwright Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) who had committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after the failure of an attempted coup against the Emperor.
In 1975, fellow artist and diarist Donald Friend noted “The other painter of great talent, Brett Whiteley, I’m afraid has had it – taken to heroin now, with the stupid conceit it’s something he can control. His paintings are like wonderful glimpses of the world seen through holes in the death-wish. The tendency toward self-destruction has been an important part of his make-up as an artist for a long time – ten or twelve years at least, since first he was a Wonder Boy.”
Despite this view, Whiteley was awarded the Sir William Angliss Memorial Art Prize in 1975, followed in 1976 with the Archibald Prize for Self-portrait in the studio and the Sulman Prize for Interior with time past. Two prints of the former each sold for A$45 in April and July 2018 respectively.
In 1977, he won the Wynne Prize for The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour). The piece sold for A$1 800 000 in August 1999.
In 1978, he was awarded all three of the Archibald Prize, the Sulman Prize and the Wynne Prize; the only person to have been so honoured in the same year. The Archibald Prize was awarded for his triptych Art, life and the other thing, part of which features a disembodied hand offering a syringe to a baboon. Yellow Nude was awarded the Sulman Prize and Summer at Carcoar the Wynne Prize. This last sold for A$170 in July 2003.
In 1984, he was once again awarded The Wynne Prize, for The South Coast after rain.
The following year, both Brett and Wendy travelled to London to undergo treatment for their ongoing addiction. Wendy spent two years getting ‘clean’, but despite his outward assurances that he, too, was off drugs, Brett continued to partake, causing him and Wendy to separate.
He met model and fellow addict Janice Spencer at Narcotics Anonymous in 1985; when Brett purchased a defunct t-short factory in Surry Hills later that year, he began renovating it into a dedicated studio. He initially moved into it alone in 1987 but Janice soon joined him.
In 1989, Wendy filed for divorce.
In 1991, Brett was awarded the Order of Australia (General Division).
His drug and alcohol addiction turned tragic when Brett was discovered dead of an overdose in room 4 of the Beach Motel Thirroul, north of Wollongong in New South Wales. He died either on the 12th or 15th June 1992; his body was only discovered when the motel manager entered the room after Janice Spencer could not contact him. Brett probably died from a combination of heroin, the analgesic dextropropoxylene, aspirin, methadone and whiskey. He was 53 years old.
Brett and Wendy had not settled the dispute over ownership of their property by the time he died. Brett’s estate was also the subject of a legal challenge between Janice Spencer who produced a will in which Whiteley had bequeathed his estate to her, and Arkie, who claimed her father had left a later hand-written will in which she was named an heiress. The New South Wales Supreme Court ruled in Arkie’s favour but Janice was allowed to keep a painting of herself entitled Sunday Afternoon, Surry Hills (1988). Janice sold the painting in August 1995, the work realising A$215 000. Spencer died of a heroin overdose in 2000.
Wendy retains control over copyright to Brett’s work after Arkie died of cancer in 2001. Wendy was instrumental in establishing the Brett Whitely Studio in his old home in Surry Hills, currently owned and managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Both Brett’s and Arkie’s ashes are scattered in Wendy’s ‘Secret Garden’ at her home in Sydney.
Brett’s work continued to sell for vast sums after his death. The Pond at Bundanon sold for A$300 000 in August 1997. In June 2007, The Olgas for Ernest Gils sold for A$2 900 000. Opera House sold for A$2 400 000 in May 2007. Whiteley began work on this last piece in 1971, completing it only in 1982. Apparently, he exchanged this work with Qantas in exchange for free air travel.
Brett Whiteley will continue to be exemplified, as an opera celebrating his controversial life has been announced to run between 15-30 July 2019.