wendy whiteley secret garden lavender bay sydney harbour skelly

the secret garden | wendy whiteley’s lush legacy | bush magic

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

How do you mend a broken heart? If you are Wendy Whiteley you find solace in nature and a shovel.

How often is it that overseas visitors tip the locals off about treasures right on their doorstep?
That happened this week as German friends enthused about the “secret garden” Wendy Whiteley has spent two decades creating on the harbourfront at Lavender Bay.

A 10-minute walk from Milson’s Point station or Luna Park (via the Kirribilli Markets if your timing is right) leads to one of several access points to this fairytale glade.

Its centrepiece is a massive fig tree, holding court by a stand of Bangalow palms. Trees drip trumpet flowers, birds dip their beaks into flowering grevilleas, and clusters of elephant ears ripple a gentle welcome. It’s a painterly garden that’s more bohemian than bossy. It’s a party where everyone’s welcome: jacarandas, camellias, hydrangeas, ground cover of violets, shaggy olive trees, bottlebrush, and succulents.

Bark-chipped pathways with timber bush-rail balustrades head off in all directions under leafy canopies; tables and chairs find myriad beckoning alcoves; found objects (old toys, bells, and rusty railway paraphernalia) and upstart cherubs provide the artscape.

In the distance is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the beautiful bay Brett Whiteley so loved to paint, and Luna Park with its muted wild-ride shrieks. It is an exquisite sanctuary. Solace writ large.

wendy whiteley secret garden lavender bay trumpet flowers deans

Fanfare for a work in progress. Photo Alan Deans

The widow of acclaimed artist Brett Whiteley has lived In Lavender Bay for 47 years. When her husband died in 1992, and nine years later her daughter, Arkie, Whiteley threw her energies and grief into making something of what was the site of an overgrown dumping ground for metal, garbage, railway detritus, bottles and lantana – “a sad wasteland” that was in essence their front yard. Her indispensable wingmen have been gardeners Corrado Camuglia and Ruben Gardiol.

“I’m really only happy here these days,” Whiteley told former Lantern imprint publisher Julie Gibbs, who commissioned Janet Hawley’s  2015 book, Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden.

Last year, the NSW State Government granted the North Sydney Council a 30-year lease on the lot, with an option of a second 30-year period. “I won’t be here,” Whiteley told Gibbs, “but there’ll be a lot of other people who’ll love it.”

Comparisons have been made with New York’s High Line, as both revolve around disused railway lines, and advocacy. Both are examples of vision, daring, creativity and a gift of public space.

Wendy Whiteley herself can often be seen on her balcony, surveying the fruits of her labour and those who find their way into this little paradise. The secret is not so secret any more.

Wendy whiteley secret garden lavender bay sydney harbour

Tree of life in Wendy Whiteley’s “secret garden”. Photo Alan Deans





Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab. susan@excessallareas.com.au

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.