Book review: A Year with Wendy Whiteley, Ashleigh Wilson

A biography of an artist and iconoclast in her own right.

The fact that a number of biographers had sought out Wendy Whiteley to write her story, but were knocked back, makes Ashleigh Wilson’s book all the more intriguing.

After writing a biography of Brett Whiteley, he approached Wendy again with an idea: the two of them sitting at a table at regular intervals for a year to chat. She agreed somewhat reluctantly before asking Wilson, ‘Are people really interested in this stuff?’

Wilson assured her they were, and the process began. He describes her surroundings, as well as the interruptions that punctuate their time together. The effect is that you feel like you’re a fly on the wall in the room with them both. 

Wilson’s time with Whiteley allows him to paint detailed brushstrokes of her life. Wilson realises that Wendy’s dug deep, and many of the stories she shares with him haven’t been shared before. Her own artistic abilities and ambitions are explored, along with her sometimes volatile relationship with Brett.

Wendy Whitley’s life is also a biography of the Australian art scene in the 70s and 80s; a cast of bohemian artists and writers living at home and abroad. The Whitleys were friends with a host of well-known Australians: Clive James, Barry Humphries and Bruce Beresford, to name a few. 

Each chapter is framed around a particular subject: Wendy’s secret garden, their daughter Arkie (who died at 37 from cancer), and Wendy’s own journey as a female artist in a rapidly changing gender equality landscape. The chapter on Arkie is particularly poignant, and Wilson captures Whitley’s lifelong grief: ‘Her sentences are shorter. The silences last longer.’

The intimacy between the biographer and the subject, as well as the length of time spent together, make chapters like this more emotionally charged. 

The overall effect is a beautiful portrait of an Australian icon who, despite not seeking the spotlight, fell into it nonetheless; her own artistic ambitions growing in the midst of tragedy and grief, and finding new forms, such as her secret garden.

Read: Book review: Wildlife in the Balance, Simon Mustoe

Wilson includes a postscript, where he quotes Wendy’s introduction on the ABC show, Finding the Archibald, as ‘iconoclast, celebrated gardener and wife and muse to the bad boy of Australian art, Brett Whitley’. Wendy would have worn this description for so long that it’s refreshing to see a character sketch with more depth; to reveal a fascinating woman in her own right, whose own story can finally be drawn. 

A Year with Wendy Whitely: Conversations About Art, Life and Gardening, Ashleigh Wilson
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922458803

Format: Hardback
Pages: 304pp
Publication date: 1 November 2022
RRP: $45

Cherie Gilmour is a freelance writer from Torquay.