In the beginning it really was a secret garden, existing first in the mind and then through the passionate manual efforts of artist Wendy Whiteley. To everyone else it was just an ugly swathe of derelict land in Sydney’s Lavender Bay. Abandoned by the railway, its potential was hidden under heaps broken bottles and other rubbish, dumped rusting carcases of refrigerators and sodden rotting mattresses. Its few sad plants struggling for life, under attack by nature’s vandals, notably blackberry vines and the voracious lantana.
Today it’s everyone’s secret. A beautiful sweep of land that first teases you with staggering views of the Sydney Harbour and its iconic bridge, then beckons you into a cool dappled haven. Curving paths and little flights of wood-railed steps, guide you through dense foliage of trees and plants, canopies and curtains of green daubed with explosions of colour. Statues and quirky found objects, like the child’s tricycle, peak from niches. Chairs encourage lingering in the little glades. People are eating lunch, reading books, or sitting with eyes closed just enjoying the moment.
The garden’s gradual evolution began in 1992 driven by Wendy’s anguish after her husband, internationally renowned Brett Whiteley many of whose paintings were inspired by the Lavender Bay area, was found dead in a motel on the NSW coast. She immediately literally attacked the site, clearing rubbish and weed by hand, working throughout the day until her exhaustion blotted out her sorrow and allowed her to sleep. The next day she would begin again. And again. And when, in 2001, her daughter Arkie died three months after being diagnosed with cancer, Wendy again sort solace and support from the physical labour and the intense surrounding beauty of the garden.
The Garden occupies a relatively small area but the way it has been carefully laid out makes it feel much larger. Visitors walk the zigzag path under Camphor Laurels and past the gnarled trunks of giant Moreton Bay figs. There is a dense stand of bamboo and the circle of towering circle known as Arkie’s palms. In between, the tops of bushes, bromeliads and ferns are dappled with light, intriguingly shaped blossoms. Shadows carve ever-changing shapes. Nature’s canvas. Chances are visitors will meet Corrado Camuglia, a former Sicilian chef, who went to work with Wendy in the earliest days of the Garden. And never left. Or even Wendy herself, pruning, watering, tidying.
Wendy funds the maintenance of the garden, just as she funded the clearing of the rubbish and the original design and construction, but the land is public land. As such, it remains vulnerable to official whim. The NSW Government recently agreed that the garden would be subject to a 30-year-lease with a roll-over to another 30-year lease, and a trust be established to maintain the on-going care. To date, the trust deeds have not yet been completed. Speaking at a recent book festival Wendy vowed never to rest until that was signed. And the garden was safe. Forever.
Journalist Janet Hawley, a long-time friend of Wendy’s and supporter of the project, has written a fascinating book, Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden (published by Penguin Lantern). It is beautifully illustrated, with hand-drawn maps, personal photographs and many of Brett’s iconic paintings.
The easiest way to get to Wendy’s Secret Garden is by train to Milson’s Point Station or by ferry from Circular Quay to Milson’s Point Wharf. Several of Whiteley’s paintings hang in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Brett Whiteley’s studio in Surry Hills which has many examples of unfinished work, is also open to the public.