Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A Moreton Bay fig in the garden created by Wendy Whiteley

Some six years ago, I wrote a blog about Wendy Whiteley's wonderful 'Secret Garden' at Lavender Bay on Sydney Harbour, a garden made on government land and which is open to all-comers, free of charge. Apart from knowing it was created from a hideous rubbish dump by Wendy Whiteley after the death of her husband, Brett Whiteley, I knew very little about the garden at that time. So it was with great enjoyment that I have recently read the new book Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden (2015), written by Janet Hawley. This book reveals so many facets of the garden, and is illustrated with sumptuous photos by Jason Busch.

Brugmansia x candida in the garden created by Wendy Whiteley

The book describes the garden itself, its magnificent setting on the edge of the harbour, its design (also shown visually in an excellent map by landscape architect John Chetham) on an extremely challenging steep site, and its eclectic mix of plants. We discover the personal meaning to Wendy of many of the plants (such as the Bangalow palms and the jacarandas). All the plants used are ideal for the Sydney climate, and they are combined with the practised eye of an artist. Signature plants, such as glowing cerise-red Iresine herbstii 'Brilliantissima' and Brugmansia of various hues are repeated through the garden, giving firm cohesion. Foliage form, colour and texture provide much interest: dramatic bold leaves contrast with lacy and strappy foliage; flamboyant large leaves are paired with more dainty forms. Brilliantly coloured flowers glow like jewels amidst the verdant foliage. Edible plants that visitors can sample are dotted in sunny patches throughout the garden. The garden is constantly changing as new ideas are formed.

One of the many pathways in the garden created by Wendy Whiteley

The contrasting open and more closed-in areas of the garden are sculpted by the judicious placement of large shrubs and trees. Serene areas of lawn produce a feeling of calm serenity, whereas the intriguing maze of pathways and stairs invite garden visitors to explore the many garden areas and enable them to feel totally engulfed by and almost 'lost' in the garden. In the heart of the garden is a clump of bamboo supported by a frame, where visitors can sit. The whole garden feels secluded and protected by the canopy of trees overhead and the steep slopes of the site. Tables and chairs placed through the garden encourage garden visitors to linger or even have a picnic.

But the book goes far beyond the garden itself. We learn about the history of its location: which was once a delightful sandy cove before it was ignominiously filled in to create a railway line along the water's edge in 1890; with the resultant valley behind the railway line becoming a weed-covered wasteland and rubbish dump. We find out much about the lives of Wendy and Brett, from childhood onwards. Wendy had always loved the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden (1911) and had had her own spot in a clump of bamboo in her mother's garden that was her special place to contemplate and dream. We read about the flowering of the incredible artistic creativity of Wendy and Brett; and the tragic death of Brett in 1992 and later their daughter, Arkie, in 2001.

Iresine herbstii Brilliantissima is a key plant in the garden created by Wendy Whiteley

This background helps to understand why Wendy's Secret Garden was developed, and how profound grief and loss were somehow transformed into something positive and beautiful. The sheer scale of the work in clearing the area, removing the rubbish and weeds of decades, is mind-boggling and truly inspirational, especially when it was basically done all by hand. This book reminds us of the power of a garden and gardening, and how a garden can bring pleasure, joy and solace - from watching plants grow and flourish, seeing the beauty of flowers and leaves, and being surrounded by birds and insects, which bring more life into the garden. The physicality of gardening, and the alternative focus for our thoughts that a garden can provide, can be very therapeutic at times of stress and sadness.

Old tricycle found in the rubbish dump and now displayed in the garden created by Wendy Whiteley

All of the statues and objects in the garden have an important meaning, something I hadn't known about in my previous visits; the book explains all of these. Some (such as the old tricycle and rusty wheelbarrow) are objects uncovered during the cleaning up of the site; others are sculptures of great significance to Wendy, such as Head, 1972, by the late Australian sculptor Joel Elenberg, and Nude, 1962, by the late Brett Whiteley.

In the book, we also meet a number of people who are connected to the garden, including long-time gardeners Ruben and Corrado. Many others have played a role over the years, and we learn their stories. We also hear about some of the regular visitors to the garden and its significance to them. In the book, a point is made that a garden isn't a garden till it is shared with others. This garden is a wondrous oasis so close to the heart of the city and is used by many people, every day, providing contact with nature that would otherwise be missing in their lives.

The book also takes us inside Wendy Whiteley's house, which I found very interesting, and this added another dimension to understanding her character.

View from the top of the garden created by Wendy Whiteley

Only last week, the NSW Government gave the garden 30-year lease, with a 30-year renewal option. Until now, the future of the garden has been precarious, as Wendy created the garden without ever seeking permission from the 'authorities'. Few of us would ever dare to do such a thing - but how fabulous that she did! It is to be hoped that this garden truly does remain forever as part of one of Sydney's treasures. Reading this book before visiting the garden enables its magic to be magnified.

The book is currently available from Florilegium book shop for $59.99.