Almanac Art: The Brett Whiteley Studio




One of the benefits of standing in the queue waiting to purchase our tickets for the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was to discover amongst the displayed pamphlets, visual promotions and  other information, details of cultural events at the gallery and elsewhere.


One such visual and its accompanying brochure caught the eye of Meryl and myself during our visit to the gallery on our recent trip to Sydney.


That brochure highlighted the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills with details of opening times and other relevant visitor information. Discovering Surry Hills was a relatively short and easy light rail journey, Meryl and I did not hesitate to place the visit on ‘our to do list’.




Views in Surry Hills


The pleasant journey from Circular Quay to Surry Hills provided the opportunity to sit back and take in the surroundings. This part of Sydney  reminded me of Carlton, Fitzroy, and Brunswick, and other inner Melbourne suburbs with their apparent similar demographic features and architecture.


The Brett Whiteley Studio


The studio is a short walk from the rail stop. Down a couple of narrow lanes and you’re there. Only a name plate on the former warehouse wall is the only indication the building was the home and studio of one of Australia’s most foremost and prolific artists. And it still remains a working studio with art classes conducted in various sections of the building except Whiteley’s own studio space which is sectioned off from the public.




Works on display lower floor as you enter the building


Once inside the building, the light rebounding off the white walls and from the dedicated lighting, highlights the displayed art works effectively to provide an immediate impact, and the impression you are somewhere special – as we were we quickly discovered.


Some of Brett Whiteley’s early works


Looking down from the upper floor. An art class in progress


The building consists of two levels; the lower level acts as a gallery displaying many of Whiteley’s works from across the various stages of his career; and upstairs is Whiteley’s work space preserved as he left it before taking that fateful trip to Thirroul in 1992, his living quarters which is closed to the public, and an area best described as a living/entertainment space that accommodates perhaps half the area of that upper floor level.


Sitting on the couch Bob Dylan sat on.


Bob Dylan sitting on the black couch while being interviewed


Upper floor is divided into three sections, a lounge area, work space, and living quarters


This space was a highlight for me. At its centre is a black leather couch that has probably seen better days, the cushions sag and are well lived in, but upon them, many famous, and not so famous, persons have sat at various times. One famous backside to sit there, who Whiteley idolised, belonged to Bob Dylan. Bob knew about Whiteley and his art and wanted to meet him. During one of Dylan’s tours a press conference was conducted with Bob and the media at the studio.  I could not help but imagine the electricity generating in the air when these two creative souls eventually had time to themselves to discuss their art and other interests away from the media.


Brett Whiteley’s work space in his studio


A chair in his work space


Work Space


Looking into the work space from the lounge.


Some of Brett’s hats


Whiteley’s work space is probably similar to that of any other working artist; incomplete canvases on easels and walls awaiting final touches; paints, brushes and other art paraphernalia scattered around the room utilising every available space on the floor, benches, chairs and elsewhere. A couple of well used and comfortable looking chairs are placed in strategic positions from which Whiteley would have contemplated individual works in progress to determine his future strokes and marks upon the canvases. Hats are gathered together on a bench and most are recognisable as worn by Whiteley from many photographs of him. Quite a large reference library of art books are filed in a long bookcase. Obviously Whiteley was a keen student of other artists as can be ascertained from the titles on display, and one wonders of their influence upon his work.


Extensive art book collection. Pics and scribblings on the wall



Brett’s sound system


Music was important to Whiteley. He was known to work with music playing loudly in the background, selected from an extensive range of vinyl and played upon a good sound system reflective of the times.


Brett’s ‘office’ area


Photographs of many of his visitors to the studio are on display pasted on walls along with clippings and other photographs that appealed to Whiteley for whatever reason. On some walls Whiteley has written quotes, sayings, words etc that have influenced him and perhaps a reference point for further inspiration. Names and phone numbers are also written on the walls.



Two works on display on the upper level


This is truly a remarkable manifestation of an artist’s creative working space that emanates an aura of persuasive quality and atmosphere, and one that can now be enjoyed by the public.


For further details about the studio click Here.


All photographs taken by CGR.



More from Col Ritchie can be read Here



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About Colin Ritchie

Retired teacher who enjoys following the Bombers, listening to music especially Bob Dylan, reading, and swimming.


  1. Terrific piece Col. I especially like seeing where artists work. And to contemplate blank canvas to the final piece.

  2. You have an eye for a great snap Col. Interesting visit. Thanks.

  3. Saw a comprehensive Whiteley retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales 30 years ago. A real mixed bag to my eye. Remember the Sydney Harbour pieces and landscapes generally being stunning. The surreal stuff – yeah nah.
    Heretical thought – Ken Done seemed to plagiarise Whiteley’s Sydney Harbour paintings in pastels – to my eye.
    Life advice – Detoxing from opiates requires professional support. Whisky and motel room privacy is an unreliable alternative.

  4. Karl Dubravs says

    Hi Colin
    As a Sydneysider, I go to the Whiteley studio at least twice a year…when they exhibit a different aspect of Whiteley’s career. I always love seeing the unburnt & burnt matchstick at the front entrance.
    One of the changes I’ve noticed over the years it that they used to have 60’s Dylan echoing through the speakers as you walked around – & to me, that enhanced the experience. To hear what Brett was hearing as he launched onto a new canvas. The last visit (a few weeks ago) the space seemed to be more vacant/sterile without the music echoing through the spaces.
    Also, Brett’s 18 panel masterpiece ‘Alchemy’ has, until this latest exhibition, ALWAYS adorned the entire western & southern walls as you enter the studio. Despite seeing it multiple times over the years, I would still be fascinated in the minute details and discover something new on each visit. I was surprised (shocked might be a better word) to NOT see it in situ a few weeks ago.
    Despite these changes, I will no doubt pay my respects again in 2024. There is still a magic that happens within that space.

  5. Peter Crossing says

    Many thanks for this Colin.
    A must see on our next visit to Sydney.

  6. Earl O'Neill says

    I used to see Brett bicycling around Surry Hills when we both lived there.

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