Almanac Book Review – Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing

Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing

Ashleigh Wilson

Text Publishing



Brett Whiteley passed away in 1992 in a lonely hotel room in Thirroul on the New South Wales south coast. It was a sad and quiet end to a life that was anything but. Whiteley, Australia’s most accessible and popular artist was a two-time Archibald prize winner and an artist who captured Sydney and its surrounds better than anyone before or since.


Ashleigh Wilson, arts editor for The Australian newspaper has written a fine, detailed and enthralling book about Whiteley, his art, his addictions and his genius. With assistance given in interviews with Whiteley’s former wife and muse Wendy Whiteley, Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing gives a real insight into the mind of a flawed but shining star.


Living in Lavender Bay on Sydney Harbour gave Whiteley ample inspiration to paint the Harbour and Opera House. His use of blue in his paintings was phenomenal. His bird paintings beautiful; Whiteley saw himself as a bird and in the mid-70s it was his career that took flight. The Archibald victories came in quick succession in 1976 and 1978. In 1981 Whiteley moved into a studio in Circular Quay, Wendy by his side, and with their daughter Arkie as both inspiration for some of Brett’s work and often the adult both Wendy and Brett needed as their addictions to heroin set in.


In the 1980s Whiteley’s output was strong, despite criticism from sections of the Art glitterati in Sydney that Whiteley’s work was neither as strong nor straight-forward enough for their liking. Wilson talks to, and about his friends like Billy Connolly, Mark Knopfler and Bono, his peers and colleagues like Francis Bacon and Patrick White. Whiteley became a fixture at every Dire Straits concert the band played in Australia and across the world, and Knopfler was one of the few truly great, friends Whiteley had. They spent much time together. Bob Dylan too; it was at Whiteley’s Surrey Hills studio in 1986 that Dylan held his press conference for his and Tom Petty’s up-coming Australian tour. That led to art lessons for Dylan and a shared view of the world.


It would be wrong, in fact it would be unfair to suggest that Whiteley was an addict first, then an artist. And it would be a travesty for Whiteley’s legacy to be undersold because of his high-profile drug addiction. Whiteley was a brilliant artist, a painter and thinker on a different level to most of us. He was an Aussie, but he conquered the art worlds of Britain, America and Asia. He took plenty out of life, but he gave so much more.


This is a thrilling book that does immense justice to a painter, poet, thinker and man who saw life as a challenge and something to be manipulated to be made better, different. Wilson writes with enormous skill and passion, and it’s clear he has more than a passing liking for his subject matter. A terrific, long-overdue book on a truly great artist.





  1. Thanks Chris. A brilliant but deeply flawed man and artist. Saw a retrospective exhibition of his work in Sydney 20+ years ago. Some left me cold – or confused. Madness on canvas. But the paintings of Sydney Harbour – I remember Lavender Bay in particular – took my breath away.
    P.S – Thanks for softening the Crows up for us.

  2. Thanks Chris, I find his story very compelling, your review intrigues me to seek out the book.

  3. Peter_B –

    Thanks. He was brilliant and flawed.
    Interviewed Wendy Whiteley in 2011 and have been to his Surrey Hills studio many times. Met his Mum Beryl there once in late 90s.

    Glad we could help out screwing the Crows season!!

  4. davep – Thanks. It’s a great read. Lots in there of interest.

  5. jan courtin says

    A great artist. The changing exhibitions at the Brett Whiteley studio in Surry Hills are an absolutely must for all to see. The videos on his life, and the building itself are pretty special too!

  6. bob.speechley says

    Like Dave after reading your review I will arrange to read the book. Brett Whiteley always attracted my interest and I was sad when he passed away at Thirroul where BTW
    D. H.Lawrence lived when he was in Australia. The cover of the book “The Art of Australia” by Robert Hughes (Pelican) 1966 features, on the cover, detail from ‘Christie and Hectorina McLennan’. How vivid this representation of Brett Whiteley and his work is never ceases to amaze me.

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