Brett Whiteley


Born in Sydney in 1939, Whiteley grew up in Longueville, NSW and by the age of seven had won his first art competition. He was sent to boarding school at Scots College, Bathurst and in 1956 was awarded first prize in the Young Painters’ section of the Bathurst Show. He left school mid-year and took night classes in drawing at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney while holding down a job at an advertising agency.

In 1960, Whiteley left Australia on a Travelling Art Scholarship. By 1961, he had settled in London, with his work already displayed at the Whitechapel and Marlborough galleries. It was in London where Whiteley met Australian painters Arthur Boyd and John Passmore.

Whiteley’s reputation grew internationally after winning the international prize at the International Biennale for Young Artists in 1962. It was in the same year where he had his first solo exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery.

In 1962, Whitely married Wendy Julius and their only child, daughter Arkie Whiteley was born in London in 1964. While in London, Whiteley painted works in several different series: bathing, the zoo and the Christies. His paintings during these years were influenced by the modernist British art of the sixties – particularly the works of William Scott and Roger Hilton – and were of brownish abstract forms. It was these abstracted works which lead to him being recognized him as an artist.

In 1967, Whiteley won a Harkness Fellowship Scholarship to study and work in New York. One way that America influenced him was in the scale of his works. He was also very much influenced by the peace movement at the time and came to believe that if he painted one huge painting which would advocate peace, then the Americans would withdraw their troops from Vietnam. He entitled his work The American Dream, and it was an enormous work that used painting and collage and anything else he could find to put on the 18 wooden panels. It took up a great deal of his time and effort, taking up about a year of working on the piece full time. It started with a peaceful dreamlike serene ocean scene on one side, that worked its way to destruction and chaos in a mass of lighting, red colours and explosions on the other side. It was his comment on the direction the world would be headed and his response to a seemingly pointless war which could end in a nuclear holocaust. Many of the ideas from the work may have also come from his experiences with alcohol, marijuana and other drugs which he often used as a way of bringing ideas through from his subconscious. However he sometimes took more than his body could handle, and had to be admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning twice. The painting which was finally produced was refused to be shown by the Marlborough-Gerson gallery, and he was so distraught that he fled New York for Fiji.

In 1969, Whiteley returned permanently to Australia and became one of the leading artists of the avant-garde movement. His acclaim continued to grow throughout the seventies and eighties when he won numerous awards and prizes including the Sir William Angliss Memorial Art Prize which he was awarded in 1975 and his first Archibald prize which was a self-portrait in 1976.

In 1977 he won the Wynne Prize for The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour), and in 1978 became the only Australian artist ever to claim the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne art prizes – a unique treble.

He was awarded the Wynne Prize again in 1984, and the following year purchased an old T-shirt factory in Surry Hills, Sydney and converted it into a studio. In 1991 he was awarded the Order of Australia (General Division).

In the last years of his life Whiteley travelled to England, Bali, Tokyo, and spent two months in Paris in an apartment on Rue de Tournon. On 15 June 1992 he was found dead from a heroin overdose in a motel room in Thirroul on the NSW coast. The coroner’s verdict was ‘death due to self-administered substances’. He was 53 years old.