About Bohemian Harbour: Artists of Lavender Bay

With its sweeping views across the sparkling water to the city skyline, Lavender Bay on Sydney’s lower north shore has inspired generations of artists. This spring, a new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney celebrates our spectacular harbour through the perspectives of some of the city’s best-known and most admired artists.

Lavender Bay, a tiny waterfront sanctuary tucked below North Sydney’s bustling business centre, has enchanted some of the giants of Australian art, including its first professional landscape artist, Conrad Martens, as well as Arthur Streeton, Roland Wakelin and Margaret Olley. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the bay attracted a particularly vibrant artistic community. The din of exuberant activity centred on a handful of houses – the homes of some of Sydney’s leading artists, among them Brett Whiteley and Peter Kingston. The idyllic bay provided both inspiration and a haven for a bohemian counterculture to thrive in a socially and politically turbulent time.

If you go to any city … find out where the artists are moving, because they always have a good eye for value and beauty.

Tim Storrier, 2018

View of harbour from above road and bulding, showing bridge in distance.
Lavender Bay, Roland Wakelin, c1948, oil on canvas. Photo Justin Miller Art. Courtesy Garry and Susan Rothwell © Estate of Roland Wakelin

 

The Whiteleys return

Very much in the spotlight, in late 1969 Brett and Wendy Whiteley arrived back in Australia after nearly ten years in Europe and the United States. A well-publicised drug charge in Fiji saw their permanent return to Australia, with their five-year-old daughter, Arkie. Though they came back to a conservative climate, attitudes were changing. Public dissent against the Vietnam War was growing, and the leader of the opposition, Gough Whitlam, was challenging a fractured conservative government. His promises of far-reaching change saw him take office just a few years later, in 1972.

Looking for a new place to call home, the Whiteleys visited a friend from their London days, architect and artist Rollin Schlicht. He was living with his young family in the downstairs flat at 1 Walker Street, one in a row of five Federation houses next to Clark Park in Lavender Bay. The Whiteleys were immediately taken with its panoramic views of the harbour, and soon after secured the upstairs apartment at a rent of $20 a week. Their home became a ‘scene’ well managed by Wendy. Raucous parties, fuelled by loud music and alcohol, drew the famous and infamous – writers, poets, artists, actors and musicians.

Those parties at the Whiteleys’, I went to quite a few of those … well, if you can remember it, it means you weren’t there.

Garry Shead, 2018

The Schlichts left Lavender Bay for the inner city around 1971. Three years later, the Whiteleys bought the house and began converting it back into a single dwelling, knocking down walls to open up the living space, installing arches and eventually adding a distinctive tower. Also in 1974, Whiteley debuted his first series of artworks inspired by Lavender Bay at an exhibition at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne. In these works he celebrates the beauty of the bay in its many moods and seasons, capturing the now iconic wharf and palm trees, the boats and birds, and sharing intimate views of his home. This exhibition heralded a new phase in his artistic development, which would produce many of his most highly prized works over the next 15 years.

Group on couch with large artwork on wall, behind Brett Whiteley, who is standing looking at camera.
Party at the Whiteleys’, William Yang, 1982. Courtesy and © William Yang

 

Painted view out window of pier and palm tree in blue on a yellow background.
The pier at Lavender Bay, Brett Whiteley, 1979–80, oil on board. Private collection, image and artwork courtesy of Sotheby’s Australia © Wendy Whiteley

All in the neighbourhood

Whiteley’s charismatic presence – and the inexpensive rents – drew other artists to Lavender Bay. Tim Storrier, ten years Whiteley’s junior and already a successful artist, purchased a house at the end of the Walker Street row in 1977 with his wife. Storrier and Whiteley formed a lasting friendship, and briefly shared a large studio space, the old gasworks building in the nearby suburb of Waverton. Storrier observed Whiteley paint some of his largest Lavender Bay canvases, and noted the difference from his own methodical approach: ‘He was very theatrical even when he was working … he danced around and listened to music … and worked quickly in an expressive sort of way, which is quite the opposite to the way I work’.

In 1970 Whiteley had met young sculptor Joel Elenberg in Melbourne, and for a decade the pair shared an intense friendship. Following a diagnosis of lymphoma in 1979, Elenberg moved to Sydney and lived next door to the Whiteleys. He chose to spend his final days in Bali surrounded by his closest friends. Today, one of Elenberg’s bronze sculptures, Head (c1970), stands at the entrance to the magnificent garden created by Wendy in Lavender Bay; nearby is a carved timber sculpture of a nude by Brett.

In 1974 one of the downstairs apartments in the house at 3 Walker Street became home to artist, writer and quiet observer Tom Carment, then 19 years old. During the time he spent there Tom got to know several of his artist neighbours. Tom’s personal recollections of this time are explored in our story Lavender Bay, 1974. He left before the year was up and artist Peter Kingston soon moved in.

Kingston – known to his friends as ‘Kingo’ – already knew many of the personalities of the Lavender Bay scene. In 1970 he had made an experimental film called Brett and butter and jam on his face that featured Whiteley. A modest inheritance on the death of his father allowed Kingston to buy the lower level of the house at 3 Walker Street in 1974. Later he bought the top level and combined his living and studio space in the property.

Dark painting of two lit-up boats with light reflecting on water.
Passing ferries, Peter Kingston, 1999, oil on canvas. Photo Beagle Press. Courtesy Peter Kingston and Australian Galleries, Sydney and Melbourne © Peter Kingston

Luna Park luminaries

Kingston was invited to assist fellow artist Martin Sharp in giving Luna Park, located at the south-eastern end of the bay, a pop art makeover. Friends since their schooldays, Sharp and Kingston shared an enthusiasm and nostalgia for the joyous fairground art of Arthur Barton, one of the original Luna Park artists.

Several other artists joined the eruption of creativity at Luna Park in the mid-1970s, including Garry Shead. Like Kingston, Shead was a contributing cartoonist for the controversial satirical magazine Oz, co‑edited by Sharp. He also created a series of experimental films featuring several of his artist friends. One film, inspired by the character of the Phantom from the comic strip by Lee Falk, was filmed in Lavender Bay and featured Kingston, Wendy Whiteley and a brief appearance by Brett.

Shead had a long association with Lavender Bay, living there at various times between the 1960s and early 1980s. For a short time he ran a charcuterie in Walker Street behind the Whiteleys’ house, working there three days a week (selling pâté he made himself) and painting the rest of the week. In the late 1970s he rented a room in ‘Heidelberg’, a large Edwardian house on the western side of the bay. Once owned by the artist Norman Lindsay, it had since been divided into apartments. Artist John Firth-Smith bought the property in 1978 and rented out rooms to friends, including Shead and Melbourne artist Robert Jacks. Large blank canvases, propped up in the garden, made the perfect projector screen for Shead’s or Firth‑Smith’s latest experimental film, while the balcony hosted boisterous New Year’s Eve parties.

Golden view of harbour across railway line framed by darkened trees.
The north shore line, Peter Kingston, 2018, charcoal and gouache on canvas. Photo Greg Weight. Courtesy Peter Kingston & Australian Galleries, Sydney and Melbourne © Peter Kingston

The winds of change

These were the ‘salad days’, remembered fondly for their youthful high spirits and creative energy. Most of the artists eventually moved on, as relationships ended or new opportunities arose elsewhere. Whiteley left the bay around 1988 as his marriage to Wendy was ending; he lived and worked in his Surry Hills studio until his untimely death in 1992.

Wendy remains at 1 Walker Street, overlooking her own extraordinary offering, the beautiful public garden she created from an overgrown wasteland. Wendy discusses her life at the bay in our story: In conversation with Wendy Whiteley.

The last resident artist at Lavender Bay is Peter Kingston, still recording the grand views, joyous spirit, maritime activity and minutiae of life from his eyrie above the harbour.

About the author

Colour photograph head and shoulders portrait of woman with long brown hair and glasses

Veronica Kooyman

Former Assistant Curator

Veronica has worked in museums since 2009 and has been fortunate to work at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour and the National Motor Museum in the Adelaide Hills where she had far too much fun riding around in vintage cars. Between 2014 and 2018 Veronica worked as part of the exhibitions team, learning and sharing new and fascinating stories from her home city.

This story originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums’ Gazette, our quarterly members’ magazine.

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