“I’m just drawing the landscape ….. It really is beautiful down here.”
Australian artist Brett Whiteley (born 7 April 1939) died from a drug overdose – a mixture of heroin, dextropropoxylene, aspirin, methadone and whiskey – sometime after 4pm on Thursday, 11 June 1992, in room 4 at the Beach Motel, Thirroul, Australia. He was found dead by the motel manager the following Monday, 15 June at 8.20pm in the evening. The news was released the next day (Tuesday 16th) and various people visited the room that morning, including the police and medical authorities, along with members of the local media and staff of the motel.
Whiteley’s death at the age of 53 was seen as tragic by many people apart from friends and family, and for a variety of reasons. Primarily, he was one of Australia’s most renown artists of the late twentieth century; he was also a father and partner. The tragedy lay, in part, in the fact that he passed away alone, in a largely unknown town located on Australia’s east coast, approximately 80km south of Sydney. Thirroul is rarely directly referred to by name in Whiteley’s art, apart from in a single collaboration with Garry Shead in 1975 and a small sign in a 1988 tryptich. To this day the locality is famous to fans only as his place of death. Yet Whiteley drew and painted Thirroul on a number of occasions and had developed a special relationship with the area by the time of that last, fatal encounter with heroin. It was one of his ‘geographicals’ – favourite places he would escape to in his final years. The locale was also memorialised in his award winning painting South Coast After the Rain, 1984.
Thirroul is a picturesque locality not too distant from Sydney, though far enough away to be noticeable, with the trip taking just over an hour and a half by road or rail. It is one of a string of coastal villages located on the ever diminishing strip of land to the north of Wollongong. Whiteley was not the first artist to make his way there, nor will he be the last, for the picturesque landscape holds a natural attraction to those seeking to experience the edge – that point of contact between the mountain and the sea. On the west it provides an overpowering and protective 1000 feet high escarpment of dark sandstone glad in verdent green; to the east is the the deep blue ocean and sandy beaches. The British author D.H. Lawrence had famously taken the train trip south from Sydney to Thirroul in 1922 and stayed there for six weeks with his wife Frieda, writing the novel Kangaroo in Wyewurk, a bungalow by the sea. The Beach Motel where Brett Whiteley overdosed was a decidedly less picturesque locale, though importantly it was situated only a couple of minutes walking distance from the beach, and a little more from Wyewurk to the south.
By the late 1980s Thirroul was a town in the throes of change. After almost a century as a railway terminus, and longer as an industrial and manufacturing centre servicing nearby coal mines, coke works, clothing factories and brick manufacturing plants, the eighties saw plant closures and large scale job losses. The electrification of the railway line from Sydney in 1987 transformed the northern suburbs of Wollongong from industrial villages housing workers for local industry, to dormitory suburbs of Sydney with a substantial commuting population. Metropolitan retirees also brought up big in Thirroul and house prices shot up whilst out of work coal miners and factory workers went on the dole or sought government supported retraining. Thirroul developed a thriving drug culture during the latter decades of the twentieth century and this was perhaps an element which attracted Whiteley to it. Drugs had, since the early 1960s, been an integral part of the predominant surfie culture of Wollongong’s northern beaches, beginning with marijuana, LSD and hash before the take up of stronger and more dangerous drugs such as heroin and cocaine from the mid 1970s, around the time that Whiteley first began using.
Whiteley had for a long period reflected his love of the Australian beach and its curvaceous geographical contours through his art, and these geographical elements were found in abundance about Thirroul, though they are not necessarily – or obviously – reflected in known works by him.The coastline of Illawarra’s northern suburbs is distinguished by quarter moon-shaped goldern sandy beaches bound to the north and south by rocky, sandstone and volcanic headlands and platforms jutting into the swirling, dark blue and foaming waters of the Tasman Sea. The landscape is varied, picturesque and alive, with the constant sound of breaking surf, people enjoying the beaches in the summer months, and traffic cruising up and down Lawrence Hargrave’s Drive, the only road in or out. Whiteley was a regular visitor to the area from the 1970s onwards and locals can recall his walking alone along the beach at Thirroul, and heading north to Austinmer or south towards Bulli and Sandon Point, lost in thought or perhaps meditatively thoughtless.
According to Margot Hilton and Graeme Blundell, in their book Brett Whiteley : an unauthorised life(Macmillan, 1996), Whiteley had been making use of the Thirroul Beach Motel on a regular, almost monthly basis during the four years leading up to his death in 1992. It was one of what his sister Frannie Hopkirk liked to call his ‘geographicals’ – places he would go to in an attempt to detox from heroin, away from the temptations of Sydney. At Thirroul he would stay for three to five days, largely keep to himself and ask the landlord not to be disturbed. In the early stages (i.e. from about 1989) he would paint and sketch, however by the last year of his life this had abated, as the nature of the intense detoxification process did not facilitate the free expression of his art. He was just too sick to paint or draw, though there are suggestions that at the time of his death he had been sketching, and the whereabouts of his final works, whatever they were, remain a mystery.
Whiteley’s routine was to drive to Thirroul from his Surry Hills studio, arriving in a soft-top white BMW alone and with a supply of methadone to help him though the detox. Scoring heroin from local dealers – a pair of gay men are mentioned by Hilton and Blundell – he would also buy a bottle of whiskey from the local pub and some food from Jim’s Fish Shop or the nearby supermarket. Whiteley would then settle down on the bed in the hotel room, turn on the television, strip to his underwear and place a vomit bucket close by. He would take a shot of heroin intravenously and spend the next couple of days suffering the physical and mental tortures of withdrawal, assisted by a cocktail of various pills and alcohol.
At Thirroul Whiteley would work through the excrutiating pain of withdrawal from heroin alone, coming out of it with the hope that he had finally kicked the habit. He would then head off in his BMW back to Sydney, where a return to using would invariably occur. According to his sister he nearly died during the previous detox session which took place early in April 1992 at her Millthorpe property near Orange in western New South Wales. Throughout this particular ordeal – described in livid detail within Hopkirk’s 1996 book on her brother – Frannie was by his side to help him through the almost five days of pain and suffering. She feared for his life and nursed him as best she could. During withdrawal an individual can suffer insomnia, restlessness, muscle aches and spasms, runny nose, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea and depression. These symptoms can be extremely debilitating, though not usually life threatening. It is the drug overdose itself that is the killer – when it is so potent that it shuts down the bodies vital organs such as the brain and the heart.
The spectre of death was ever present for Whiteley during this period, as he had been using heroin on a regular basis since 1973. His body was ravaged by it, and his death at Thirroul can, in part, be attributed to this long-term use and the ever-deteriorating state of his health. The Hilton and Blundell book suggests that at the time of his death he was also depressed due to the vexatious divorce proceedings he was then engaged in with his former wife Wendy. They had separated in 1987 and there was a lot of tension over the division of his estate, alongside demands for payment by Wendy and her request for ownership of significant paintings and drawings. The Hopkirk book is more emphatic in regards to the artist’s depressed state of mind during the period leading up to his death. Frannie refers at length to the devastating role played by the divorce and Wendy Whiteley’s claims on Brett’s most precious works, including the multi-panelled Alchemy.
On the day of Whiteley’s death – assuming it occurred on the Thursday, the day of his arrival at Thirroul – Janice Spencer, his girlfriend of the previous five years, rang the Beach Motel but was not put through to his room. This was not surprising as Whiteley was ambivalent about the relationship at that stage and feared fatherhood with his younger lover. He was also keen to keep his heroin use from her. Spencer, a reformed addict, was an important element in Whiteley’s efforts to get off the dope and an inspiration to him at the time. He was clean for a number of years at the end of the eighties whilst they were a couple, but fell into his old habits as the nineties arrived.
Spencer never got through to Brett in his final hours and, like the rest of the world, was made aware of his death the following Tuesday. She subsequently died from a drug overdose in August 2000, brought on, it is said, by the loss of her lover and the trauma of the settlement of his will. Wendy and Arkie Whiteley were successful in cutting her out of any substantial entitlements, though Brett’s final official will allocated her a sizable proportion of his estate.
Frannie Hopkirk suggested that her brother wanted to die in 1992, but did not commit suicide. She felt that he went to Thirroul to “use [heroin] in peace and get away from everybody”, including friends and lovers, past and present. A visit by Brett and Janice to Frannie’s property Millthorpe was planned for July 1992 and the artist was keen to be clean for it. Frannie felt his visit to Thirroul in June was to prepare for Millthorpe:
Coming to me put a certain amount of pressure on him. He felt he owed it to me to be straight – to vindicate my belief in him. Thirroul was a private scene, somewhere he went alone, somewhere he could use, chill out, escape the women, detox quietly by himself, drink or stare at the wall without anyone hassling him. I knew he was planning to go to Thirroul and I knew why he was going there – to detox before he came back to Millthorpe with Janice.
The account of Brett’s final years by his sister casts an interesting and invariably complex light upon his state of mind during that final visit to Thirroul. Whilst on one hand his will to live was at a low point, on the other his future was as bright as ever, with a major retrospective exhibition by the Art Gallery of New South Wales planned and the divorce proceedings running their course. Many people looked forward to Whiteley taking the place of Lloyd Rees as the senior statesman of Australian art, but this was not to be. A account of the final years of his life was contained in a memoir written by Spenser, but never published. A recently unearthed note by Whiteley points to the importance of the relationship, with the artist taking a swipe at Sydney art critic John McDonald in relation to an exhibition of his works held around March 1990.
Journalist Janet Hawley (1993), writing of Whiteley’s death following an extensive interview in 1989 and subsequent friendship since, noted:
….sometimes I’d see him hideously sick, then he’d head off on what he termed “a geographical” – go to sister Frannie’s place at Bathurst or to a motel on the South Coast, often Thirroul, and detox cold turkey. He’d vomit, sweat, retch, get cramps, hallucinate for four or five days, take pain-killers, whisky and sleeping pills to get through it, then drive back to town looking reborn.
Whiteley was gone, but his work remained.
The genesis of the work and its launch is outlined in Robert Darroch’s book D.H. Lawrence in Australia. An extract is reproduced below, beginning with a recollection by Garry Shead as to why they went to Thirroul:
Ellicott (2009) also retells the Wyewurk story, including an interview with Shead in which he points out that at the time Whiteley attempted to buy the old 1911 Clifton School of Arts building for a studio, but was knocked back by the elderly owners. According to Whiteley’s biographer Sandra McGrath, writing in 1992 shortly after the artist’s death and published in an edition which was immediately withdrawn due to objections from Wendy and Arkie Whiteley (McGrath 1992):
Whiteley loved Thirroul because D.H. Lawrence had lived there in the winter of 1922… Whiteley was always fascinated by the places where great artists had either worked or lived. He made pilgrimages during his travels to the places where artists had stayed, or were born, or had done some special thing. It was as if he was trying to live through them for a minute of time. Thirroul was the only place like this in Australia.
South Coast after the Rain 1984
Following his visit to Thirroul in the mid seventies with Shead, a decade passed before Whiteley once again featured the area in a publically exhibited landscape piece. In this instance it comprised a view looking south from Kennedy’s Hill at Austinmer, the town next to and north of Thirroul. Sandon Point and and Wollongong lighthouse are seen in the distance. The work in oil and collage, titled South Coast after the Rain, went on to win the $10,000 Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1984. The blue tones of the earlier Lawrence-themed work were replaced by a distinctive red and creamy brown palette featuring local miners cottages and tiled roofs, ínterspersed with the deep green of local vegetation and playing fields and bordered by the white sands of Illawarra’s coastal beaches. The towering escarpment was nowhere to be seen.
South Coast after the Rain is little known amongst the Illawarra community. It appears to have entered a private collection shortly after its exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1984, though it was illustrated in the catalogue accompanying the Whitleley retrospective exhibition held there in 1995. When a blurred image of the work was posted on Facebook in October 2013 a number of residents of the Thirroul area and Illawarra were surprised by both its existence and content. One long-time resident emphatically proclaimed “He nailed it!”, in recognition of the rich red of the roofs and deep green of the vegetation about the town. Another thought it attempted to copy D.H. Lawrence’s description of Sydney Harbour, with the red roofed houses around it looking like a ‘burgeoning infection’. This work is in many ways un-Whiteley, for it does not display evidence of abstraction, either in regards to landscape or the human form, which is absent. The deep blue of the sea – so typical of Whiteley’s Sydney-based coastal landscapes – is replaced by the muted grey of the rain and grey-clouded sky, with three elongated rain drops at top centre all that remains of the downpour. The large area of seemingly blank space – sea, sky, foreground road – and the sweeping lines of the coastal headland and traffic-filled street are, however, typical of the artist’s work. Wendy Whiteley, in the 2009 interview with John Ellicott, mentions that Brett painted one picture directly related to Thirroul, and that South Coast after the Rain was further down the coast. There is also the reference by Janet Hawley to Whiteley using the headlands around Thirroul in his work, perhaps without any direct attribution.
On 16 December 1988 Brett Whitely completed a tryptich whose subject was south Thirroul beach. Now part of the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, this large work features in the left portion the black and white of a tarred road; in the middle is the promenade and water pump on the south side of Thirroul beach public baths; and the right section is of a body diving into the breaking waves, crashing onto the white sand.
Thirroul and the south coast was an escape, and Whiteley embraced the seclusion, isolation and ocean offered by Thirroul. The chill of the water and of anonymity refreshed him.
Death and Thirroul
In memorium of his passing at Thirroul, Sydney artist and long-time friend Martin Sharp produced a limited edition etched print in blue ink, featuring a stary-headed male figure looking towards a Vincent van Gough “stary, stary, night” sky and floating off into space. Van Gough was an artist that both Sharp and Whiteley idolised and featured in their work over an extensive period.
One known copy of this poignant etching is inscribed to Brett’s mother Beryl, as follows: Thirroul / Dear Beryl, for your dear boy, / love Marty / M Sharp. According to Julie Clarke, a long-time friend of Sharp’s, this image is based on The Little Prince novella by French aristocrat Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published in 1941. It was a favourite theme of the artist and also obviously of relevance to his relationship with Whiteley. The Thirroul etching is a variant of Sharp’s earlier poster We are them …. They are us ….Moratorium! from 1969, in which we see a floating Little Prince.
The Little Prince figure can be seen in even earlier works by sharp, such as the cover of OZmagazine, London, number 15, from September 1968. Sharp himself was known as the Little Prince of the Sydney art scene, a role he variously and often dramatically shared with Whiteley.Whiteley’s transcendance into a Van Gogh “starry starry night” upon death is reflected – as it was in Sharp’s presentation of him as the Little Prince – in the work of Tasmanian artist Harry Kent. His University of Tasmania thesis focussed, in part, on Whiteley and culminated in the the completion of a triptych which sees Whiteley’s death at Thirroul in the context of a Peter Pan cameleon-like life and attachment to Sydney Harbour.
Brett Whiteley will forever be linked, in a small way, to Thirroul. He walked its streets and roamed along its beaches. He brought fish and chips and heroin there. He died there. But he also drew and painted there and, as he said to the landlord of the Beach Motel in an off-hand conversation prior to his death, “It really is beautiful down here.” Whiteley found peace at Thirroul, both in life and (according to his sister) in death.
Portrait of D.H. Lawrence 1975
Oil, collage and mixed media.
Two panels, each 102 x 81cm. Right panel and part of left panel painted by Brett Whiteley; left panel by Garry Shead.
Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 1979. Illustrated McGrath pp.132-3 (colour).
South Coast after the Rain 1984
Oil and collage on canvas
137 x 122 cm
Signed upper left in black ink ‘Brett Whiteley’ and lower left in black ink ‘The South Coast, June 1984.’ Private Collection, Melbourne. Illustrated Pearce et al., plate 104 (colour). Exhibited Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1984. Awarded Wynne Prize.
Tryptich, oil and collage on canvas
Inscription top left. Signed lower right ‘B. Whiteley 16/12/1988’. Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Darroch, Robert, D.H. Lawrence in Australia, Macmillan, 1981.
Davis, Joseph, D.H. Lawrence in Thirroul, Collins, 1989.
Davis, Ione and Davis, Joseph, The Road to Wollongong, exhibition catalogue, Wollongong Art Gallery, 26 June -11 November 2015.
Ellicott, John, ‘Whiteley’s Thirroul’, Illawarra Mercury, 31 October 2009.
Hawley, Janet, Encounters with Australian Artists, University of Queensland Press, 1993, 181p.
Hilton, Margot and Blundell, Graeme, Brett Whiteley : an unauthorised life, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, 321p.
Hopkirk, Frannie, Brett – a portrait of Brett Whiteley by his sister, Alfred A. Knopf, Sydney, 1996, 453p.
McGrath, Sandra, Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, 1979, 232p.
—–, Brett Whiteley, Series: Imprint Lives, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1992, 204p.
Moses, John, ‘Archibald winners celebrate as losers fill the basement,’ Weekend Australian, 15 December 1984.
26 June 2015