Jenolan Caves

No Ordinary Boy

July 6, 2021

Seventy-two years ago, in July 1949, a 10-year-old boy came to visit Jenolan Caves with his parents, his sister and some family friends. They explored the Elder Cave and the Lucas Cave and they stayed the night in Caves House [i]. Jenolan was extremely popular with families and the boy was a boarder at The Scots School in nearby Bathurst. But this was no ordinary boy.

The boy’s family lived in Longueville, Sydney, where his father was involved in the reproduction of paintings [ii], and where renowned portrait and landscape artist, Sir William Dobell, often visited.  The boy had already won his first art prize at the age of 7 – First Prize at the Bathurst Show in the Young Painters division.[iii]

Soon after, he asked his mother to find him a second-hand easel, and books on the works of Augustus John and Jacob Epstein. He was determined to discover the secrets of how the most famous artists made their talent shine above that of others.[iv]

This is how the boy described discovering, at the age of sixteen, a book about Van Gogh, “I picked up the book and studied it – it completely changed my way of seeing. The immediate effect was a heightening of reality in that everything I looked at took on an intensity . . . I remember having this very, very powerful sense that my destiny was to completely give myself to painting.”[v]

But Brett Whiteley did not become Australia’s most famous abstract/surrealist painter overnight. 

Brett Whiteley's 'Untitled Red Painting' - 1960

Success Began Overseas

In the beginning, in 1956, he got a job in commercial art, with an advertising agency. But in 1960, he left for Italy, on an art scholarship.

Brett and his fiancé then went to London, where his abstract painting, Untitled Red Painting, was bought by the Tate Gallery. He was the youngest living artist whose work they had ever purchased.[vi]

By the mid-1960s, he had won many prizes and was regarded as one of the best young painters in England and Australia.

Brett Whiteley's painting, 'American Dream' - 1969In 1967, Brett and his wife, Wendy, left for New York. According to biographer, Barry Pearce, “His American interlude came to an end with the creation of the vast multi-panelled The American Dream (1969). This work, which his dealer refused to exhibit, contained much anger and frustration, coming partly from a futile desire to change society—which he saw as sliding into insanity—and reflecting disintegration in his domestic life. Alcohol and drugs may have promised enhanced perception, but their influence was beginning to shadow his existence.”

Brett Whiteley's 'Self Portrait' - Archibald Prize Winner 1976

In 1975, fellow artist, Donald Friend, said of Brett Whiteley, “His paintings are like wonderful glimpses of the world seen through holes in the death-wish. The tendency toward self-destruction has been an important part of his make-up as an artist for a long time – ten or twelve years at least, since first he was a Wonder Boy.”[vii]

Accolades at Home

In 1976 Brett won the Archibald Prize and the Sir John Sulman Prize, in 1977 the Wynne Prize, and in 1978 all three. He won the Wynne Prize again in 1984.

The aim of including pain and discord in his work was to jolt the minds of his viewers out of complacency. One of his many self-portraits showing himself as a simian beast savaged by heroin, won the Archibald Prize in 1978.

Brett Whiteley's 'Summer at Carcoar' - Wynne Prize 1978

But, he also painted many beautiful works like Summer at Carcoar (Wynne Prize, 1978), and bird paintings, which suggests he identified joyously with nature.

In the words of art reviewer, Tony Thomas, “Brett Whiteley exploited his prodigious talents by living life to the full, depending on a heady mix of alcohol, heroin and sex for inspiration. Although his life was shortened, he was able to achieve a lasting body of work that elevates him beyond his outstanding fame as an Australian painter, into the pantheon of great artists of the 20th Century. He died of a heroin overdose in June 1992 in New South Wales at the age of 55.”[viii]

$6.136 Million Painting

Recently, in November, 2020, one of Brett Whiteley’s paintings, 'Henri’s Armchair', became Australia’s most expensive painting ever sold at auction. The NSW Art Gallery paid $6.136 million for it.

Immortalising his Name

How do we know that Brett Whiteley visited Jenolan at age 10?  Because, he (and his parents) wrote their signatures at Jenolan, along with the date of their visit, inside the Elder Cave.

These days, writing on the cave walls or formations will land you in big trouble - and rightly so!  When you visit Jenolan, don't even be tempted! Remember that signatures have their place - definitely not on natural wonders. When the boy, Brett Whiteley, became a man, he clearly proved that there are more effective ways to immortalise your name.


Australia's most expensive ever sold at auction - Brett Whiteley's 'Henri's Armchair'

[i] The Binoomea - Issue No 156 - Nov 2013, page 7-8


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