Art, Death & Secret Gardens

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Nature, the ultimate artist with her timeless rhythms, has much to teach us about natural cycles and primal urges.

Consider two women – novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1929) and contemporary muse/artist Wendy Whiteley – separated by time but joined by circumstance. Both passionate, independent thinkers, both mothers, who, seeking solace from the grief of losing a child, created gardens that have provided  inspiration for countless others.

I have lost a parent, and the pain was savage, but I can only imagine the deep anguish that comes with the death of a child, a death that seems so cruelly out of natural order.

Arkie Whiteley, the only daughter of Sydney bohemian glamour couple, artists Wendy and Brett Whiteley, was diagnosed with adrenal cancer in September 2001 and died just three months later on December 19 at 37. She had been in the midst of planning her wedding, and first felt ill while in Bali trying on dresses for the ceremony. Returning to Sydney, Arkie received the devastating news that she had an aggressive cancer. She married her partner, Jim Elliott, and several weeks later died with her mother present.

On December 10, 1890, an article in The Times (UK) newspaper announced the death of Lionel, 15, the son of Frances Hodgson Burnett. At first it was thought he had the ‘La grippe’ (Spanish) flu; he lost weight and suffered fever, night sweats and exhaustion. It was a devastating blow to the family to find he had consumption (tuberculosis), a death sentence in those days. Frances, who had at times been a detached mother with her writing pressures, took him to Europe in the hope of finding a cure in a health resort, but tragically Lionel died in Paris.

Making the garden has been kind of part of being more than just a survivor. The garden is one of the things that gives me a feeling that life’s worth living, that it is worth getting through the hard nights and the lonely moments and the sadness about the past. It’s about life’. – Wendy Whiteley on Australian Story (ABC TV)

The Whiteleys are as iconic to Sydney as the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House. Wendy, Brett and Arkie were bohemian, beautiful and talented. In Arkie’s obituary, Janet Hawley described the effect the family had when they walked into a room with their theatrical energy: hair, make-up, hats, scarves, clothes, jewellery all superbly put together to create a unique aura.

Wendy had originally trained as a painter and Brett said that he believed her to be the greater artist of the couple. Arkie had an impressive portfolio of work as an actress.

Wendy Whiteley in past interviews has said for art you need, ” talent, passion or obsession, to set your goals as high as possible. It’s about bloody hard work”. All attributes that can be credited also to her achievement with her Lavender Bay garden.

The Whiteleys travelled the world like dazzling gypsies, but their story took a dark twist with Brett’s fatal heroin overdose at a Thirroul motel in June, 1992.

And I remember the stunned disbelief when I read in the papers in 2001 that radiant, stylish Arkie – ‘Arkle Sparkle’ as her father liked to call her – had died from adrenal cancer.

I pondered the Whiteley story on a recent family day out to the public garden established by Wendy Whiteley at Lavender Bay on Sydney Harbour.

Mulling over the pain and grief, Wendy pushed deep into the rich soil underfoot, her mourning processed into clearing the rubbish from the ramshackle plot of land.

It’s difficult to imagine that this was once a wilderness of blackberry vines, discarded rubbish and lantana. Arkie, who loved Lavender Bay and the garden project, gave Wendy bangalow palms to plant there. Spurred on by the memory of how much Arkie loved the land, Wendy and her gardeners – brought in after Wendy injured herself working solo – dragged out rusted car bodies, mattresses and fridges. They began landscaping the area with sandstone rubble and old railway sleepers. Wendy felt driven to keep going and described herself as being a fanatic.

The garden, the studio, friendships, somebody’s life, are all those things that keep you going. I don’t feel any great urge to actually paint again. I want to just go and be the mad old bag lady in the garden. I love the fact that Arkie participated in it a bit and loved it. Sometimes I suddenly realise I’m talking about her or Brett or anybody else in my life as though they’re still alive. And in a way they still are. And then you realise that they’re not there anymore, except in your memory. Or in your bones. In Arkie’s case, she’ll always be there. And in Brett’s case, he’ll always be there in part of me.’ – Wendy Whiteley on Australian Story (ABC TV)

Wendy Whiteley's Garden, Lavender Bay, Sydney
Wendy Whiteley's Garden, Lavender Bay, Sydney

Generations of readers have loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book The Secret Garden (1910) because they recognise the truth within it. If we invoke Dickon (the Pan-like child of the story, who represents a nature spirit) into our lives, we will be led into a healing and transmutation unimaginable – for Pan’s gifts are powerful. Dickon is referred to several times as being like an angel of Missel Moor and Yorkshire. His body is described as smelling of leaves and plants as if he were made of the foliage. And just like Pan, Dickon plays pipes and charms all who encounter him.

In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox – a wilful, sour child with an unlikeable disposition arising from not being loved – finds her own beauty of spirit and friends when she begins to come into contact with the walled Secret Garden at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. The garden has been locked up by Archibald Craven, in mourning for his wife, Lilias, who, like Frances, also loved roses. It is a robin with an eye ‘like a black dewdrop’ who leads Mary into the garden, beginning the transformation of all the characters.

In reality, it was also a robin that led Frances into the walled gardens of Great Maytham Hall in Kent. The time Frances spent at Great Maytham Hall is said to have inspired The Secret Garden. Since ancient times, birds have represented the spirit, freedom, power and transcendence. They are a link between Heaven and Earth. St. Hildegard of Bingen (another truly passionate woman) wrote that “just as birds are lifted up into the air by their feathers and can remain wherever they wish, the soul in the body is elevated by thought and spreads its wings everywhere.”

The bird is often the disembodied human soul, free of its physical constrictions. Robins represent new growth.

Frances became affluent from her novels, an enormous achievement in a time when women weren’t encouraged to become independent earners. Her storytelling gift elevated her family from poverty after her father’s death. The Paris Review called her the JK Rowling of her day. Her plays alone brought in more than a thousand dollars a week, and she mingled with some of the greatest writers of her time.

But the pressure that came from her success also brought depression, and Frances described herself as a ‘pen-driving machine’.  She pushed herself hard to pay for her husband’s Parisian medical training and to raise her children, meaning she was not the world’s most engaged mother.

When her son, Lionel died in 1890, his body was placed at St Germain cemetery. To prevent the soil from touching his casket, Frances arranged for his grave to be walled and arched over with flowers and boughs. His tombstone inscription read: Lionel, whom the Gods loved.  Frances became badly afflicted with depression and grief. In an attempt to help herself and gain understanding she turned increasingly to her interests of Spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science and her old passion – gardening. Frances had a love of nature from one of her earliest reading books, The Flower Book. From childhood, she had enjoyed playing in gardens, just as her character Mary Lennox appreciates all that grows.  Unlike her Lionel, sickly Colin Craven is healed in The Secret Garden.

Frances rented Great Maytham Hall from 1898-1907, after divorcing her husband. The garden there shares many characteristics with The Secret Garden of the book, including a walled garden built in 1721.

In letters to her surviving son Vivian, Frances described the beautiful old walled kitchen garden. She collaborated with the head gardener ripping out hedges and planting hundreds of flowers and creating walkways. Frances transformed the ramshackle garden which was filled with brambles, planting roses and opening up terrace views with her landscaping. Here she would sit for many pleasant hours with her tame robin nearby.  Frances wrote to Vivian: ‘I have seen a great many places that interested me but Maytham I love.’

Frances’s passion for gardening was a constant in her life until her death in October, 1924.  In her final book, In the Garden, she states,

I love it all. I love to dig. I love to kneel down in the grass at the edge of a flower bed and pull out the weeds fiercely and throw them into a heap by my side. I love to fight with those who can spring up again almost in a night and taunt me.’

On our recent family excursion to Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden, I watched a good-looking young couple with their picnic rugs and wine glasses, take selfies of themselves, posing with the Harbour Bridge in the background. Picknicking teenage girls talked about the Whiteley story as I eavesdropped shamelessly. Children ran shrieking and laughing between the shadows.

The harbour sparkled with a silver blue that made my heart ache with its purity and beauty. I watched dinosaurs in the clouds overhead. I imagined Wendy behind us, on the balcony of her nearby home, witnessing people enjoy her garden. In 2009, Wendy was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the community through the establishment and maintenance of the public garden at Lavender Bay, and for her support of the visual arts.

I didn’t have a clue about gardening when I started. I did it visually. I did read the labels, but I’ve forgotten the names of everything, especially the Latin ones.  A garden is not passive, it’s alive, and I’ve had to build a relationship with it, like a new friend, to understand what it needs. I’d never made a garden before; I knew nothing about horticulture or Latin names of plants. I do everything visually; it’s big leaves against small leaves, colour, shape, texture. I don’t want a garden that’s over-neat. I have a strong vision of what I want, and I can be quite bossy with gardeners, telling them, ‘Use your eyes.’ – Wendy Whiteley

A bell tinkled from the soft breeze and from children constantly sounding it. The garden is a magical place to experience. Times undulate like the curves in a Brett Whiteley painting as you gaze out on the harbour. If you allow yourself, you can feel Arkie’s presence. For this is her sanctuary, formed from her ashes and from the triumph of a life that was cut short, but was none-the-less lived with a dazzling elegance. Both Arkie’s and Brett’s ashes are buried here in a secret place.

With her mother’s hands, vision, heart and passion, Arkie’s memory has been awarded a tribute befitting her luminous spirit. And reflected against the brilliance of the parrots, the varying green tones of the giant Moreton Bay figs, the jacarandas, frangipanis, and the shimmering harbour, her memory whispers throughout Wendy’s Love Garden. And because we will all experience grief, this is also our garden – for we all carry Secret Gardens within.

And with the ringing of the bell, the palms rustling in the breeze and the cries of children running, intermingled are the voices of our ancestors, forever calling us home.

‘As long as one has a garden, one has a future; and as long as one has a future one is alive.’  Deathbed letter by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Wendy Whiteley's Garden, Lavender Bay, Sydney
Wendy Whiteley's Garden, Lavender Bay, Sydney