Bohemian Harbour

By Veronica Kooyman

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. A new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney celebrates the spectacular Sydney 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 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.

The Whiteleys return

In late 1969, Brett and Wendy Whiteley arrived back in Australia after nearly ten years in Europe and the United States. 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, who 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 taken with the house's panoramic views of the harbour and soon after secured the upstairs apartment at a rent of $20 a week. Their home became a ‘scene’ with raucous parties, fuelled by loud music and alcohol, drawing in the famous and infamous: writers, poets, artists, actors and musicians.

In 1974, the Whiteleys bought the house at 1 Walker Street 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. That same year, Whiteley debuted his first series of artworks inspired by Lavender Bay 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.

All in the neighbourhood

Whiteley’s charismatic presence and the inexpensive rents drew other artists to Lavender Bay. Tim Storrier, already a successful artist, purchased a house at the end of the Walker Street row in 1977. Storrier and Whiteley formed a lasting friendship and briefly shared a 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”.

Also 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 his time there, Tom got to know several of his artist neighbours. He left before the year was up and artist Peter Kingston moved in.

Kingston, known to his friends as ‘Kingo’, already knew many of the personalities of the Lavender Bay scene. A modest inheritance on the death of his father allowed Kingston to buy the lower level of the house at 3 Walker Street. Later he bought the top level and combined his living and studio space in the property.

Luna Park luminaries

Kingston was invited to assist fellow artist Martin Sharp in giving Luna Park 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, who lived at Lavender Bay at various times between the 1960s and early 1980s. 

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. 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.