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Whiteley, Arkie (1964–2001)

by Janet Hawley

Arkie Whiteley with her grandmother, by John Immig, 2001

Arkie Whiteley with her grandmother, by John Immig, 2001

National Library of Australia, 25439368

Janet Hawley reflects on Arkie Whiteley, the passionate daughter of famous parents who triumphed in defining her own happiness.

The day after Brett Whiteley's death, at the age of 53 in 1992, his daughter Arkie flew back to Sydney from London and searched the artist's studio for his funny little black hat with the frangipani on the front.

"It's Brett's good luck hat, he didn't like to go anywhere strange without it. He'll be cremated wearing it," she explained, clear blue eyes pooling with tears.

Arkie Whiteley looked very beautiful, very sad and wise beyond her then 26 years.

She was that modern phenomenon, the only child of superstar parents, the turbulent and highly talented Brett and Wendy Whiteley.

Arkie completed the complex Whiteley triptych, and for a long swathe of time, they were the art world's rock star royalty.

They made a stunning threesome. When Brett, Wendy and Arkie walked into a gallery, the effect was like an instant art installation. The glamour, style, theatricality, the hair, make-up, hats, scarves, clothes, jewellery all superbly put together to create a unique aura. It worked. The energy in a room changed when the Whiteleys made their entrance.

They loved the limelight, then complained when their privacy was invaded but that was all part of a dichotomy of life that Brett passionately believed in, and which Wendy and Arkie so well understood.

To most minds Arkie, the young blonde-haired moppet, carried a huge amount of baggage, along with the advantages she also clearly enjoyed.

Everyone knew she was the child of two heroin-addicted parents, whose immense tandem addiction and struggle to overcome it was an ongoing saga.

Arkie had a long, determined, indeed heroic struggle to carve out her own identity and focus. She succeeded amazingly well, all things considered. Brett was always hugely proud of his "Arkle Sparkle", and father and daughter always adored each other, through the pain and pleasure.

"There was a great beam shining between us," said Arkie.

Arkie was one of the strong personalities in the tight-knit Whiteley clan, which forever seemed to be feuding with intensity, then forgiving and loving with equal intensity. "We're all control freaks," Brett used to say, "Ark, Wendy, me, Ning [his mother Beryl] and all the Whiteley women."

The day after the hat search, at a wake for Brett held in the Whiteleys's Lavender Bay home, I spent several hours talking with Arkie and she gave the most candid interview about her life.

Not long after, she seemed continually caught up in endless dramas, the traumatic law case over her father's will, another case over a book, more family splits. Probably as a survival tactic, she became wary and aloof in her dealings with many people, trusting only a small inner core, meanwhile trying to pursue her acting career, regularly flying between her homes in London and Sydney.

In the last year, according to her grandmother, Beryl Whiteley, Arkie had finally found a sense of completeness and happiness, and her life seemed to be coming together brilliantly. She was working enthusiastically in the Brett Whiteley Studio, cataloguing all the works and setting up a Web site.

"She looked ravishingly beautiful, she was deeply in love with Jim Elliott and couldn't wait to be married and have a baby." Jim is the son of Dr Peter Elliott, a Sydney gynaecologist and well-known art collector, who has a major collection of Whiteleys. Both father and son knew Brett well.

"Arkie and Jim went on a pre-honeymoon trip to Europe, then two months ago she was in the resort Jim owns in Bali, trying on dresses to wear at her wedding, and felt ill," explained Beryl.

"She flew back to Sydney, went into hospital and they discovered she had three cancers, in both lungs and liver, but couldn't initially find the primary, which was in the adrenal gland.

"She had an operation and chemotherapy and remained very positive and brave, but it was all swept away from her."

Arkie and Jim married and two weeks later Arkie died in her Palm Beach house, aged just 37, surrounded by family and friends, and her father's paintings.

Yesterday, yet another wake was held in the Lavender Bay home and Wendy Whiteley, a stoic, tragic figure among supportive friends, talked about the loss of her daughter.

"Arkie was the multi-faceted jewel of my life. She was complex and feisty. She could be argumentative, extremely stubborn, then so caring, loving, innocent and so vulnerable almost a split second later.

"Sometimes people would say, 'she's so like Brett'. Other times it would be, 'she's so like you it's unbelievable'. But Arkie was very much her own person.

"Arkie loved Brett, but she got extremely angry with him from time to time, and the same applied with me.

"She could be funny and sad she kinda had both sides going at once, almost to the end.

"She was very aware of what was happening and the speed of it was just so incredible. It ran us all over like a train.

"It was summer, she was so happy with her life, everything seemed to be resolved and she was moving forward. Then this shock.

"But she struggled to be open, and honest, to show kindness towards all her friends who came out to see her [and] flew in from overseas.

"Ark and I have been so close these past years; we could talk and laugh about Brett and the past. All the bad feelings had gone.

"I can't quite touch on the loss I feel. She's still here, but I know she's gone. I'm going to miss her more than anyone else I've ever known. She was a special life force, she was marching forward."

In the final weeks, Arkie, understandably, had moments of anger at what was happening to her.

"People die in the way they live, and of course she had periods of great anger, along with great outpourings of love," said Wendy.

"She remained dignified all the time. I wished she could have had one of those moments of great enlightenment, and she did in the end, because you don't have much choice, and she actually died quite peacefully.

"But it was a struggle for her to get there, because she really wanted to live. She kept on saying, 'help me get up; there's so much I want to do and say'. We were all in despair one minute, then desperately grasping at possibilities of a recovery.

"It's all been so fast. Now she's gone."

Brett Whiteley could draw with the naturalness that a bird sings, and Wendy also has strong artistic talents.

Arkie, says Wendy, was "a great little drawer as a child, but she always said there'd be no way she'd go down that art track. She decided to go into acting, so that was something that was just hers.

"Her years in London were her way of being free of Brett and me. The media thing in Australia was difficult for her. She never gets to be just Arkie Whiteley, it's always got to be 'Arkie Whiteley, daughter of...', then you get the rest of the litany which was Brett stuff, or the will court case stuff. When she went back to London she didn't have to worry about all the baggage dragging behind her. She was 'Arkie Whiteley, actress', and her own person."

At her father's wake, Arkie thoughtfully admitted that in some ways she did have a difficult childhood. She felt responsible for her ill parents and became their carer, and sergeant-major, throwing out the heroin and syringes, calling the police and dobbing in the pushers.

"People have often said to me, 'it's amazing how sane and together you are'," she said.

"But I always knew I was so loved by both my parents, and that was enough to see me though any difficulty. I have a fundamental self-confidence that comes from being loved. I feel sorry for people who've never had that."

Many addictive families lived in denial, hiding their feelings, she observed, "but our number one priority as a family was that we all always expressed what we wanted to express".

"I escaped many of the scars of a dysfunctional family because of this. We all always talked about our anger and pain and were very loving and compassionate with each other.

"I used to challenge their addiction, try to control them, try to make things better, try to help.

"Wendy beat her addiction and I always believed Brett would beat his too, but he didn't make it."

Arkie admitted that at one point she felt a compelling curiosity to try heroin herself, to understand from the inside what this monster was that had her parents in its grip and, in her eyes, made them lesser people.

"I didn't exactly know how to do it, so I smoked some. I needed to understand what it felt like. I had a sensation that suddenly there was no pain, and that I didn't really care, it didn't matter who was going to hurt you, betray you. It didn't matter because I now didn't care.

"I didn't take heroin and find it changed my life. I thought, well that's interesting, but that's it, I don't want it.

"I knew Brett would be horrified I'd tried it, but I decided to be perfectly honest and tell him. But I explained how I felt: I'd tried it, rejected it and I always will.

"It was a valuable thing for me to do; I somehow just had to do it. Brett understood and said he wasn't worried. He trusted me and I kept his trust."

Father and daughter loved each other's company, curiosity and wit.

"We used to love to walk down the street together and we'd kind of sway together. We'd hold hands and our hips would fit together and we'd get this rhythm going. The same rhythm happened when I'd watch him paint, he'd turn round and give me a grin, then keep working.

"I loved seeing things through Brett's eyes. We'd go driving and Brett would say, 'look at that, Ark, look at that beautiful sunset, that beautiful tree', and suddenly the tree became an icon, everything had spiritual importance and new meaning. Brett opened up new possibilities that you never knew existed, all the time, it was a constant adventure. He had an eternal child-like curiosity in him. To me he was magnetic, the Pied Piper."

It was typical of Brett and Wendy that their child would not bear a conventional name.

Arkie said they experimented with sounds and it came to a wordplay on Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. "Brett used to do this routine, 'einna kleiner naccht naaaaarcht aaaaaaacki akkie arkie arkie', and it was such fun,"she remembered.

Arkie Whiteley had an accomplished career as an actor, appearing in a long run of stage plays, TV and feature movies, in England and Australia.

Her own work lives on, and her father's paintings will now also become a memorial to his daughter.

"The energy and creativity in Brett's art has always been a kind of memorial to his life," said Wendy, "and Arkie was always a very important part of it, and always will be."

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2001

Additional Resources

Citation details

Janet Hawley, 'Whiteley, Arkie (1964–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 March 2018.

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