Thursday, 29 September 2016

Whiteley Woes

Once again I have proof that, in a non-fiction book, you have to research every single line ... thoroughly. Here's what can happen if you don't.

For five years in the 1980s I lived at McMahons Pt in Sydney, the promontory which frames Lavender Bay on its western side. At that time, local residents informed me that the famous Australian artist Brett Whiteley and his wife were my 'neighbours', viz: "They live in that white house with the tower, along Lavender St, with a fabulous view of Lavender Bay." 
View of Sydney Harbour from Lavender St

My house at the time was further around Lavender Bay - the pinkish house behind the car parked in King George St, partially hidden by the foliage in the top right hand quadrant of the picture below.
Housing at bottom of King George St, McMahons Pt

I've always had a love affair with this area of Sydney. Back in the  mid 1970s, although I lived then at Mosman, I was co-founder of the Cameragal Montessori School facing Lavender St.  It's gratifying to know that the school still operates, forty years later.
Cameragal Montessori School

When engaged in the research for my book about the artist Margaret Flockton, I was delighted to discover that she too appreciated the scenic beauty of this area. When she and her artist parents arrived in Sydney in 1888 they moved into a house overlooking Lavender Bay. Naturally I searched for a suitable illustration of the harbour and found the following image in a newspaper of 1884, showing Lavender Bay in the centre, and Milsons Point on the left, half a century before it anchored the northern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In the foreground in 1884 was a white house with a tower overlooking Lavender Bay. Immediately I thought 'Ah, that white house with the tower must be what the Whiteley house looked like back then.' 

View of Lavender Bay & Sydney Harbour, 1884, from Supplement to ‘Illustrated Sydney News’, 25 October 1884

Having been a resident of Melbourne for the past thirty years, I blithely incorporated that assumption into the Flockton book without cross-checking it.  And I've referred to 'the Whiteley house' in talks on three separate occasions, without anyone disagreeing with me. 

BUT - at my fourth talk on Margaret Flockton, at the Stanton Library on 8 September 2016, an audience member told a friend of mine who was present that the house I described as Brett Whiteley’s house was NOT his house. Dismayed, I hastily reverted to researcher-mode and discovered that 1) his house was not built until 1907 and 2) he added his tower in the 1970s. It’s a pity that this knowledge came far too late for me to change the wording on p 61 of the Flockton book, which says: 
A century after the Flocktons settled there, the famous Australian artist Brett Whiteley lived and worked in the white house with the tower, in the left foreground of the image. At the time of writing, his widow Wendy still resided there. 
As an aside, Wendy Whiteley has achieved her own brand of fame for having created a magical 'secret garden', fully-accessible to the public, in the formerly-derelict strip of government-owned land running alongside her property. 
Part of Wendy Whiteley's Garden
Back to my book. I would have been correct had I written instead: 
A century after the Flocktons settled there, so did the famous Australian artist Brett Whiteley. He lived in a different 'white house with tower' to that pictured in the left foreground of the image, but it provided similar panoramic views across Lavender Bay. At the time of writing, his widow Wendy still resided there.
So ... if you're a non-fiction writer, you can be sure your sins [of omission] will find you out. It's a rare slip up on my part. Usually I pride myself on devotion to painstaking research.

Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory, published by Wakefield Press, will be launched by Professor The Honourable Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO at the Maiden Theatre, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney on 17 November 2016 at 4pm. Please contact me if you have an interest in the book and would like to receive an invitation to the launch.