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    Sale 7482

    Modern and Contemporary Australian Art Including Works by New Zealand and South African Artists

    12 December 2007, London, King Street

  • Lot 52

    Brett Whiteley (1939-1992)

    Mrs Christie

    Price Realised  


    Brett Whiteley (1939-1992)
    Mrs Christie
    signed, inscribed and dated '"MRS CHRISTIE" 1965 OIL 15½ x 13½ BRETT WHITELEY' on the reverse
    oil, paper and fabric on board
    15½ x 13¼in. (39.3 x 33.7cm.)

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    Whiteley exhibited his Christie Series at Marlborough New London Galleries in the autumn of 1965, alongside his Zoo Series. The exhibition was his third one-man show in London, following his Bathroom Series exhibited at Marlborough in April-May 1964 and his Paintings and Gouaches exhibition at Matthiesen Gallery in March 1962. The Christie Series, inspired by the proximity of the macabre events to his first London studio, his reading of Ludovic Kennedy's Ten Rillington Place, first published in 1961, and certainly prompted by the death of his own father in 1963, sees Whiteley's first examination of the evil side of the human condition: the contrary side of the sexuality that had driven the sensual landscapes and nudes of his first two London shows. As Whiteley would comment later: 'All the works I have made in the last four years have been concerned one way or another with sex and the desire to record sensual behaviour.'

    The Marlborough show saw both the Christie pictures (and in particular the present head of Mrs Christie) and the Zoo Series works, with their caged animals, acknowledging the influence of Francis Bacon. Whiteley's Mrs Christie, Christie's wife and final victim, -- a smaller companion to the powerful portrait of Christie (previously in the Harold E. Mertz Collection; Christie's Melbourne, 28 June 2000, lot 90) -- appears to borrow from both Bacon and Sidney Nolan, both artists befriended by Whiteley in London in the early 1960s, as Whiteley characteristically scavenged and cannibalised in the search to give his difficult new subject matter arresting form.

    The composition of Mrs Christie, a head-shape against a plain background, echoes Nolan's famous Moonboy or Boy and the Moon (1940), which, if Whiteley had not known previously, famously rose again in London in Nolan's set design for Macmillan's 1962 production of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at Covent Garden.

    Of Whiteley's endeavours, exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery in 1965, the critic John Russell wrote: 'The paintings themselves are carried out in an eclectic idiom which skates across the top of the matter in hand. Whiteley the perservering student of a detestable subject is continually overwhelmed by Whiteley the Australian wonder whose charm, bluff, cheek and astute raiding of idioms from all over (Bonnard to Bacon) empower him (literally, in this case) to get away with murder.' ('Brain, brawn and blood', Sunday Times, London, 17 Oct. 1965)

    Whiteley had come to London from Italy at the end of 1960. 'When Whiteley first arrived in London, he took a studio in Ladbroke Grove, a mere 50 yards from Rillington Place -- the street where Reginald Christie lived and where, between 1943 and 1953, he murdered seven women and a child. 'I got interested in Christie then, about 1961 I suppose. It was a general contemplation of that aspect of London -- the mixup of races, the asphalt pimping sort of Ladbroke Grove beer-bottle stuff, the violence of London. I feel very sad for a man like Christie. He crystallises the life around him. And life on that level is very banal. I know, I drank with the people who knew Christie -- the brother of one of the girls he killed, Kathleen Maloney, for instance. I think Christie became important to me because the world can no more control his madness than the world can control his energies. ...' Whiteley began painting Christie in 1964. It seemed an odd choice on the face of it, an odd choice for a young man with no vision of evil. His previous paintings, the nudes in the bath, had been suffused with a radiant, and optimistic, sensuality. ... Whiteley had summed up his debts to Piero della Francesca and Matisse, and turned them into supremely handsome objects.

    'But "I lost interest in handsome paintings", he says. "I wanted a contradictory image -- one that would carry changes in style and focus, even within the same painting. ..."

    '... The aesthetics of murder: five whores die so that Whiteley might work his way through Jasper Johns and Francis Bacon. If you think that art is documentation, you may agree with the "Observer's" art critic, Nigel Gosling, that Whiteley's use of Christie as a subject "hardly rose above the level of journalism". But as a comment on the paintings, and their desolution of aesthetic problems, that line is grotesquely unfair. The fact that Whiteley could take a subject so loaded with journalistic associations, and turn it into art, is the measure of his power for transformation. His show was patchy, a bit capricious sometimes, but alive with promise and achievement.' (R. Hughes, op. cit. p.41)

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    Pre-Lot Text


    'I first met Whiteley in August, 1964, in London. We had arranged to meet in an august club in St James's Street. It was a disastrously wrong rendezvous. The place is a caricature of English clubland. On all sides, one may see the inert bodies of members settling, like old houseboats on mudflats, into the leather armchairs. I arrived ten minutes late.
    The hall porter met me. He looked flustered. "The secretary wants to see you Mr Hughes," he intoned. As if on cue, the secretary came hurrying down the stairs. "There is a person," he said, enunciating the noun as if with tongs, "waiting for you in the bar."
    Yes, I said, that would be Mr Whiteley, a celebrated painter from Australia.
    "I don't care who he is," the secretary snapped. "I want him out of here straight away."
    "Just go and 'ave a look at him," the secretary went on relentlessly, his voice slipping under the emotional stress and exposing a streak of Liverpool. "We cannot permit this sort of thing in this club. Rule 27: Members and their guests must at all times be properly attired and conduct themselves with -- "
    I plunged through the swing doors into the bar, a high, hushed room with pinstripe suits, glossy collars and pink, stiff faces, all swollen in disapproval. By himself, in the middle of the room, in a leather chair -- I was reminded of the instant in a Western where William S. Hart starts fingering his gun and everyone in the saloon backs along the wall -- sat Brett Whiteley. He was dressed in an old blue cotton work-coat, a pair of patched trousers with wide yellow and black stripes, a shirt with no collar and a pair of battered suede winklepickers. He had a fuzz of red hair and he hadn't shaved for two days: and this, combined with the brightness of his eye, gave him the look of a small, pugnacious hedgehog.
    "Hi man," he said affably. "Hey, I had a couple of Scotches and told the barman to put them on your bill, while I was waiting. This," his gesture included the room and its occupants, "is quite a scene, dad, thought you meant a jazz club. Can we talk here?"
    I mumbled something about a pub nearby. He got up. The pinstripes glared at us. "Like this coat?" Brett asked me. "I got a French railway porter to flog it to me on the way through Paris last year."
    The aged hall porter opened the door into St James's Street and we passed through. It closed behind us, with a decisive thud.'

    ('The Shirley Temple of English Art? Brett Whiteley's splash in the Mainstream, From Robert Hughes in London' The Bulletin, 18 Dec. 1965, p.40)



    The Bulletin, 18 Dec. 1965, "Brett Whiteley's London Paintings", pl. II.


    London, Marlborough (Marlborough New London Gallery), Brett Whiteley, 'Christie Series Paintings and Drawings', no. 24, (illustrated in black and white), where bought by the present owner.