Christie and London Zoo series

When the Whiteley’s arrived in London at the end of 1960, they moved to Ladbroke Grove, which was then a working-class district where other Australian and British artists lived and worked. Their apartment was not far from where John Christie had killed several women, mainly prostitutes, during the 1940s and early 1950s. Posing as a doctor, Christie lured his victims on the pretext of curing their ailments with an inhalant. After gassing them, he ravished their bodies and hid them in the walls of his house.

The research that Whiteley did for the Christie series, exhibited in 1965 at Marlborough New London Gallery, reflects his preoccupation with duality. Moving away from a softer ambience of abstraction, he now examined, with sharp explicitness, the evil side of the sexual drive within the human condition.

His artistic mentor was Francis Bacon; unlike the British painter, however, Whiteley invested his nudes with a sensuality underlining a new-found command of figure draughtsmanship. The Christie series was also a response to his father’s sudden death at 55 years of age, in 1963 in Sydney, an event with which he would never adequately come to terms.

Painted and exhibited at the same time were the London Zoo pictures. An essential complement to the Christie series, particularly in relation to Bacon’s caged figures, these spirited works may also be appreciated in the context of Whiteley’s feeling of connection with the animal and bird kingdoms.