National Portrait Gallery historian Dr Sarah Engledow  in front of the portrait by Brett Whiteley  of
 Patrick White.

National Portrait Gallery historian Dr Sarah Engledow in front of the portrait by Brett Whiteley of Patrick White. Photo: Mark Mohell

Close to the 20th anniversary of artist Brett Whiteley's death and the 100th anniversary of writer Patrick White's birth, the National Portrait Gallery has thrown a focus on the two men's tempestuous relationship.

The gallery is displaying Whiteley's famous portrait of White - Patrick White at Centennial Park 1979-1980 - in all its glorious Sydney Harbour blues and a small handwritten list stuck in the bottom right-hand corner that caused so much consternation between the two stars of Australia's artistic scene.

The small exhibition White Whiteley also includes 11 studies of White by Whiteley in preparation for the portrait or after the painting was completed. The works have been drawn from collections of the NSW state parliament, Brett Whiteley Studio and the Art Gallery of NSW.

Gallery historian Sarah Engledow said during the process of painting the portrait, Whiteley asked White to supply a list of his likes and dislikes.

White duly came up with a list of likes that included ''silence with birdsong'', ''the company of friends'', ''whiskey'', ''sex'', ''pugs'' and ''the thought of an Australian republic'' and dislikes that included ''harsh noises'', ''the PR machine'', ''writing'', ''the RAS show'', ''TV'' and ''the overgrown school prefects from whom we never escape''.

Dr Engledow said White never wanted the list to appear on the painting and its inclusion led to a terrible fight between the pair.

''He put up with it for a while but over time as he became increasingly disenchanted with and disappointed by Whiteley - and as you know Patrick White became disappointed with almost everyone in the end, because his own standards were so high,'' she said.

White wrote an incendiary letter to Whiteley in which he reckoned ''one sees that this kind of dishonesty is behind everything you do''. Whitely replied he was only trying to tell the truth and, ''I'll just have to reset the computer and press forget.''

Dr Engledow said, ''I don't know whether that was the absolute end of their relationship''.

''But as you can see, the list of White's loves and hates is really quite banal - it could be anyone's. But when you're a Nobel Prize winner and a writer of the great stature of Patrick White, it is a bit embarrassing to have a list that says whiskey, sex and pugs.''

Dr Engledow said the studies of White were ''a fascinating insight into various aspects and phases of Whiteley's practices''.

''It doesn't so much show different perspectives on White, because he looks quite cranky in them all,'' she said. ''Even though it is an exhibition of portraits of the same person, every single one of them is fascinating in its own right. There is one drawing in the exhibition that you wouldn't pick as a Whiteley because it's so meticulously rendered and it's so wonderfully observational. It doesn't have any of Whiteley's characteristic flourishes or sinuous lines.''

White Whiteley will be shown at the National Portrait Gallery until July 22.