I went to see Cecil Beaton’s war photographs at the Imperial War Museum on Monday, and then yesterday I went to see the Rex Whistler exhibition at Colefax and Fowler. The venues could not be more different – Beaton at War in a modern exhibition space that leads you round a sort of chronological trail, almost all monochrome until the theatre designs and posters that form a postscript; Rex Whistler in a sumptuous yellow drawing room on Brook Street, the framed landscape murals looking as if they have always hung either side of the fireplace, the portraits elegantly at home in the window embrasure, and the copies of other works pinned to screens upholstered in toile de jouy. And their respective art forms are equally distinctive, the modern art of photography versus the traditional arts of mural painting and book illustration. Yet Beaton and Whistler were both members of the same clique of Bright Young People that formed around Stephen Tennant, both were photographed posing in eighteenth century costume at Wilsford, and both seem to owe an enormous debt to Fragonard and the Rococo in their fanciful early endeavours. Here is Whistler’s painting of the Dudley Ward sisters, the artist in a cameo role as a satyr spouting water while staring laciviously at the beautiful Penelope.
Meanwhile, Beaton was arranging Edith Sitwell in romantic contrapposto before a tapestry woven with a Watteauesque arcadian scene.
Once the war took over, each changed accordingly and arguably became richer as an artist for the realism and compassion that they achieved in their respective work. Beaton abandons the elaborate theatrical backdrops of his early portraits, the fantasies that turned Stephen Tennant into Prince Charming and Baba Beaton into a Shooting Star. His photographs of ship building on the Tyne, WAAF training, and of soldiers and officials in Cairo and Libya, India and China are piercingly real. There is an informality and a deep humanity to these pictures, the glance of an anonymous figure conveying all the complex emotions of the individual thrust into the destructive maelstrom of war. Moments of camaraderie are captured and the mundane appears imbued with purpose in the struggle for the fate of nations.
And Whistler left behind the Firbank-esque charms and idiosyncrasies of ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ to produce frank and moving portraits of himself and his fellow officers, and of their life in the training camps. His self-portrait in his new uniform is a haunting elegy to a life that was to be cut short four years later.