Rex Whistler: A Life Cut Short

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Here is Rex Whistler aged 33.  A dashing red necktie, upturned collar and Byronic pose – yet with the whisper of a cynical smile – all suggest the confident young artist and social success that he was fast becoming.  A close friend of Stephen Tennant, whom he met at the Slade, Rex was swiftly absorbed into the heady and frivolous world of the Bright Young People – famously photographed by Cecil Beaton at Wilsford, the Tennant’s Wiltshire home.  They revelled in dressing up, and the eighteenth century of Watteau and the fete galante* held a particular fascination for them.

*this term, according to the National Gallery, refers to the pursuits of the rich and idle, such as flirting and acting out scenes from the commedia dell’arte.

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Lytton Strachey’s response to this dedicated pastime of the feckless youth of his day has fortuitously been recorded: “The night before, they had all dressed up as nuns, that morning … as shepherds and shepherdesses.  Can you imagine anything more ‘perfectly divine’? … Strange creatures – with just a few feathers where brains ought to be.” However, this was something of a consciously assumed facade; of the men in the photograph, William Walton became an acclaimed composer, Beaton enjoyed decades of success as a photographer, not least for the royal family, and Rex was well on his way to being the greatest 20th century muralist and illustrator… Rex remained on the edge of the group, ‘too poor, too industrious, and perhaps too contemptuous to spend time in a paperchase…’ (as his brother Laurence recalls in his biography).

Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum – located in the Cathedral Close steps away from the Walton Canonry which Rex rented in 1938 – is the perfect place for a retrospective of this most underrated of artists.  A retrospective of Whistler is not an easy task; his untimely death in Normandy in 1944 truncated his career just as it was perhaps reaching maturity, while his greatest completed works are murals and therefore non-transportable.  However, the museum takes both difficulties in its stride.  An introductory 20 minute film by the artist’s nephew allows sweeping views of the houses he painted and the murals he created inside them.  With this background we move on to the exhibits – only three smallish rooms in chronological sequence, but revealing such a wealth of imagination and character, as well as a formal development, that when one abruptly reaches the exit one really does have the sense of a life cruelly cut short.

The first displays some delightful examples of his youthful ink sketches.  From the age of nine, as a schoolboy hearing news of courage and carnage on the Western Front, Rex was entering imagined drawings of the these battles into the Royal Drawing Society competitions.  His juvenile enthusiasm for gory death and exotic baddies is given free rein in detailed, cartoonish sketches of ‘A hanged man after 4 days’ or of grimacing sheikhs imposing awful retribution on their enemies.  His brother’s retrospective opinion is quoted at this juncture:

“Rex’s childhood work was not charming … it was vigorous, imaginative, bloodthirsty and above all humorous…”

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And this element remains throughout his career (though the bloodthirstiness is replaced by a mordant wit with a hint of the macabre).  Rex’s career was launched, as a Slade student under Henry Tonks, by winning a commission to paint murals in the Tate Gallery restaurant in 1926.  His student work such as ‘Female Figure Seated’ bears witness to his technical facility, but it was the Tate murals which established his characteristic style of 18th Century whimsy.  The debt to Claude is obvious in the composition and framing of his landscapes (such as ‘View of Tivoli’, above), while his strong tendency towards the romantic is equally visible in Piranesi-esque sketches of ruined and overgrown Classical architecture, the formal details of which he was able to study while at the British School in Rome in 1928.

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This sketch for the Tate restaurant murals would become typical of his style, a fantastical trompe l’oeil accumulation of architectural elements and italianate landscape with a cast of inexplicable, time-travelling characters – often including the artist himself, anonymous, cycling furiously off in ‘pursuit of rare meats’, or sweeping in the shadows of an arcade that stretches away out of the dining room of Plas Newydd and off into another world…

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The exhibition includes sketches for the murals, and painted views of houses such as Ashcombe and Cranbourne Manor which testify to his joy in the landscape around Salisbury.  His weekend retreat was the Daye House on the Wilton Estate, where he stayed with Edith Olivier, a writer who became his greatest friend and correspondent; Rex painted the house and the nearby view of Wilton’s Palladian Bridge many times, this late version showing a new freedom in his handling of paint that contrasts with the precise, restrained technique of his murals and illustrations.

View of the Daye House with Edith Olivier Standing on the Lawn, 1942 (oil on board)

Alongside the paintings are displayed a diverse range of his illustrations and set designs, as well as a few illustrated letters which seem all of a piece despite the formal disparity between public and private intent.  His thank you letter to the queen for having him to stay at Balmoral (to design the new royal cypher in 1937, I assume, as the sketches for this appear nearby) is headed with an elaborately baroque design that is as adept as any published bookplate design.  Others to friends such as Nancy Beaton are framed with light rococo motifs that echo the extravagant framing devices so distinctive of his book plates.  And others still are illustrative, an adjunct to the text rather than

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simply ornamentation, another indication of the instinctive wit and humour that pervades Whistler’s art.  His best-known illustrations are those for Gulliver’s Travels (1930) and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1935) to which his whimsical imagination and decorative style were perfectly suited.  ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ is comparatively austere, though the exaggerated arabesque pose of the girl and the melodramatic contrast of the repellent Marsh King are in the fine tradition fairy story tradition of Rackham and Heath Robinson.

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For ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ Whistler allowed himself far more baroque extravagance; his interest in architectural detail and theatrical compositions are all on full display, as he leaps from romanesque arches, urns and busts to baroque broken pediments, balustrades and horseshoe staircases.  These elements asserted themselves as a proscenium arch between the reader and fantasy world contained within the pages of the book.

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And here is Rex in his uniform in 1940, after being appointed Second-Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards.  He appears quietly apprehensive, a far cry from the confident youth of the earlier self-portrait.  His future and that of his whole world was in doubt; and yet in the four years of training before his death in Normandy in 1944 he continued to design stage sets for Cochran’s revues, paint portraits of his fellow soldiers, and create farcical decorative canvases for the officer’s mess – of which his ‘before and after’ drawings are worthy of Punch.  The exhibition leaves a strong impression of an idiosyncratic imagination, and a deep enthusiasm and empathy for both people, buildings and landscape.  His was an art very much of its time – typical of that dynamism and ephemerality of the interwar years in which so many bright sparks lit up before being abruptly extinguished.  And so we are left with the poignant question – what if…?

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