by Roderick Conway Morris

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Rex Whistler, Remembered and Revisited

By Roderick Conway Morris
SALISBURY, England 9 July 2013
Tate, London
Self-portrait by Rex Whistler, c. 1933



The English artist Rex Whistler was as prolific as he was prodigiously gifted.

By the time of his death in action in Normandy in July 1944 at the age of 39, he had created eight major murals and numerous other interior decorations; more than 100 portraits and nearly as many landscapes and other paintings; designed and illustrated more than 90 books; and had been responsible for 35 theater, opera and ballet productions.

'I have never met anyone like him. He amuses me because he has a certain gift of humor, I cannot describe it, very subtle, that touches some recesses of my mind, all hidden under a very respectful manner,' wrote Henry Tonks, the formidable professor of art at the Slade School of Art in London, which Whistler entered at 16. 'Directly he is launched,' Tonks predicted, 'he will be an amazing success.'

And so Rex Whistler was. Yet since his death his place in the history of English art has remained ambiguous, his originality has not been fully appreciated and he has not achieved the wide popularity that the skill, draughtsmanship and sheer joie de vivre of his work merit.

There are practical reasons for this neglect. Whistler was neither a modernist nor an anti-modernist, but rather a one-off who does not fit easily into standard narratives of 20th-century art. His murals and interiors are for the most part in private houses (though several of these can be visited and three of them now belong to the National Trust). Most of his easel portraits and other paintings are in private collections. The books he designed are long out of print and many are rare collectors' items. And, of course, his advertising images, theater, opera and ballet designs were ephemeral. But recent developments have prepared the way for a radical re-assessment of the artist.

Last year saw the publication of Hugh and Mirabel Cecil's splendid, sumptuously illustrated 'In Search of Rex Whistler,' the first comprehensive study of the man and his work. The monograph drew extensively on the Whistler family archive, which is rich not only in unpublished paintings, drawings, photographs and sketchbooks, but also diaries and letters.

Two years ago the archive was entrusted for safekeeping to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, which owns five Whistler canvases. The museum has raised £350,000, or about $521,000, mainly from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and is seeking £50,000 from other sources to complete the purchase of the archive.

This abundance of new Whistler material has stimulated the museum to stage a fascinating exhibition of more than 100 pieces from the archive, accompanied by loans from other collections. Spanning the artist's whole career, 'Rex Whistler: A Talent Cut Short' has been thoughtfully and attractively organized by the curator Kim Chittick.

Whistler (no relation to the American artist) was born into a humble background in 1905, the son of a builder and a clergyman's daughter, in Eltham, Kent. He had an astonishing natural talent for drawing, as is revealed in the first room of the exhibition, and was already at the age of 9 winning prizes in competitions held by the Royal Drawing Society.

These juvenile sketches also show the early blossoming of two other hallmark features of his more mature work: a phenomenal visual memory and an acute, satirical yet ever-humane wit. The former is amply demonstrated by a vivid sketch done from memory of the interior of a munitions factory he visited as a boy during World War I and the latter by a sequence of hilarious vignettes called 'Hints on Movie Acting,' a glorious send-up of the mannered, clichéd conventions of the silent cinema. (He was to have a more intimate encounter with the film world some years later when he had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead.)

The following sections of the show display works illustrating and elucidating the varied aspects of the artist's career: 'Rex at the Slade,' 'Family and Friends,' 'Landscapes and Portraits,' 'Murals and Commercial Work,' 'Designs for Books and the Performing Arts' and 'At War.'

The examples of Whistler's drawings from his first year at the Slade School of Art and a nude female study, which won the college's first prize for painting in 1924, amply demonstrate why the young artist was as admired by his teachers as he was by his fellow students, a response enhanced by Whistler's ingrained modesty and self-deprecation.

A crucial friendship dating from that time was with his Slade contemporary Stephen Tennant, the son of a wealthy and artistically inclined family. Tennant was consumptive and Tonks, the professor, gave Whistler leave to accompany Tennant on a curative trip to Switzerland and Italy in 1924. This offered the penniless Whistler his first opportunity to see Italy and Rome (to which he would return on several occasions), an experience that was to have a life-long influence on the direction of his art.

Tennant's aristocratic connections also brought his friend into contact with a network of well-to-do families, initially centered on Wiltshire, who were later to commission Whistler to adorn their town and country houses with his wonderful murals.

Tonks, a passionate advocate of the revival of the English mural tradition, vigorously backed his protégé when an artist was sought to decorate the new Refreshment Room in the basement of the Tate Gallery. Whistler magnificently rose to the occasion with 'In Pursuit of Rare Meats,' a pictorial narrative of a party of eccentric gastronomic adventurers, traveling through beautiful and exotic landscapes and climes. (The room, now the Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain, is currently closed for restoration but will reopen in November.)

The mural won the artist instant approbation and was the first of a series of such cycles and decorative schemes, the finest and most ambitious of which are generally held to be those he painted from 1936 to 1938 for the Marquess of Anglesey's dining room, overlooking the Menai Strait and the mountains of Snowdonia at Plas Newydd in North Wales.

As World War II loomed, Whistler rejected the chance to become an official war artist or to join the many painters and designers recruited to devise camouflage and other ruses. He was commissioned in the Welsh Guards in 1939 and began training as a tank commander. But he spent every available free moment drawing and painting, still managing to produce a huge range of works, from landscapes, book illustrations and theater designs to portraits of his fellow soldiers, records of their manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, decorations for his regiment's officers' mess, and even for gun-covers of tanks.

In this period Whistler's style underwent notable changes, his palate becoming darker, his portraits and landscapes more intense and expressive. In 1942, with his characteristic modesty he declared that he was 'only just beginning to know how to paint in oils.'

Powerful and touching portraits in the last section of this exhibition include 'Jock Lewes,' a founder of the S.A.S., and 'Richard Whiskard,' his fellow tank commander, (both killed in action, and both paintings belonging to their respective families), and 'The Master Cook' (J.W. Isaacs), on loan from the Welsh Guards Museum.

The artist's humor never deserted him, as his 'The Interior of the Officer's Mess: As It Was' and its pendant 'As It Might Be' bear witness. As a result of those, he was given permission to re-do the space, transforming it with new lighting arrangements, trompe-l'oeil murals and mock-heroic portraits. And his immaculately accurate but subversively comic drawings for the 'Correct Layout for Kit Inspection' must have done as much to amuse the men under his command as to instruct them.

Whistler was killed by a German mortar round on his first day of action, near Caen, on July 18, 1944. He is buried in Normandy at the military cemetery at Banneville-la-Campagne.

Rex Whistler. A Talent Cut Short. Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Through Sept. 29.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024