In Search of Rex Whistler : his life & his work – Hugh and Mirabel Cecil

Rex Whistler was an incredibly talented artist who has only recently received very much attention. Whether this lack of critical attention was because he was seen as a dilettante, able to turn his hand to murals, theatre design or book illustration, or because his inspiration came mainly from the past, particularly the 18th century, or because he died young, killed during WWII, is an interesting point. Maybe it was a combination of all these things. I bought this beautiful book about Rex Whistler on a whim &, since then, as often happens, Rex Whistler’s name has been everywhere. I’ve found other books on the tbr shelves that relate to him & a new book about his friendship with the writer Edith Olivier, has just been published.

Rex was born in 1905 & came from a middle class family. His talent for drawing was recognised early on & he attended the Slade art school. He seemed to draw all the time. He could draw while he was having a conversation (he once kept up a conversation with several fellow students while working on a mural), he illustrated his letters with little drawings & cartoons. He had an almost photographic memory & amazed his fellow students by looking intently at a model, then turning his back & making an exact drawing of what he’d seen. At the Slade, he became friends with Stephen Tennant, a young aristocrat who drew Rex into the circle of the Bright Young Things. Tennant was a very beautiful young man who was obsessed with his own beauty & with beautiful things. His mother, Pamela, had been one of the beautiful Wyndham sisters, & had married the politician Lord Grey in 1922.

Rex was drawn into this world of beauty & wealth, centred around Pamela’s home Wilsford Manor in Wiltshire. It was through Pamela & Stephen that Rex met Edith Olivier. Edith, a friend of Pamela’s had been invited to join them on a trip to Rome as she was mourning the death of her sister. Edith & Rex hit it off immediately. Although she was nearly thirty years his senior, they had many things in common, especially a love of art & literature. The friendship was one of the most important in Rex’s life & Edith’s home, the Daye House, in Wiltshire, became a second home & a refuge to him. A new book by Anna Thomasson, A Curious Friendship, has just been published about Rex & Edith. There’s a review here & the latest BBC History podcast features an interview with the author.

Rex’s career began with a commission to paint a mural at a boy’s club at Shadwell in London’s East End. His tutor, Henry Tonks, had got him the commission & he worked on the rural tavern scenes with a fellow student, Mary Adshead. More importantly, his next commission was for another set of murals, for the tea room at the Tate Gallery. These murals have recently been restored & can be seen in this article here. There’s also a video about the restoration here. Whistler’s style was inspired by 18th century art & there’s also a lot of humour in his depictions of people & landscapes. He often included a self-portrait, maybe as a gardener, &, later, when he painted murals in country houses, he would include the family pets as well as references to the owner’s interests. He used decorative effects such as trompe l’oeil, framing a scene in a proscenium arch as though it was on the stage, decorative curlicues & swags & the effect was magical. His most famous murals are at Plas Newydd (the house is now owned by the National Trust), the tent room at Port Lympne, (more pictures here) which is now a hotel, & several homes in London.

Whistler’s friendship with the Tennants & Edith Olivier drew him into artistic & theatrical circles. Cecil Beaton & William Walton were just two of the friends he made & this led to commissions for book illustration & theatre design, at which he excelled. He was very practical about his work & took endless pains to realise the vision of the director of a play, learning an immense amount about theatre craft in the process. His love affairs were tortuous & usually ended badly. He always fell in love with women who couldn’t return his love with the intensity that he needed & could never love the women who fell in love with him. His letters to Edith are often full of the latest romantic tragedy.

When WWII began, Rex decided to join the Army, as he felt he couldn’t sit back & allow others to fight the war for him. He could have been commissioned as a war artist (although there is evidence that the Advisory Committee had dismissed him as a lightweight, merely listing him as a book illustrator) but he decided that he wanted to serve as a regular soldier. He became a tank commander in the Welsh Guards (the painting above shows him on the day his uniform arrived) &, although the army wasn’t the most congenial way of life, Rex worked hard & endeared himself to the men in his command. He was a sympathetic officer, his men trusted him & his artistic talents also came in handy. It was during the war that he turned to portraiture in a more serious way. His murals & illustrations had always been full of figures but now he began painting portraits of his fellow officers, the self-portrait above & this beautiful portrait of Edith from 1940. I think my favourite is this portrait of Edith lying on a daybed at Daye House in 1942. There are about 40 of Rex’s paintings here on the BBC Your Paintings website. Rex was killed in Normandy in July 1944, aged only 39.

Hugh and Mirabel Cecil have written a sympathetic & affectionate biography of a man who was immensely talented as an artist but also as a friend & companion. His letters are just as witty as his drawings & murals. He was never really taken seriously as an artist in his lifetime but I’m not sure that he was bothered by that. There was very little of the tortured artist in Rex, he saved those feelings for his unsatisfactory love affairs. He seemed to be moving in a new direction in his art when he was killed, maybe a more serious direction, especially in his portraits, but an added seriousness would be only natural during wartime. He may have given up on the 18th century curlicues in favour of something more modern. I can also recommend the book itself, which is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve seen in a very long time, with illustrations & photographs on every page. This is definitely not a book to read on a Kindle!

Rex’s brother, Lawrence, worked hard to establish his reputation in the years after his death, writing a biography of his brother & producing a catalogue of his work. Lawrence was also an artist & created this beautiful memorial to his brother in glass at Salisbury Cathedral. I remember seeing the memorial when I visited the cathedral many years ago, before I’d ever heard of Rex Whistler. Now, I need to go on & read Anna Thomasson’s book & Edith’s diaries which have been on the tbr shelves for several years, just waiting for the moment when I would need to read them. I have a feeling that Edith is going to be even more interesting & sympathetic from the glimpses I’ve had of her so far.

8 thoughts on “In Search of Rex Whistler : his life & his work – Hugh and Mirabel Cecil

  1. I saw a lot of cathedrals & churches on my trip all those years ago but Salisbury was one of the most beautiful. Glad you enjoyed reading about Rex.


  2. I can see I'm going to have to read this now, after having loved Thomasson's book. That image on the back is one of the few she was able to use in her book – it's such an impressive and moving painting. This sounds like the perfect accompaniment.


  3. It's one of the most beautifully produced books I've seen in a long time, Simon. So many illustrations & photos & fascinating to see how his work was changing in the last couple of years of his life. My copy of the Thomasson arrived at work this morning so I'll look forward to reading it.


  4. Thanks for this informative post, Lyn. I first learned about Rex Whistler on Pinterest while researching something or someone else. Naturally I was intrigued by the artwork. Why hadn't I ever heard of this man?

    I'm glad that, overdue as it is, attention is finally being paid to a superb artist who died much, much too soon.

    I am definitely going to add this book to my library.I'd always meant to, but your post gave me the necessary push.


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