A Tragic Loss of Artistic Talent

Mirabel and Hugh Cecil's In Search of Rex Whistler is a fine tribute to a major artist cut down in his prime

Paul Johnson

“Edith Olivier, First Lady Mayor of Wilton” (1939-40) by Rex Whistler

Of the young British artists killed in the Second World War, Rex Whistler was the most important, with the sole exception of Eric Ravilious. He came from an artistic family. His brother Laurence was an accomplished glass engraver. Rex’s most effective training was at the Slade School, and after he left there he was given a commission to do a mural at the Tate Gallery. Murals developed into the form of artistic activity for which he became best known. He did eight in all, the most notable being the dining room of Plas Newydd in Anglesey, which he did for the Marquess. 

His murals were essentially capriccios of romantic landscapes in which he could combine reflections of his favourite painters, Claude, Watteau, Poussin, Canaletto, Bellotto and Fragonard. However, these fantasies were entirely original in their essence, and Whistler brought them to life by skilfully suggesting that what you saw on the wall was only part of a magic world which existed beyond the limit of vision. He did this, in the case of the Plas Newydd mural, by painting in each of its two corners an arcade leading the eye into and out of the landscape. Rex clearly had a special visual mechanism in his creative mind which allowed him to exploit a gift for trompe l’oeil. This enabled him not merely to deceive the eye in various ways but to do so creatively, so that imaginary vistas were always forming themselves, dissolving and reappearing in new shapes. The various murals he did for Sir Philip Sassoon were particularly effective in this respect, and held all kinds of half-hidden messages, which often were grasped only at second or third sight, or even later. It is a fact that a Whistler mural never wearies the viewer, who is always discovering new delights and secrets. Indeed viewer is not the right word: participant, rather. You wander at will in a Whistler mural, and this is their great artistic virtue. 

But he did many other things. Any form of imaginative activity which lent itself to visual expression, in paints of all kinds, pencil, ink or crayon, was meat to Whistler. He sought to give the impression of effortless facility, of a kind of inspired amateurishness. He lived in a world, and in an age, where the line between professional and amateur was deliberately blurred and overstepped, by people like the Sitwells and Lord Berners. But his work was not effortless. Quite the contrary. It involved long hours, intense application, the slow acquisition of formidable skills, and a powerful appetite for self-criticism. 

His work on books, for instance, repays close study. The first book he was commissioned to decorate, in 1925, was the novel Arabella in Africa by Sir Frank Swettenham, the Singapore Pro-Consul, best known for the famous swagger portrait of him by Sargent. Whistler virtually created the book with a frontispiece, 12 full-page plates in colour, 11 headpieces and eight tailpieces, involving an infinity of labour and minute detail, and many time-consuming corrections. All Whistler’s book work was detailed, especially endpapers, as in his brilliant supplement to Beverley Nichols’ Down the Garden Path. It was also highly suggestive, often sinister, and sometimes shocking, as in Sanfelice by Vincent Sheean, Desert Islands by Walter de la Mare, and I Am Your Brother by G.S. Marlowe. Some of the jackets are major works of art, as for example the suggestive treatment of Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen. 

Whistler also became a notable stage designer, doing some wonderful architectural backcloths and scenery for a Covent Garden production of Fidelio, the Sadler’s Wells The Rake’s Progress and the Stratford Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’s The Tempest. His costumes and stage apparatus were particularly good. He always took immense pains to get things exactly right, as in his front drop of the 1937 London production of Victoria Regina, showing Windsor Castle in a crescent of roses. The design for Lady Catherine de Burgh’s fantastic drawing-room in the 1936 production of Pride and Prejudice would have astonished and delighted Jane Austen. Nothing was ever too much trouble for Whistler as an artist. Almost the best thing he did in his entire life was the ink drawing, after he joined the Welsh Guards during the war, showing his men exactly how to lay out their entire kit    for inspection. This shows humour and tenderness, as well as fanatical attention to detail.

Whistler was killed in Normandy in 1944, almost his first day in action. He was 43. What he would have done professionally, had he survived, is unclear. But I suspect painting portraits would have formed a growing part of his output. He had always produced unusual presentations of the human body. Some are famous: The Drummer Girl, for instance, and The Master Cook. His self-portrait the day his uniform arrived and he put it on, in May 1940, is unforgettable. But lesser-known portraits of women show remarkable skill in presenting character, not least, capacity for unhappiness, and seem to me to point a way forward. 

This book by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil is a fine tribute to a major artist. The text is informative and sensitive, the illustrations are truly magnificent, and the attention to detail throughout is exemplary. As with Ravilious, we lost with the death of Rex Whistler a painter who was entirely sui generis, and who, despite a substantial and noble output, was clearly going to produce wonderful things, had he survived. 

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