Reginald John 'Rex' Whistler (24 June 1905 – 18 July 1944) was a British artist, designer and illustrator.
Rex Whistler was born in Eltham, Kent, the son of Henry and Helen Frances Mary Whistler. He was sent to board at Haileybury in May 1919 where he showed a precocious talent for art, providing set designs for play productions and giving away sketches to prefects in lieu of "dates" (a punishment at Haileybury, similar to "lines" whereby offenders are required to write out set lists of historical dates).
After Haileybury the young Whistler was accepted at the Royal Academy but disliked the regime there and was "sacked for incompetence". He then proceeded to study at the Slade School of Art where he met The Honourable Stephen Tennant, soon to become one of his best friends and a model for some of the figures in his works. Through Tennant, he later met the poet Siegfried Sassoon and his wife Hester, to both of whom Whistler became very close.
Upon leaving the Slade he burst into a dazzling career as a professional artist. His work encompassed all areas of art and design. From the West End theatre to book illustration (including works by Evelyn Waugh and Walter de la Mare, and perhaps most notably, for Gulliver's Travels) and mural and trompe l'oeil painting. Paintings at Port Lympne (now known as Port Lympne Wild Animal Park), Plas Newydd and Dorneywood amongst others, show his outstanding talent in this genre. During his time at Plas Newydd he may well have become the lover of the daughter of the 6th Marquess of Anglesey, the owner of the house who had commissioned him to undertake the decorative scheme. Whister and Lady Caroline Paget are known to have become very close friends and he painted numerous portraits of her, including a startling nude. Whether this painting was actually posed for or whether it was how Rex imagined her naked is a matter of debate.
His most noted work during the early part of his career was for the Cafe at the Tate Gallery completed in 1927 when he was only 22. He was commissioned to produced posters and illustrations for Shell Petroleum and the Radio Times. He also made designs for Wedgwood china based on drawings he made of the Devon village of Clovelly. Whistler's elegance and wit ensured his success as a portrait artist among the fashionable and he painted many members of London society, including Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton and the other members of the set which he belonged to and which became known as the "Bright Young Things".
His activities also extended to ballet design. He designed the scenery and costumes for Ninette de Valois and Gavin Gordon's Hogarth-inspired 1935 ballet The Rake's Progress.
When war broke out, though he was 35, he was eager to join the army. He was commissioned into the Welsh Guards as Lieutenant 131651. His artistic talent, far from being a stumbling block to his military career, was greatly appreciated and he was able to find time to continue some of his work, including a notable self portrait in uniform now in the National Army Museum. In 1944 he was sent to France following the D-Day Landings.
During the war, he was the burial officer of his regiment, and his soldiers became somewhat suspicious of the 20 crosses he carried on his tank. He decided that just because he was at war, doesn't mean he couldn't paint, and therefore also carried a bucket hanging off the side of his tank to carry his paintbrushes.
In July he was with the Guards Armoured Division in Normandy as the invasion force was poised to break out of the salient east of Caen. On the hot and stuffy 18 July his tank, after crossing a railway line, drove over some felled telegraph wires beside the railway, which became entangled in its tracks. He and the crew got out to free the tank from the wire when a German machine gunner opened fire on them, preventing them from getting back into their tank. Whistler dashed across an open space of 60 yards to another tank to instruct its commander, a Sergeant Lewis Sherlock, to return the fire. As he climbed down from Sherlock's tank a mortar bomb exploded beside him and killed him instantly, throwing him into the air. He was the first fatality suffered by the Battalion in the Normandy Campaign. The two free tanks of his troop carried out their dead commander's orders before returning to lay out his corpse beside a nearby hedge, after first having removed his personal belongings. Whistler's neck had been broken, but there was not a mark on his body. The troop was then immediately called away to act as infantry support, so when that evening Sherlock obtained permission to locate and bury Rex Whistler, he found that this had already been done by an officer of the Green Jackets, a regiment in which Whistler's younger brother, Laurence (an acclaimed glass engraver and poet) was serving. Among the many works of art produced by Rex Whistler during his time in the forces was a fine pencil portrait of Sergeant Sherlock.
It seems as if Whistler, like many other artists in war, predicted his own death. Just days before he was killed, he remarked to a friend that he wanted to be buried where he fell, not in a military cemetery. On the night before his death, a fellow officer, Francis Portal came up to him and they talked for a bit. Before they parted, Portal remarked "So we'll probably see each other tomorrow evening." Wistfully, Whistler replied "I hope so."
A memorial glass engraving by Laurence Whistler (the Rex prism) is to be found in the Morning Chapel at Salisbury Cathedral. To see a video of the Rex prism click.
Rex Whistler Letters Reveal Tormented Love Story At Plas Newydd
By 24 Hour Museum Staff
A series of love letters written to Lady Caroline Paget, eldest daughter of the 6th Marquess of Anglesey, have recently been added to the collection of items relating to the life and work of artist Rex Whistler at Plas Newydd.
The National Trust property in Llanfairpwll, Anglesey, is the home of the Marquess of Anglesey and holds the largest collection of Whistler’s paintings and drawings, including proof editions of his famous illustrations for 'Gulliver’s Travels' and an 18 metre wide masterpiece covering an entire wall in the dining room.
The latest addition to this permanent exhibition sheds more light on the poignantly romantic tale of the artist’s unrequited love for Lady Caroline.
“Whistler’s fascinating correspondence with Lady Caroline carves out a remarkable love story and reflects the depth of his passion for her and his connections with the Plas," explained David Ellender, House Manager at Plas Newydd.
"Sadly, it would appear from the letters that any ‘romance’ between them was driven harder by Rex than Lady Caroline. Again, this is subtly reflected in much of his work.”
Rex Whistler first met Lady Caroline at Daye House, the Wiltshire home of his mentor Edith Olivier when she and her sister Elizabeth dropped in one afternoon. They were therefore already acquainted when Rex came to Plas Newydd for the first time to discuss the plans of the 6th Marquess to paint the dining room mural.
Painted between 1936 and 1937, the mural shows Whistler’s characteristic humour but is also full of love – for the family as a whole, but most of all for Lady Caroline.
This love for Caroline – who tragically married someone else – is revealed in the coded references he includes in his Arcadian and Romantic view of a coastal landscape. The romantic allusions also include a depiction of Romeo and Juliet in which the young Whistler (Romeo) languishes beneath the balcony of Lady Caroline (Juliet).
Whilst he was working on the mural at Plas Newydd Caroline decided she was going to spend more time in London and Rex designed a ‘rococo style’ petition on Plas Newydd headed paper and signed by himself and Henry (later the 7th Marquess).
Rex Whistler: The triumph of fancy
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
14th April - 3rd September 2006.
By Richard D. North
Rex Whistler's life and art seem both very present and very far away. He would be a hundred had he not died as a comparatively elderly but tyro tank commander in the wake of the Normandy landings in 1944. He was 39, and was bravely putting right a slight military cock-up of his own making, when a mortar shell blew him - externally undamaged - to kingdom come. He was a famous artist: a muralist and illustrator. But he was also loved as a man: The Times reported more responses to his obituary than to any other of the war. The National Portrait Gallery has twenty-one portraits of, and six by, him. It's a popularity which belies his seldom being given retrospectives.
Rex Whistler is perhaps best known now for works few people saw when he was alive: the murals for Sir Philip Sassoon at Port Lympne, at Mottisfont for Mrs Gilbert Russell, and at Plas Newydd for the Marquess of Anglesey, let alone smaller things for Diana Cooper, Chips Channon, Edwina Mountbatten, Samuel Courtauld and Edward James, the patron of surrealism. Perhaps images of these were around in newspapers, and anyway awareness of their existence must have created glamour. But there was plenty of other work from the very start, including a 1927 mural for the café at the Tate, ads for the Underground and Shell, and book illustrations and theatre sets, to make him more obviously visible.
His art was derived from the classical and baroque - almost anything which might have appealed to the 18th Century English aristocratic eye. That was his big joke, really: to insist that there had been a crueller, funnier time two centuries ago and one could send it up with irresponsible envy. It has often been remarked that the 1920s and 1930s were febrile because they were years lived knowingly between two horrors. Richard Dorment, in the Daily Telegraph, was right to point us at the idea that there was then also a visual taste for an age when fancy was deliberate and unselfconscious. (We owe a debt to the Telegraph: its website posts a rare gallery of Whistler's work from the Brighton show.)
I am not sure why Whistler should appeal now. It might fit with revived interest in William Orpen and William Nicholson. Perhaps it comes from interest in a day before yesterday, a time which has been imaginatively colonised by modernism, and which we want back for the figurative and decorative.
But there is another possibility, too. Much of the playfulness we see in the Brighton show was to be carried on after the war. John Hadfield's The Saturday Book, promotional commissions by Shell and Guinness, the covers for John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing series all testify to the strength of what Paradise Lost, an important 1987 Barbican show called the "Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain, 1935-55". Rex's name was amongst - and would presumably have stayed amongst - people like John Nash, John Minton and Rowland Emmett as crowd-pleasing illustrators and cartoonists. So we are revelling in our childhood tastes, or our parents' worlds.
It's not a done deal, though. Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his Sunday Telegraph review of the Brighton show, remarks:
It is hard to imagine Whistler creating art that people after the Second World War might have wanted to look at.
But then Graham-Dixon seems out of sympathy with the entire Whistler enterprise, and it's easy to see that it could bring out the jacobin in a person.
It is often said that Evelyn Waugh based Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited on Rex. Certainly, it makes sense if we then see Stephen Tennant, a great friend of Rex's, as Sebastian Flyte. The differences might be that Rex's origins were far humbler than Ryder's are posited to be, and his art less easel-based than one gathers Ryder's is. Rex wasn't nearly rich enough (though successful), nor classy enough (his father was a builder and his grandfather - appropriately - a painter and decorator) to be a serious contender in the marriage stakes he observed around him.
Rex was almost a professional Bright Young Thing. He was bosom friends with Cecil Beaton, who more perfectly fits that bill. Beaton's photograph of Rex and various others as Fragonard shepherds on a classical bridge is fabulously gaudy and gleamy, but camp beyond measure. But even as he hung out with high-born figures, he must have felt the precariousness of his position. He had a relationship with Penelope Dudley-Ward, the daughter of the Prince of Wales' "friend". But he seems to have been seriously scorched by his feelings for Lady Caroline Paget. The National Trust conforms to the common idea that he was in love with this, the beautiful elder daughter of Plas Newydd.
It all seems to have got very complicated, what with Caroline's ambivalence toward him. He was tempted by the upper-middle class actress Jill Furse, who was later to settle with his own younger brother, Laurence, until her death just after giving birth to their child. Laurence's memoir of that brief marriage, Initials In the Heart (1964 and 1975), makes a perfect partner with his biography of Rex, The Laughter and the Urn (1985). For lovers of coincidence: Wikipedia says that after Jill's death, Laurence married her younger sister, the actress Judith Furse.
The bulwark of Rex's emotional life seems to have been Edith Olivier, a much older and highly-regarded woman who was both grand and a little removed from society. She was devoted to him. But everyone else, from Duff and Diana Cooper to the men of every rank in his regiment, fell for him too. It says something that David Cecil - sociable, sharp and very grand - thought Rex one of the best conversationalists he had ever met.
Part of Whistler's fascination is that at a crucial moment he made a big decision. He might easily have had himself co-opted as an official War Artist, and we could have hoped that he would have matched the work of the likes Edward Ardizzone. Instead, he bent all his efforts toward becoming a fighting soldier, and succeeded. As he learned his new trade with the Welsh Guards, his work as a graphic entertainer went down well with his brother officers and men: he produced Colonel Blimp cartoons and murals for various barracks rooms, as well as a telling drawing of the perfect kit lay-out.
But there was serious painting, too, as shown in a big 1994 Army Museum show, Rex Whistler's War (1939-July 1944): Artist into Tank Commander. Some of that material reappears in Brighton, and it tells a moving story. It might have been called "Socialite into Soldier". The theme is presaged by a very strong though perhaps rather casually executed self-portrait from 1940: the fledgling officer is perched in his brand new uniform on a balcony overlooking Regent's Park. His cap and Sam Browne are on a chair behind him, his brushes on the parapet in front. Before him is a drinks tray. Later, in a fully military context, we have a powerful painting, The Master Cook (still in the regiment's possession), but also vivid vignettes of life around the camp, and of the kind of tranquil landscape which plenty of people then saw as emblematic.
It is the soldierliness of the late work which ennobles it, and which makes it a perfect fit with the deliberate triviality which from the beginning to the very end he never eschewed.
There is one piece, the finale of the show at Brighton as it had been in the Army Museum, which shows that Whistler's taste - though whimsical and sophisticated - also appealed to people sharing the biggest possible challenges. It is entitled Allegory: HRH The Prince Regent awakening the Spirit of Brighton and it is a scurrilous image of a corpulent figure, naked except for the ribbon and star of the Order of the Garter poised over a gorgeous nude female. It was a seaside extravagance painted to decorate a drab officers' billet in the town, and luckily after the war the council elected to buy it when the regiment (perhaps reluctantly) said it wouldn't. Forty-three days later, the artist was dead, on his first day in action, and the battalion's first casualty of the campaign. In the succeeding weeks plenty more of his fellow-officers would also be buried in France.
Photographs by Howard Coster
Rex Whistler by Cecil Beaton
Zita Jungman, William Walton, Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Georgia
Sitwell, Teresa Jungman, and Rex Whistler. Photographed by Cecil Beaton.