An exhibition entitled “The Unseen Rex Whistler” at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, 39 Brook Street London will have me jumping on a train later this month. I’ve nurtured a soft-spot for twentieth-century artist Whistler for a number of years and particularly since the first time I encountered his trompe-l’oeil at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire. His murals are staggeringly skilful – not least because of the inclusion of the kind of detail that manages to “slip in” a whole new layer of subtle narrative beneath the blatantly obvious – yet it is his harder-to-come by paintings that I have really warmed to whenever I have managed to come across them (hard as that can be). Cut off in his prime at the age of 39, on his first day of action in World War II, it has always felt to me there was so much more to his art than had yet been allowed free-rein, making the title of the forthcoming exhibition seem all the more poignant.
Remembered largely for his pastoral scene in the restaurant of the Tate Britain, and for society murals akin to those at Mottisfont (although even this was a much reined-in version of the original draft presented to owners of the Abbey, Mr & Mrs Russell – his initial flight-of-fancy was flatly turned down), it is the occasional, harder-to-find landscape and something in his use of colour (even in his society portraits) and his depiction of light that has always resonated with me and made me feel that there would have been much more to come from this young artist, had he survived the war. Accomomplished as they are, there is something of the “needs must” about his mural work, his theatre designs, advertisements and illustrations (that endless pull of the need to commercialise to keep the wolf from the door that is the sway of most artists as they seek to make a name for themselves) and I would have loved to have seen more of what the ‘real’ Rex Whistler chose to paint, had he outlived the war and his own apprentice-years in the art-world. It struck me early on that there is more than an echo of “Whistler the society muralist” to be found in the persona of Charles Ryder of “Brideshead Revisited” fame (that leaf blown around on the pre-war society wind and as yet to “find” himself as an artist) and I have since tripped upon the theory that he was, indeed, the real-life inspiration for Waugh’s character.
A recent article in the New York Times, covering the forthcoming exhibition, refers to Rex Whistler as “divorced from the modern-art currents of his time” (another reason that I recognise him as kindred spirit?) and it is that very sense of him going his own way, in the direction of a calling to paint that had yet to unwind to anything like its full potential, that has coloured my concept of him with equal parts “thrill” and “pathos”; so much promise embodied by one man, dispersed to the four winds over Normandy before it had any real opportunity to know and express itself. Sobering thoughts indeed – as a fellow artist, his story amounts to so much reason to be grateful for each and every day that I am still alive and well enough to hold my brush!
An interesting point about Whistler (and, perhaps, testament to his courage and sense of duty towards his fellow men) is that he chose not to put himself forwards as a war artist, although in a sense he became one in an unofficial capacity. Thankfully, many of his war-time sketches and even paintings survive as they have been preserved by comrades and private recipients. As a tank commander with the Guards Armoured Division, he carried his art materials around in a specially devised metal box welded to the rear of the tank. Out of his troop, he was the first man to fall – on the 18 July, 1944. One of the most touching details to be found in the Mottisfont mural (which the guides delight in pointing out) is a paint pot with a brush in it, a box of matches to its side, and an inscription stating “I was painting this ermine curtain when Britain declared war on the Nazi Tyrants Sunday September 3rd 1939. RW”. If that paintbrush was meant to be left there, as though with the intention of returning back to it – in effect, picking up where he left off – once the war was over then sadly, for him and for us, it simply wasn’t to be. His great friend Cecil Beaton said of him “Rex, a natural talent if ever there was one, would now never be able to develop the art of painting which, he said, he felt he was just beginning to learn. His work was in fact undergoing a great change, and he might have developed from being a decorative painter, a muralist and illustrator into another Turner”.
I suspect there is much more to Whistler than I have already seen as his work is notoriously difficult to view, given that it is largely held in private collections. When I first searched for a book about the artist a few years ago, there was very little to be found and so I’m thrilled that he is about to gain some more attention at last, with at least some of his work made more readily available for people to enjoy. For those of us already held enthralled by what we have seen of this artist, I expect that the forthcoming exhibition, in the wake of the new book released later this month “In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work” (Hugh and Mirabel Cecil), will help to fill in some of the blanks.
The Unseen Rex Whistler – Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, W1
In tandem with the publication of a new biography, “In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work”, the exhibition will include Whistler paintings gathered from private collections and centered around eight previously-unseen mural panels.
22 November to 14 December