Tuesday 9 June 2009

Rex Whistler

Front cover for the Rex Whistler Tate Gallery programme,
featuring a self-portrait of 1926.


The Warminster And Wylye Valley Society For Local Study have just acquired a programme for the Rex Whistler Room at the Tate Gallery, London. The programme is undated but is a work of art in itself, with colour illustrations and commentary for Whistler's mural The Expedition In Pursuit Of Rare Meats, which he devised with Edith Olivier and completed in 1927. The mural, featuring the 'Duchy of Epicurania' adorned the walls of the Tate restaurant.

Rex Whistler served with the Welsh Guards and was stationed with them at Codford, from 1941 onwards, during which time he made paintings on the walls of the Officers' Mess. Sadly, these paintings, believed to be his last, no longer exist; they were destroyed when the hut used for the Officers' Mess was pulled down after the war.

The back page of the programme features a brief biography:

'Rex Whistler was born at Eltham, Kent, in 1905. He was educated at Haileybury 1919-1922 and trained at the Slade School 1922-1926.

About 1925 Lord Duveen formed various plans for helping young British painters, and among other schemes guaranteed £500 for the decoration of the Tate Gallery Restaurant. Whistler, recommended by Professor Tonks, painted the room in 1926-1927 in a wax medium.

It presented a formidable challenge to a student but it was brilliantly met, and many commissions resulted from its great success. Though immature, his work showed already the qualities that were to distinguish it: wit, elegance, romanticism and an inexhaustible fancy. His later murals exhibit a subtler wit and a far richer technique. Among the best are those for the Marquess of Anglesey at Plas Newydd (1937), and for Sir Philip Sassoon at Port Lympne (1933).

He looked back to the eighteenth century, evolving a style which combined frivolity with a deep and tender yearning for a Golden Age. He was particularly inspired by the temple gardens of Stowe and Wilton. Among painters he was chiefly influenced by Claude and Tiepolo, and for general treatment he turned to Italian and South German Baroque and Roccoco.

Outstanding among his prolific illustrations of books were those for an exquisite "Gulliver's Travels", a Hans Andersen and several books of poetry. His original drawings for A. E. W. Mason's "Konigsmark" (1940-1941) hang in the Tate outside the Restaurant, and were recently published. He was no less successful as a designer of scenery and costumes for the stage, ranging from the "Rake's Progress" (1936) to comic designs for C. B. Cochrane's Revues. He also found time among other things for easel painting, advertisements, and pottery.

Rex Whistler was a man of conspicuous charm and was widely beloved. His talents present no obstacles to immediate enjoyment; yet his work rewards close study for its exquisite detail and spirited delicacy.

He was commissioned in the Welsh Guards in 1940. In the last months of his life he made designs for a film of Sir Osbert Sitwell's story "A Place Of One's Own", and his last work, painted for his brother officers on the walls of their mess, was a fresco of the Prince Regent (Royal Pavilion, Brighton). He was killed on July 18th, 1944, leading his tanks into their first action, near Caen, in Normandy.'