Rex Whistler: A Talent Cut Short
After the somber broadcast on September 3, 1939, in which Neville Chamberlain said that Hitler had persisted with his assault on Poland “and that consequently this country is at war with Germany,” there was little overt patriotic ardor in England. Even when Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister the following May, and believed that there was “a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran though our island from end to end,” he was projecting his own zeal onto the British people. Their mood was stubborn or even sullen rather than exalted, certainly by comparison with twenty-five years earlier. No one in 1939 wrote “Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,” as Rupert Brooke had written in 1914. Oxford and Cambridge didn’t empty of undergraduates “joining up,” and there were no long lines at recruiting stations throughout the country.
Some men did try to volunteer nevertheless, and not always the youngest. Rex Whistler was thirty-four when the war began, a well-known painter and illustrator, and he might have avoided military service. But he “could not tolerate seeing his friends and acquaintances getting into uniform while he was doing nothing,” according to his landlady after he had explained that he wanted to leave his studio in Fitzroy Square, while a friend said that he was agitated and depressed about money: “Thinks he will go bankrupt. Longs to go to front and be killed.”
In October Rex sent Lieutenant-Colonel “Chicot” Leatham of the Welsh Guards a letter illustrated with a witty sketch, even if witty isn’t quite the word for one touch, a skull inside a Wehrmacht helmet. The Welsh Guards seem to have had a taste for unlikely officers, and Rex was no more improbable than A.J. Ayer and Philip Toynbee, who served for a time in the same regiment. At any rate, the letter did the trick and Whistler was commissioned in May 1940, when he painted a haunting self-portrait in his new uniform.
For nearly four years after the fall of France the larger part of the British army stayed on home soil, recruiting, training, kicking their heels, and in Whistler’s case learning to use the tanks into which a number of battalions of Foot Guards were put. A good officer, popular with his men as well as with fellow officers, Whistler continued to paint and draw: droll cartoons of The Interior of the Officers’ Mess As It Was and As It Might Be and of tanks pottering around Salisbury Plain, instructive, detailed drawings of how a Guardsman’s kit should be laid out for inspection, portraits of two officers who would later be killed and of the regimental cook. All the while they waited for the day when they could go into action.
He was born Reginald John Whistler, but always called Rex, in 1905, in Eltham in Surrey, and in modest circumstances. His father was a small builder; his mother was a clergyman’s daughter. Rex’s elder brother and closest companion Denny died of pneumonia at eleven; his other brother Laurence, more than six years younger, would become a notable artist whose speciality was engraving glass. Laurence’s 1985 biography of Rex, The Laughter and the Urn, has been drawn on by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil for their splendid new life, In Search of Rex Whistler. Its splendor lies not so much in their very informative text as in the book’s magnificent appearance, a lovely quarto that, with copious, superb color illustrations, is altogether a credit to Anne Wilson, the designer, the publishers, and the unnamed Chinese printers.
At Haileybury, a somewhat philistine public school with a tradition of preparing boys for the Indian Civil Service (although it also educated Clement Attlee, greatest of Labour prime ministers), Whistler was unacademic but a precociously gifted draftsman: the recent exhibition in Salisbury, “Rex Whistler: A Talent Cut Short,” showed several stylish sketches and cartoons dating from his early teens onward. In 1922 he went to the Slade art school, in Bloomsbury, where his gifts were recognized by Henry Tonks, cantankerous, misogynistic (women students were told to “go home and do your knitting”), and contemptuous toward Modernism ever since he had derided the famous Postimpressionist exhibition staged by Roger Fry in 1910. But he was not a fool. A surgeon by original avocation, Tonks’s highly practical contribution to the Great War for medical purposes was vivid color pictures of mutilated soldiers before and after plastic surgery. Just how well he taught his students to understand the human form can be seen in a prize-winning nude by the nineteen-year-old Whistler.
Quite soon Rex discovered a taste for the beau monde thanks to a fellow student, the endearing but preposterous Stephen Tennant, “androgynous, enamelled, exquisite,” a would-be artist and writer who sounds like a character from early Evelyn Waugh or Alan Bennett (“Rex did not have Stephen’s mania for partying and dressing up, and would never wear make-up except as part of fancy dress”). Whistler went to stay with Tennant’s mother, Lady Grey, at Wilsford Manor, her pretty house near Salisbury (pretty enough to be sold recently for £13 million). Wiltshire would become a spiritual home for Whistler, who was taken up by Edith Olivier, a sympathetic unmarried woman more than thirty years his senior. She lived in a house, where he was always welcomed, comforted, and encouraged, on Lord Pembroke’s estate at Wilton House west of Salisbury.
He now embarked on an energetic vie de château that might make him seem a social climber. Rex was plainly smitten by his rich and elegant friends, but bear in mind Isaiah Berlin’s thoughtful and charitable words about the kind of young man who “could not but be dazzled by the aristocracy, as Balzac, or Wilde, or Proust were…when he came into contact with what seemed, and perhaps was, a freer, gayer, more confident world.” For their part, many of his new friends were happy to know a talented, handsome artist who was both charming and able to paint fine decorative murals in country houses. Social ambition doesn’t explain Whistler’s precocious success as a painter.
He had discovered his aptitude for murals by decorating a boys’ club in the East End before he was engaged, not yet twenty-one, to paint the walls of the restaurant at the Tate Gallery (then the National Gallery of British Art). Tonks had recommended him to the art dealer Sir Joseph, later Lord, Duveen, that somewhat dubious figure who put back into the Tate a part of the enormous sums he had made by selling the contents of English country houses to American millionaires. In Pursuit of Rare Meats, as Whistler called this accomplished mural, may be the most visited of all his works.
But where did it come from? This fanciful landscape, with its pursuers setting out from the Palace of the Duchy of Epicurania amid pavilions and arches and imaginary cities and unicorns and other fabulous beasts, is unlike any other European art at the time. Then again it may belong to a national tradition. It’s odd that the English are reputed stolid or unromantic (the nation of Keats and Shelley?) or mundane (the nation of Lear and Carroll?). Whistler’s airy romantic fantasy is authentically English.
Still in his mid-twenties, Whistler painted a large panel for Sir Courtauld Thomson’s house at Dorneywood, later made over to the National Trust and now the country retreat of the chancellor of the exchequer, and a room for Sir Philip Sassoon at Port Lympne in Kent (just to remind us that England is a small world, Tennant was now the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, Philip’s cousin), a never-never land showing a foppish fellow in a horse-drawn landau holding a parasol, with St Martin-in-the-Fields behind, the Palladian bridge at Wilton to one side, and a balloon as a reminder that Sassoon was an enthusiastic aviator. There was a painful episode when Whistler, dining at the Savoy Grill with Cecil Beaton and the Mephistophelean figure of Tom Driberg, then writing a gossip column, let slip that he was being paid £800 (not bad for the time) as his fee for Port Lympne. Driberg immediately published this, to Whistler’s mortification.
He had also found other métiers, book illustration and jacket design, stage design and advertising. Some of those books are now forgotten, and sound faintly risible in any case: the first he illustrated was Arabella in Africa, which the Cecils call “a jeu d’esprit of the distinguished imperial proconsul Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham,” though it will be hard to find anyone today who has read it (or remembers that Swettenham was a thoroughly shady character who enriched himself improperly while serving in what is now Malaysia, and whose highly irregular private life meant that he was blackmailed at length while in office).
Some other books Whistler illustrated are equally forgotten, unless Cannibal Coryton by G.P. Robinson and The Dark Glass by March Cost are better known to others than to me, although he also drew jackets for Isak Dinesen and Walter de la Mare. And he was an excellent stage designer. Four paintings hanging at Plas Newydd, the Marquess of Anglesey’s house in Wales, are designs for Fidelio, and would have been unmistakable as such in the days before directors decided that an opera should be set anywhere but where its composer and librettist intended. Whistler’s Fidelio was performed at Covent Garden in 1934, and the Royal Opera could do much worse than to use his designs again. His subsequent designs for the ballet The Rake’s Progress are used to this day by the Royal Ballet. A year later he visited New York to design Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina, which ran for three years on Broadway, but America didn’t suit him.
Not only did the gifted but shy middle-class boy enter an aristocratic world; part of his circle was outrageously camp, as indeed some of Whistler’s work can seem. What with Stephen Tennant and Siegfried Sassoon and Cecil Beaton, and Gerald Berners in neighboring Farringdon, parts of Wiltshire between the wars were something of a gay carnival. Rex was aware, his brother Laurence wrote, “that his homosexual friends always held that he was one of them, if only he would face it.” He was certainly diffident with younger women, as opposed to comfortable friends like Edith. Rex fell unrequitedly in love with Penelope Dudley Ward, whose double portrait with her sister is not one of his best works, but it was the actress Tallulah Bankhead who first managed to get him into bed.
“In search of…” the Cecils call their book, and while reading it, as well as looking at his work, I’ve been conscious of searching for Whistler myself, for a long time. He is not a “great artist,” but he is a most absorbing and beguiling one, and his work cast a long shadow in the postwar years. I knew his comic drawings from childhood, such as the exceedingly clever reversible caricatures, one face and then another when turned upside-down. They were originally drawn for the Shell oil company, for whom, as well as for Guinness and the London Underground, Whistler produced numerous stylish ads in the 1930s. I saw and loved the Tate mural as a boy, and I’ve relished my wife’s collection of Whistleriana, books like The New Forget-Me-Not of 1931 and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, as well as a glass goblet engraved by Laurence. And yet much of Whistler’s best work is spread across the country, and far from accessible.