The Charms of Rex Whistler

Rex Whistler: A Talent Cut Short

an exhibition at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury, England, May 24–September 29, 2013
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Council of the National Army Museum, London
Rex Whistler: Self-Portrait, 1940

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 …

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