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August 04, 2006

The Artist as Socialite and Soldier: Rex Whistler: The triumph of fancy at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

Posted by Richard D. North

Rex Whistler: The triumph of fancy
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
14th April - 3rd September 2006
Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 5pm (Tuesdays until 7pm)
Sunday 2pm - 5pm

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.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.


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A definite must see, and thanks for the Jacobin reference. I think this theme is understated.
Very nice overview.

Posted by: fjl at August 4, 2006 04:35 PM
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