Rex Whistler - Muses & The Beau Monde
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
"Jade green jerseys and scarves (I hope you don't mind) and bright magenta..."
Reginald John "Rex" Whistler was a British artist, designer and illustrator but I know him best as the close friend of Stephen Tennant from the time when they both attended the Slade School of Art under the 'absolute ruler' Professor Tonks.
"To Stephen, Whistler appeared 'plump, thickset, very boyish... with a manner both impulsive and different'. Rex's own initial impression of Stephen was that of a 'slender figure and extraordinary beauty, like a more delicate Shelly'. and it was poetry that established the bond between them"
- From 'Serious Pleasure' by Philip Hoare
And their friendship and great adventure caught my imagination. Stephen was to be sent to Switzerland with Nannie Trusler to take the mountain air (Stephen was suffering with tuberculosis) and his mother, Pamela, had agreed that Rex might go too, as a traveling companion.
There was the luggage and clothes: 'jade green jerseys and scarves (I hope you don't mind) and bright magenta...'. Rex had acquired soft brown trilby hats, 'They're really meant for ski-ing, I believe, but they look rather lovely and rakeish'.
"Stephen had beautiful suede dressing-cases made for each them, sporting their gilded initials, outer covers in canvas, and with each a selection of gold-topped bottles, each monogrammed; 'cases quite heavy in themselves, and presupposing a world on manservants and porters'."
Pamela had joined Stephen for Christmas in Switzerland and in the New Year of 1925 she suggested that the party might journey down further south and take a villa somewhere in Italy. They chose the Italian Riviera and rented the Villa Natalia on the Corso Cavallotti, just outside San Remo. It was here that Rex made an unlikely friendship that transformed his life. He met the soon to be writer, Bluestocking Edith Olivier. They met on the stone terrace that overlooked the sea and at dinner that first evening there were 'terrific arguments' about 'the love of power', which Edith and the young men defended.
Edith's home, the Daye House, in a wooded corner of the Wilton estate, became a sanctuary for Rex, Stephen and the other young men of her circle: among them Stephen's future lover, Siegfried Sassoon, William Walton, John Betjeman, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton - for whom she was "all the muses".
Upon leaving the Slade he burst into a dazzling career as a professional artist. His work encompassed all areas of art and design – from the West End theatre to book illustration (including works by Evelyn Waugh and Walter de la Mare) and mural and troupe-l'oeil painting. Paintings at Port Lympne Mansion, Plas Newydd, Mottisfont Abbey and Dorneywood among others, show his outstanding talent in this genre.
His most noted work during the early part of his career was for the café at the Tate Gallery, completed in 1927 when he was only 22. He was commissioned to produce posters and illustrations for Shell petroleum and the Radio Times. He also created designs for Wedgwood china based on drawings he made of the village of Clovelly, Devon.
Whistler's elegance and wit ensured his success as a portrait artist among the fashionable; he painted many members of London society, including Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton and other members of the set to which he belonged with Stephen who became known as the "Bright Young People". His murals for Edwina Mountbatten's 30-room luxury flat in Brook House, Park Lane, London were later installed by the Mountbattens’ son-in-law, decorator David Hicks, in his own houses.
Whistler's activities also extended to ballet design. He designed the scenery and costumes for Ninette de Valois and Gavin Gordon's Hogarth-inspired 1935 ballet The Rake's Progress.
When war broke out, although he was 35, Whistler was eager to join the army. He was commissioned into the Welsh Guards as a Second lieutenant in June 1940 he served in the Guards Armoured Division.
His artistic talent, far from being a stumbling block to his military career, was greatly appreciated and he was able to find time to continue some of his work, including a notable self-portrait in uniform now in the National Army Museum. His unit was sent to France at the end of June 1944, several weeks after the D-Day landings.
During the war, he was the burial officer of his regiment, and his soldiers became somewhat suspicious of the 20 crosses he carried on his tank. He decided that just because he was at war, did not mean he could not paint, and he therefore also carried a bucket hanging off the side of his tank for his paintbrushes.
Rex was killed on the 18th of July, in action, while his troop was heading for the village of Giberville.
At some point in the afternoon, when they were attempting to cross a railway embankment, the wheels of his tank became entangled in trailing telegraph wires. As it was a hot day, he ordered all of his men out of the tank, to wait for the wire to be cut. A few motor bombs landed in a distant field, then, suddenly, they came under attack as a German machine gunner opened fire on them and prevented them from getting back in the tank. Rex needed to contact the other tank with his command for help, but without a radio, he made the decision to make a dash for it himself. He dashed across an open space of 60 yards to another tank to instruct its commander, Sergeant Lewis Sherlock, to return the fire. This he managed to do but as he climbed down from Sherlock's tank a mortar bomb exploded beside him throwing him up into the air and breaking his neck, killing him instantly.
"His body seemingly untouched by the blast, was laid out beside a hedge dressed in shirtsleeves and wellingtons, 'looking as though he were asleep'."
- From 'A curious friendship by Anna Thomasson
The troop was then immediately called away to act as infantry support, so when that evening Sherlock obtained permission to locate and bury Whistler, he found that this had already been done by an officer of the Rifle Brigade, a regiment in which Whistler's younger brother Laurence (an acclaimed glass engraver and poet) was serving.
Among the many works of art produced by Rex Whistler during his time in the forces was a fine pencil portrait of Sergeant Sherlock. In 1943 Rex Whistler also painted a very fine Christmas card for Sergeant Sherlock's five year old son. It depicts a tank driving over a ploughed field and firing its gun. The card is contained in a decorative envelope and addressed to Master Tony Sherlock. A copy of this Christmas card and the pencil portrait of Sergeant Sherlock can be seen in a book by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil – Rex Whistler: Inspirations – Love and War.
Whistler, like many other artists in war, seems to have predicted his own death. Just days before he was killed, he remarked to a friend that he wanted to be buried where he fell, not in a military cemetery. On the night before his death, a fellow officer named Francis Portal came up to him and they talked for a while. Before they parted, Portal remarked: "So we'll probably see each other tomorrow evening." Wistfully, Whistler replied, "I hope so." His body now lies in Banneville-La-Campagne War Cemetery. Reportedly, The Times newspaper received more letters about Whistler's death than for any other war victim.
A memorial glass engraving by Laurence Whistler (the Rex prism) is to be found in the Morning Chapel at Salisbury Cathedral. Laurence also wrote a biography of his brother The Laughter and the Urn (1985).
Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations
Rex Whistler Anna Thomasson
Rex wrote out his and Stephen's favourite 'With an extraordinary cast of friends and
poems in his Anthology of mine. acquaintances, this intimate account of
"The illustrations in this little compilation Edith and Rex's long relationship is set
of favourite poems, with their decadent against a backdrop of the madcap parties
ladies and ghostly figures, showed how of the 1920s, the sophistication of the
closely entwined were the friends' creative 1930s and the drama and austerity of the
imaginations (Stephen's own face can be Second World War. In it, Anna Thomasson
discerned as another dead lover, in brings to life, for the first time, the
Tennyson's 'Tears, Idle Tears', lying white fascinating and curious friendship of a
and seraphic at the foot of one of the bluestocking and a bright young thing.'
- From 'Serious Pleasures' by Philip Hoare - From the bio of A Curious Friendship