Rex Whistler was the son of Henry and Helen Frances Mary Whistler. He was sent to board at Haileybury in May 1919 where he showed a precocious talent for art, providing set designs for play productions and giving away sketches to prefects in lieu of "dates" (a punishment at Haileybury, similar to "lines" whereby offenders are required to write out set lists of historical dates).
After Haileybury the young Whistler was accepted at the Royal Academy but disliked the regime there and was "sacked for incompetence". He then proceeded to study at the Slade School of Art where he met The Honourable Stephen Tennant, soon to become one of his best friends and a model for some of the figures in his works. Through Tennant, he later met the poet Siegfried Sassoon and his wife Hester, to both of whom Whistler became very close. (Picture: The Honourable Stephen Tennant)
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 perhaps most notably, for Gulliver's Travels) and mural and trompe l'oeil painting. Paintings at Port Lympne (now known as Port Lympne Wild Animal Park), Plas Newydd and Dorneywood amongst others, show his outstanding talent in this genre. During his time at Plas Newydd he may well have become the lover of the daughter of the 6th Marquess of Anglesey, the owner of the house who had commissioned him to undertake the decorative scheme. Whister and Lady Caroline Paget are known to have become very close friends and he painted numerous portraits of her, including a startling nude. Whether this painting was actually posed for or whether it was how Rex imagined her naked is a matter of debate.
His most noted work during the early part of his career was for the Cafe at the Tate Gallery completed in 1927 when he was only 22. He was commissioned to produced posters and illustrations for Shell Petroleum and the Radio Times. He also made designs for Wedgwood china based on drawings he made of the Devon village of Clovelly. Whistler's elegance and wit ensured his success as a portrait artist among the fashionable and he painted many members of London society, including Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton and the other members of the set which he belonged to and which became known as the "Bright Young Things".
When war broke out, though he was 35, he was eager to join the army. He was commissioned into the Welsh Guards as Lieutenant 131651. 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. In 1944 he was sent to France following the D-Day Landings. (picture: A nude of Lady Caroline Paget painted by Rex Whistler and in the collection at Plas Newydd)
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, doesn't mean he couldn't paint, and therefore also carried a bucket hanging off the side of his tank to carry his paintbrushes.
In July he was with the Guards Armoured Division in Normandy as the invasion force was poised to break out of the salient east of Caen. On the hot and stuffy 18 July his tank, after crossing a railway line, drove over some felled telegraph wires beside the railway, which became entangled in its tracks. He and the crew got out to free the tank from the wire when a German machine gunner opened fire on them, preventing them from getting back into their tank. Whistler dashed across an open space of 60 yards to another tank to instruct its commander, a Sergeant Lewis Sherlock, to return the fire. As he climbed down from Sherlock's tank a mortar bomb exploded beside him and killed him instantly, throwing him into the air. He was the first fatality suffered by the Battalion in the Normandy Campaign. The two free tanks of his troop carried out their dead commander's orders before returning to lay out his corpse beside a nearby hedge, after first having removed his personal belongings. Whistler's neck had been broken, but there was not a mark on his body. The troop was then immediately called away to act as infantry support, so when that evening Sherlock obtained permission to locate and bury Rex Whistler, he found that this had already been done by an officer of the Green Jackets, 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. (picture: Rex Whistler 1940 self portrait)
It seems as if Whistler, like many other artists in war, 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, Francis Portal came up to him and they talked for a bit. Before they parted, Portal remarked "So we'll probably see each other tomorrow evening." Wistfully, Whistler replied "I hope so."
A memorial glass engraving by Laurence Whistler (the Rex prism) is to be found in the Morning Chapel at Salisbury Cathedral.
Burial: Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery, Basse-Normandie Region, France, Plot: III. F. 22.
London Interiors: From the Archives of Country Life by John Cornforth
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Aurum Press (April 1, 2000)
Amazon: London Interiors: From the Archives of Country Life
London's historic houses and domestic interiors have suffered greater loss and change than most of their provincial counterparts due to political and social change, war, and a tradition of continuous rebuilding. The photographic archive accumulated over the past century by the magazine Country Life forms a remarkable and evocative record of houses as they were. In this latest collection, the vanished magnificence of the great 18th-century houses of the aristocracy, from the glamorous Rococo interiors of Norfolk House to the Gothic Pomfret Castle. Other houses are seen at key moments in their history: Robert Adam's Home House occupied by Samuel Courtauld and his celebrated collection of Impressionist masterpieces; the monumental Classical interiors of Dorchester House, photographed shortly before they were swept away. In addition to many images of spectacular turn-of-the-century opulence, the book also reflects fashionable taste between the wars: Lady Diana Cooper's bathroom, Chips Channon's staggering dining room, and Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten's elegant apartment.
More Artists at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
More Designers at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
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