The news, when it came, was received with a sense of despair. Rex Whistler, brilliant creative flame, had been killed in Normandy on a stifling hot day in June 1944, aged 39, victim of a mortar attack as he was leading his tank battalion into a village near Caen.
The Times newspaper received more letters about Whistler than any other victim of the war. But the news of his death came slowly for some. It was a month later when Cecil Beaton, one of Whistler’s closest friends, returned to New York from a distant American assignment and learnt of the tragedy. He was inconsolable. “My nerves, long pent up, suddenly snapped … tears, lamentations, and hysterical cries of self-condemnation … Rex, a natural talent if ever there was one, would now never be able to develop the art of painting, which, he said, he felt he was just beginning to learn. Now his potentials were all unfulfilled, and Rex the person, suffused with effortless charm, so romantic and youthful of appearance, with his bold ram-like profile and pale, tired eyes, would never grow old.”
Of all the lives of artists cut short by the war, few leave us with a greater sense of loss than that of Whistler. His stellar career knew no limits. He was a few months short of his 21st birthday when, fresh out of the Slade School of Art, he was commissioned to decorate the new Refreshment Rooms at London’s Tate Gallery. Each scene sparkles with wit and invention but, above all, one is struck by the confidence of someone so young. Lingering beneath the surface are darker tones that inform his later commissions at Port Lympne, in Kent, and finally at Plas Newydd, in North Wales, where he created what is undoubtedly his masterwork, the vast dining room painted for the Marquis of Anglesey in 1937. The scene depicts a broad seascape, and contains Neptune’s wet footprints, as if the god has just left the picture. While working on the mural, Whistler fell in love with and was spurned by Lord Anglesey’s daughter Caroline, and perhaps the rejection is a clue to its haunting quality.
Plas Newydd was completed at the same time as perhaps the most beautiful room Whistler painted; the panels commissioned by the astoundingly wealthy Edwina Mountbatten for her flat in Brook House, Park Lane, London, built on the site of her grandfather Sir Ernest Cassel’s townhouse. “Brook House was translated from a sumptuous, but ugly, late Victorian version of French Renaissance in red brick,” wrote Christopher Hussey in Country Life magazine, “to a modern block on the top two floors of which was the Mountbattens’ flat, reached by a lift that was the fastest outside America.” America.” The flat had 30 rooms, wings for servants and a cinema. I doubt whether today’s attempts at such super-luxury in London contain anything as beautiful as the Whistler murals, later installed by the Mountbattens’ son-in-law, decorator David Hicks, in his own houses. There is a cool, brittle quality to their blue-grey colouring with metallic silvered detail; the epitome of “George IV” taste, equally shared by that other tragic war loss, the artist and designer Eric Ravilious.
Whistler inhabited what his brother Laurence, later his biographer, called the “between time”, that restless period between the two wars that was the realm of the so-called Bright Young Things, a world chronicled by Nancy Mitford, photographed by Cecil Beaton and populated by the Sitwells, Stephen Tennant, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Siegfried Sassoon and their circle of aristocratic young friends, keen to escape the cloying sentimentality and heavy hand of Edwardian society that had reached such a ghastly conclusion in the trenches of the first world war.
At once a leading figure of the group, yet curiously detached from it, Whistler was an artist who operated frenetically in all realms. He was a prodigy whose delicate confections run off the page with barely a pause for breath. He simultaneously turned his hand to book design, stage scenery and costume, posters and advertising, illustration, printed ephemera and children’s stories, as well as the famous murals; and to his less well understood landscapes and portraits, some of which – particularly those from the war years – are startling in their clarity and dark brooding. It was his sheer versatility, perhaps, which meant that while he was one of the best-known artists of the generation, he did not achieve widespread critical acclaim in his lifetime.
As the war ended, so the world that Whistler had inhabited died as abruptly as his own life was cut short. Postwar Britain was a changed place, and the sphere of Waugh and the Sitwells was shattered, superseded by a new, more urgent language. Whistler’s delicacy had little to say to a world about to embark upon the destruction of the country house, the creation of high-rise modernity, sweeping social change and concrete brutalism.
His brother Laurence, himself a famous glass-engraver, kept alive the flame of Rex’s memory in a series of catalogues raisonnés, culminating in a beautifully written biography, The Laughter and the Urn (1985). Whistler’s work, already rare, became increasingly sought after as new generations discovered his remarkable talents. Plas Newydd was bought by the National Trust in 1976, which allowed for the first time a greater public to enjoy his finest work. And so his influence grew. The publication of a superb new biography, In Search of Rex Whistler, which throws new light on to the artist’s complex world, marks the resounding reclamation of his reputation.
Whistler’s spirit lives, of course, in our great decorators; one thinks of David Easton in the US, or Nicky Haslam in London, whose richly layered creations have something of the fantasy of his vision. It is appropriate therefore that a retrospective exhibition is being held at the firm of Colefax & Fowler, the grand dame of the English decoration world. But in the creation of magical visions, of astounding beauty, wit and happiness, tinged with a darker loneliness, I look less to decorators and more to the extraordinary, compelling work of the great fashion photographer Tim Walker, also on show in London this winter at Somerset House, or to the fantastic creations in American Vogue of Grace Coddington, whose keenly awaited autobiography is published this month. A new generation of romantic youth discovers Whistler, and his powerful, mysterious imagination plays on.
Wonder walls: For today’s bright young things
David Easton is the grand man of American interior decoration, creating fantasy rooms that are straight out of Whistler’s imagination (www.davideastoninc.com).
All three, like Whistler himself, work best with clients of astounding wealth.
Vintage specialists Fox and Flyte have another modern-day Rex – Luke Edward Hall, one of the company’s trio of founders (www.foxandflyte.com). Meanwhile, Aldous Bertram will make you a Whistler-esque doll’s house to order (firstname.lastname@example.org).
‘In Search of Rex Whistler’ by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil, is published by Frances Lincoln (£40)
‘The Unseen Rex Whistler’ at Colefax & Fowler, 39 Brook Street, London W1, until December 14 (admission free)
Pictures: ©Estate of Rex Whistler. All rights reserved, DACS 2012