In his introduction to The Work of Rex Whistler (op.cit), the artist's brother Laurence pays tribute to Rex's creative versatility, and the natural charm and generousity of spirit that drew others to him in all the various spheres his life encompassed.
As with many engaging polymaths, an appreciation of the speedy and prodigious output of work so often suffused with humour has led to Rex being too easily dismissed as analogously lightweight. His close involvement with the so-called Bright Young Things of the pre-war years: a heady, hedonistic world wherein dreams - albeit of an educated, allusory, kind - were acted out as realities, has only lent substance to that impression. Amongst Rex's friends were the aesthete Stephen Tennant, the decorator Oliver Messel, and photographer Cecil Beaton; a circle circumscribed by the Sitwells and their acolytes.
However a recent exhibition curated by Stephen Calloway: Rex Whistler; The Triumph of Fancy (Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, April-September 2006), did justice to the weightiness of the artist's gifts and the value of his work as a cultural register, and has inspired a revival of interest in Whistler.
A precocious draftsman as a child, Whistler's professional career began inauspiciously when he failed to advance in the Royal Academy schools. However, with characteristic enterprise, he moved to the Slade where the tutelage of Sir Henry Tonks provided the necessary ground for him to flourish. It was Tonks's support that secured Whistler the commission to decorate the Tate Restaurant, a project funded by art dealer Joseph Duveen. His scheme, a continuous visual narrative entitled The Pursuit of Rare Meats, brought him critical and social acclaim at the age of just twenty two. Whistler was rarely out of work from that point onwards; undertaking book illustration, theatrical set designs, and decorative schemes for private clients. His achievement in every genre was considerable, but of particular note were his fine illustrations to the Cresset Press edition of Gulliver's Travels (1930) and his set and costume designs for a production of Pride and Prejudice at the St James's Theatre in 1936. He contributed mural schemes to Port Lympne in Kent, Plas Newydd in Llangollen in North Wales, and was working on a trompe l'oeil gothick drawing room at Mottisfont in Hampshire when war broke out in 1939.
Whistler's response to the war, and his artistic development during the war years, enforce our sense of his flexibility and strength. To the surprise of some, he immediately volunteered for the Welsh Guards as a second lieutenant and trained as a tank troop leader for an armoured division. He became as popular within his regiment as he had been at Haileybury or the Slade. Rather than subsiding, Whistler's gift for invention and decorative ebullience came to the fore and adjusted to the grave events at hand. Cartoons such as The Ante-Room as it Was and The Ante-Room as it might be (Triumph, cats 143 & 144), evince the zeal with which his imagination tackled situations alien to his life a decade previous. Perhaps more importantly, however, are those oils Whistler executed during the war period. These display a technical accomplishment and solidity of form lacking in the artist's early work. His sensitivity, and feel for intrinsic elegance, makes the Officers' Mess Tent (1942, Triumph, cat. 141) a resonant record of England displaced, in the same vein as Rupert Brooke's poetry. Perhaps Whistler never encountered the traumatic action that was to define a later generation of war poets, but an anticipation of new artistic challenges seems to have kept step with his sense of the urgency of real life events. A friend recalls him examining some pre-war paintings and musing: 'I can do much better than that now!' (see Whistler & Fuller, Rex Whistler, p. 15). There is no reason to suspect that he would not have adapted to the ultimate challenge of recording the bleakest moments of war.
Whistler's most famous wartime folly is his Allegory: HRH Prince Regent awakening the Spirit of Brighton, executed in a couple of hours on the walls of 39 Preston Park Avenue in Brighton, where he and his soldiers were billeted (now in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton). The decorative scheme, painted direct on the wallpaper, perhaps best encapsulates the spirit (though not the ability) of Rex Whistler. By a complete occlusion of opposing forces, he created a new world within the colourless living quarters. He could transform so much out of so little, and in so short a space of time; an assessment that remains true of his life as for his work.
The present sketch, a satirical portrayal of the elders who gazed salaciously at Susannah bathing in the Old Testament story (Susannah: 15-24), is one of a number of small-scale head sketches dating from the 1930s. Another example, depicting Dickensian-style grotesques, is in a private collection; Girl with Skull (1934) was exhibited at Brighton (Triumph, cat. 71).
We are grateful to Stephen Calloway for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.