A prodigious talent
Reginald John – “Rex” – Whistler was born on 24 June 1905 at Eltham in the county of Kent. Described as a child prodigy, he was a precocious artist, illustrator and designer whose work has graced many of the great galleries and country houses of the land. A contemporary of Ravillious, Bawden and Paul Nash, his work – like theirs – evokes the very essence of a pre-War Britain never to be seen again.
Early years and education
Whistler was educated at Haileybury (Highfield 1919-1922) where even as a pupil he was producing work of an exemplary quality which showed a great maturity of thought, colour, design and draughtsmanship.
His genius was natural. Moving initially to the Royal Academy of Arts Schools (where, apparently, he was dismissed for “incompetence”), he later transferred to the Slade as “one of the best young artists of his generation”.
Taught by the legendary Professor Henry Tonks, he graduated from the Slade before he was 20 and began his meteoric rise almost immediately with his 1926 commission to design a mural for the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain). In The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, unveiled a year later, and still to be seen today, Whistler humorously places seven explorers in a sylvan landscape attempting to find an alternative to a life of dry biscuits.
His work over the next decade was prolific, including – as a member of the group known as the “bright young things” – a number of portraits of the rich and famous, as well as mural work for other clients. He also undertook numerous commissions for set design as well as producing some exquisite book illustrations, the highlight perhaps being those for Gulliver’s Travelsand Andersen’s Fairy Tales.
Whistler also enjoyed success as a commercial artist, including work for Wedgwood, the Staffordshire pottery concern. In particular, he was among a number of artists commissioned to produce a range of iconic posters for Royal Dutch Shell; his Vale of Aylesbury in particular a bucolic evocation of an English summer.
Whistler’s reputation ensured he was always in demand. Influenced in particular by Poussin, his landscape work – a blend of classical draughtsmanship with contemporary nuance – resulted in commissions from wealthy individuals in country house society seeking novel additions to their homes.
One of these was the Marquess of Anglesey who, in 1936, commissioned Whistler to paint the murals at Plas Newydd near Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, which is now owned by the National Trust.
Considered his masterpiece, these famous murals includes a stunning landscape of a harbour against a dramatic backdrop of Snowdonia, 58 feet long. The murals are also notable for their cameos, including one of Whistler himself, sweeping the floor.
A particular feature of this period of his life was his involvement with the Marquess’ 23-year-old daughter, Lady Caroline Paget. It is believed that Whistler’s love for her was not reciprocated; his portraits of her exude a passionate intensity as mesmeric today as when his paint first brushed the canvas in the secluded privacy of his studio all those years ago.
Death in France
When war began in 1939, Whistler’s diverse talents and portfolio may have worked against him; unlike many of his contemporaries he was not commissioned as a war artist. Irrespective of this, he became a lieutenant in the British army and carried his brushes with him on his travels.
In 1945, the day after the D-Day landings, his Cromwell tank was caught up in barbed wire and brought under heavy machine gun fire. On exiting the tank to warn others, he was hit by a mortar round and died instantly. He was just 39.
There is no doubt that Whistler was a hugely talented artist. However, some have argued that his willingness to explore several genres, in addition to working on subjects which today might appear kitsch, may have ultimately counted against him.
Whereas Ravillious (who also died young in the war) developed a consistent style, Whistler chose to experiment and was often irreverent in his approach. Some, such as Cecil Beaton, declared that he was almost his own worst enemy in terms of success.
But for many these foibles are part of his charm and in no way detract from his genius, Whistler is now recognised as one of Britain’s great pre-war artists and his work is highly collectible when it comes to market.
Had he survived the war, it is easy to imagine him playing an active part in the blossoming of British talent and design which so defined the post war decades.