Thursday, September 27, 2012

More of the Artistry of Rex Whistler

Rex Whistler's limewood urn at the end of the Gallery
of 12 North Audley Street, London.
Photo published in Country Life 1962.
Devoted Readers will recall a previous series of posts on The Menagerie, a remarkable folly whose Saloon featured four urns copied from a limewood model Rex Whistler created for the London home of Samuel Cortauld at 12 North Audley Street.  A exceptional rear Gallery, possibly based on designs by Edward Lovett Pearce, featured an end niche for which Whistler designed an urn that was carved from limewood, as seen in the first photo, when the house was occupied by Chistabel, Lady Aberconway.

A building section of 12 North Audley Street, London.
Image from British History archives.
White Allom decorated a bedroom on an upper floor (the next-to-top level) in the "Chinese" style around 1932 with Whistler painting a panel over the fireplace to blend with the wallpaper, but highlighting Picasso's "L'Enfant Au Pideon" dating from about 1901.  Considering it was a secondary room, it must have been a truly remarkable space.

The fireplace in the Chinese Bedroom
12 North Audley Street
with the panel over the mantle painted by Rex Whistler.
Photo from London Metro Archives.
The panel over the mantle painted by Rex Whistler c 1932
in the Chinese Bedroom, 12 N Audley Street, London.
Photo from Victoria & Albert Museum.
Picasso's painting "L'Enfant Au Pigeon".
The talent of Rex Whistler extended into a number of areas.  Whistler's sketch for a bookplate for Duff Cooper was printed from an engraving by Robert Osmond in 1931.

The bookplate for Duff Cooper
designed by Rex Whistler.
Image from The Duff Cooper Prize.
The bookplate is now used as the logo for The Duff Cooper Prize, an annual award for the best in non-fiction writing given each year since 1956.

Rex Whistler's design for the set of the ballet
"The Rake's Progress" 1942
The stage set and costumes for the 1935 Royal Opera House production of the ballet "The Rake's Progress" were designed by Rex Whistler.  Inspired by a series of paintings by social satirist William Hogarth, the colors evoke murky 18th century London in presenting a young man's fall from grace after being corrupted by wealth;  the sets and costume designs are still used when the ballet is staged. Whistler also designed the sets for a 1942 production for Sadler's Wells ballet, as seen in the image above.

Rex Whistler's design for a Neptune carpet,
a circa 1935 oil sketch.
Image from the Edward James Foundation.
One of The Devoted Classicist's most memorable of many wonderful experiences as an Attingham student was spending a week living at West Dean, the Edwardian country estate of art patron Edward James.  After dinner in the modern David Mlinaric-decorated dining hall in the converted service court, a lecture followed in the original Dining Room of the house, now used as a conference room.  Although listening, my eyes often studied the fantastic rug woven to a design by Rex Whistler about 1935, pictured above.

A toile fabric printed in a design by Rex Whistler.
Image from Clovelly Silk Company.
Textile design was another field that benefitted from Rex Whistler's talent.  His design for a toile de jouy printed cotton is still produced by the Clovelly Silk Company.

Despite the great talent shown in Rex Whistler's murals and other artistic expressions more associated with architecture and  decorative arts, many know him from his pictures of two faces in a single image that are different when viewed inverted.

Reversible faces from OHO.
Rex's brother Laurence Whistler added witty comments and published the books OHO and AHA that can can be read from different directions in 1946.

Rex Whistler's "Tivoli From The Road" 1929.
Rex Whistler produced landscape paintings and portraits of high quality, it's just that his decorative work is of more interest to this writer.

A Sitting Room at 39 Preston Park, Brighton,
decorated by Rex Whistler.
At age 35, Rex Whistler was too old to join the army, but he persuaded the Welsh Guards to take him in.  This room in Brighton that served as an officer's Sitting Room was painted by Whistler to enliven the space while he waited to be shipped out.  The overmantle silhouette of King George IV painted on paper was preserved and is now in the collection of The Royal Pavillion in Brighton.

Rex Whistler self portrait, 1940.
On the balcony of 27 York Terrace, London.
Council of the National Army Museum.
This self portrait, on a balcony overlooking Regent's Park, London, was painted the day his uniform arrived.  Although Whistler could have served in an artistic function in England, he felt that men his age should fight.  Rex was a tank commander, part of the Guards Armoured Division that crossed to Normandy following the D-Day Invasions.  He was killed on his first day of action.

Rex Whistler in a photo by Howard Coster, 1936.
According to Jenny Spencer-Smith of the National Army Museum, 'The Times' received more letters about his death in action than any other person during World War II.
A Memorial Exhibition of Rex Whistler's works was held in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from October 12 to December 18, 1960, and in Brighton, January 7 to 28, 1961.  A catalogue of 31 pages was authored by brother Laurence Whistler.

Laurence Whistler also wrote a book about his brother titled THE LAUGHTER AND THE URN, THE LIFE OF REX WHISTLER that was published in 1985.  The cover features a detail of his murals for Plas Newydd, with the artist holding a broom.

But the book soon to be published that Whistler fans are anticipating is IN SEARCH OF REX WHISTLER: HIS LIFE AND HIS WORK by Mirabel and Hugh Cecil.  The cover features a detail of the mural for Port Lympne, featured in the previous post.  A selection of books about Rex Whistler and his work may be ordered here.

A third post in this series will present people and objects associated with Rex Whistler.  If this is being read from the archives rather from a current post of The Devoted Classicist, be sure to read "Rex Whistler Murals" here.


  1. Wow! What a lucky find to discover this blog! What a dodo head I've been to NOT know anything about Rex Whistler and everything about Charles Ryder. I now have your blog bookmarked and have pre-ordered the above book through your link.

    1. Patsy Ann, although Rex Whistler is hardly an unknown in the U.S., I suppose his work was not considered advertiser-attractive enough to really be featured in magazines. Therefore, his name has not really gotten the exposure it deserved. But I am very happy to have made the introduction. Thank you for commenting.

  2. I look forward to reading the new book about Rex Whistler, which I hope will shed more light on his personal life than his brother's able work, which is in my collection. I am an admirer of RW's works across many media, and I am never failed to be impressed how prolific he was in his relatively short life. In addition to his marvelous murals, paintings, and illustrations, I am particularly fond of what he helped Cecil Beaton achieve at Ashcombe. Reggie

    1. Reggie, the subject of Cecil Beaton will be touched upon in the next post. He was indeed prolific and apparently very fast; I would have loved for him to have been a tenant if he would paint a room like he did in Brighton! I appreciate your comments.

  3. Further evidence of this prodigious talent. Thank you. I would love to find a good woodcarver here who could chisel out a perfect neoclassical urn. Now there's a task!

    1. Columnist, I think chainsaw woodcarving has become entirely too popular, but I wish you the best on your search! Thank you for your comments.

  4. Cannot wait to see this book -just love his work. Like you, I'm primarily interested in his decorative work. LOVE the building section -nothing is more descriptive of a building: brings it to life!

    1. Stefan, I am glad you like the drawing of the building section. I was so happy to find it, especially since it shows both the gallery and the Chinese bedroom. I was a little apprehensive that many would be unable to understand it, but I just couldn't leave it out since it revealed so much. Thank you for commenting.

  5. My heart skips a beat everytime I see a picture of the gallery at 12 North Audley. It has got to be one of the most beautiful rooms in the world. Does anyone know of any more contemporary photos of this room?

  6. Thank you for sharing so much of this bright light. While I'm primarily (or perhaps initially) interested in Whistler's trompe l'oeil murals, I'm always intrigued to know more about renaissance people, and I look forward to buying the new book.

  7. The chinoiserie bedroom at Number Twelve North Audley Street is surprising in many
    ways, not the least of which is its being an unlikely setting for the Picasso painting.
    Can you imagine anyone being so cavalier nowadays, as to surround such a work of
    art with anything other than "gallery white" walls, or something equally reticent?

    1. Toby, although I have not seen an image with furniture in that bedroom, I cannot imagine that it was anything but fabulous. While some decorators today equate adding one too many disparate elements with richness, it takes an expert to achieve just the right balance; not mentioning names, there is a new book about to be published that might illustrate the former rather than the latter. But that is just from a few preview images, so I'll refrain from further comment until I see the book. Thank you for commenting.


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