Monday, October 1, 2012

Rex Whistler's Circle

Rex Whistler self portrait.
Image:  BBC.
While the great artistic talent of Rex Whistler cannot be denied, the contributions to his success made through his friendships should not be underestimated.  His association with the 'Bright Young Things', as the group of young bohemian aristocrats and socialites of 1920s London was dubbed, undoubtedly helped Whistler's stylistic development.  As mentioned in the first post of this series of The Devoted Classicist, it started with his friendship with Stephen Tennant whom he met in art school.  Another member of the same set also known as the 'Bright Young People' was Tennant's best friend Cecil Beaton.

Rex Whistler as a shepherd.  1927.
Photo by Cecil Beaton.
Cecil Beaton was a fashion and society photographer known for his portraits of the royal family as well as the celebrities of the day.  (He also achieved success after World War II for designing sets and costumes for stage and screen, notably "Gigi" and "My Fair Lady". both which earned Beaton an Oscar for Costume Design).

Rex Whistler and Cecil Beaton.
In 1930, Beaton was taken by sculptor Stephen Tomlin and writer Edith Oliver (Whistler's collaborator on the mural for the Tate restaurant) to see Ashcombe, a derelict house that was originally part of a larger 18th century manor on over 1,000 acres.  Despite the poor condition and lack of plumbing and electricity, Beaton fell in love with the property and took on a 15 year lease for GBP 50 a year on the condition that he make all the improvements at his own expense.  Guests at Ashcombe House included many notable actors and artists such as Salvador Dali, Christian Berard, and Augustus John in addition to Whistler.

The bed in the "Circus Room" at Ashcombe.
Image from Prints Online.
One of the famous rooms of the house was the "Circus Room" with a carousel-inspired bed designed by Whistler and murals painted by Whistler and other houseguests. 

Cecil Beaton in the "Circus Room" at Ashcombe.
Rex Whistler also designed the front door surround of Bath stone.  Sadly, Beaton had to give up the house at the end of the lease (and it was then occupied by the landlord's son).  The story of Beaton's time there is recorded in his book ASHCOMBE, THE STORY OF THE FIFTEEN YEAR LEASE.

The cover of Beaton's book, first published in 1949,
features Rex Whistler's painting of  Ashcombe.
The Devoted Classicist Library
Madonna and Guy Ritchie bought Ashcombe in 2001 (for more than the guide price of GBP 9 million, it is believed).  Little remains of Beaton's neo-baroque interior decoration with the exception of part of the "Circus Room" murals.  After the divorce, Mr. Ritchie retained ownership of the estate.

Ashcombe and Madonna as they appeared
in a Vogue magazine photo by Tim Walker.
Despite what may be seen as Dream Projects for Rex Whistler, the clients were not always easy to please.  Such was the case with Mrs. Gilbert Russell, owner of Mottisfont Abbey.  Her portrait by Boris Anrep, around 1930, shows her in bed in a previous residence.  But it is too marvelous not to include.

A portrait of Mrs. Gilbert Russell
 circa 1930 by Boris Anrep.
Another painting to be shared is one by Rex Whistler, in the manner of Salvador Dali, a Surrealist landscape done as a challenge to imitate his friend's style.

A Surreal Landscape by Rex Whistler, 1942.
The Estate of Rex Whistler.
The last painting by Rex Whistler reveals not only the artist's great talent and imagination, but also his sense of humor.  It shows the almost naked Prince over the sleeping ingenue of the city of Brighton.

Allegory:  H.R.H., the Prince Regent
Awakening the Spirit of Brighton.  1944.
Royal Pavilion, Libraries & Museums, Brighton.
For the Devoted Readers who were already fans of Rex Whistler, it is hoped that this provided a satisfying, if brief, review.  For those who were not familiar, The Devoted Classicist hopes new fans will be inspired to learn more about this great artist.


  1. I am entranced by the idea of Ashcombe, and will be keeping my eye out for that book. (The Circus Room, however, might prove a bit whimsical for me.) The idea is still so sound--so many derelict buildings, and so much opportunity for creative expression, not just staid renovation.

    Whistler's allegorical paintings are great, and I enjoyed his attempt to imitate Dali.

    1. Parnassus, after having to give up Ashcombe, Beaton bought another 18th century (and earlier) house nearby, Reddish House. He decorated it and lived there with a succession of famous houseguests until his death.

      I can understand your reservations about the "Circus Room", but it was for fun, a bit of theatrical fantasy. The bed, for example, was papier mâché and not intended as serious decoration (in terms as we think it), stylish though it was. Thank you for commenting.

  2. How amazing to be able to rent a house on the scale of Ashcombe for so little money, (although GBP50 probably translates to what, GBP5000 today? If I had to add another zero it wouldn't be quite so fabulous).

    1. Columnist, I am the last person to be qualified to answer this, but one source on conversion to allow for inflation in the U,K. gives a 52% rate for 1930 but 36% for 1945. So the rent would still be ridiculously low. But I am afraid that renovation costs have jumped much more, and that would be the factor that might be the deal-breaker. (I used to see ads for the last 5 to 10 years of a long term lease for a house in London for a relatively good price, but those days seem to be gone). Thanks for commenting.

  3. Oh thank goodness I read the previous comment before I made mine!

    Yikes! I adore everything Cecil Beaton painted everywhere (which I have seen pictures of)!

    He painted a bathroom here in Montecito that I saw; and tried to convince the new owner; (a delightful Russian; believe me there is such a thing!)
    However; he sold it to a neighbor (who bought the subdvided part of it...I am still hoping for a happy resolution!
    (My favorite is when "unsubdividing " happens! It is rare......but it does happen!

    This bathroom was completely "over the top"; however; I would bring it straight home and love having a bath in there!

    Thank you for this wonderful and incredibly researched post!


    1. Penelope, I would think that a bathroom wall painting by Beaton would be fanciful and easy to enjoy for the limited time would be in space. But buyers of expensive real estate are not always appreciative of art and architecture are they? I hope there will be a happy ending in the instance you related.

    2. Also see my reply further down concerning Val Verde, Wright Ludington, and Oliver Messel.

    3. Exactly. He has it completely right. This is a beautiful property with a complicated past!

    4. It was absolutely Oliver Messel! It was photographed by Cecil Beaton....(whether published or not, it makes no difference) This was during the very sad time when "gay' men were not allowed to be.

      Oliver Messel did the "murals" and Cecll Beaton photographed them!

      Thank you for your knowledge!

      I was very proud to save the "fish'; the "Val Verde" Foundation was a complete fraud......and absconded with millions; after accepting donations.

      A tragic story with a kind of happy ending. The house and gardens are kept alive (if not trimmed.....there are fabulous wildlife!)

      and the "pond" with 50 year old still there ;and they are still alive!

      It is a treasure we have in Montecito!

      It was, for sure, Oliver Messel (My mistake) and you can see it in the wonderful book by his nephew!

      Fantastic murals in a bathroom!


  4. According to legend, the murals in the Circus Bedroom at Ashcombe were done, by
    various guests, over one weekend, which might explain their extemporaneous
    quality~with the notable exception of Rex Whistler's Fat Lady, illuminated as if
    by old fashioned footlights, effortlessly witty and accomplished and convincing.

    And what a surprise to see that he dabbled in surrealism, if only for
    a lark. He seems to have outdone Dali, though I cannot imagine they were ever

    1. Toby, that footlight effect was a further example of his artistic genius, was it not? Rex Whistler's style is so recognizable that I was so surprised at the Surrealist turn that I had to share it. Thank you.

  5. Val Verde in Montecito has the bathroom painted for Mr. Luddington by Whistler...not Beaton. Upon selling Val Verde, he built a modern home designed by architect Lutah Maria Riggs who worked for George Washington Smith, to house his burgeoning collection of Greco/Roman Sculptural Antiquities. Mr. Luddington hired the great Eugene Berman to paint the dining room in Tromp L'Oeil.

    1. Thanks go to The Swan for supplying the name of the Monteceito house Val Verde and its former owner Wright Ludington. However, I do believe the bathroom mural was painted by Oliver Messel.

      Devoted Readers can see a photo of the bathroom in a June 2, 2005, article in the LA TIMES:

      I appreciate your commenting.

  6. I'm speechless as usual and remain a devoted reader/looker of the TDC. Thanks so much.

  7. Your correct...I Should remember as I have a papier mache Messel maquette from the HOUSE OF FLOWERS play written by Capote with stage and costume by Messel...thank you for the refresher! Love this Whistler thread...didn't Beaton and Tennant both have a HUGE crush on him and a jealousy of one another for his affections? I seem to recall this rivalry of LOVE!

    1. Swan, I think surely I'd covet your Messel maquette; we'll be discussing him another time. You may be correct about the rivalry, I don't know. I'm rusty on details of Tennant, not reading much about him since the first TV series version of BRIDESHEAD REVISTED, but more on him later as well. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Very nice picture, thanks for sharing.

  9. I have been intrigued by Rex Whistler ever since reading Stephen Tennant's biography and being an ardent fan of Brideshead Revisited, one of favourite books. I thought the quote from the Times about the extraordinary number of letters they received on his death incredibly poignant. I have looked on line often for more posting on him and read his brother's bio ... So your post(s) were a real treat, thank you.

  10. I have been intrigued by Rex Whistler ever since reading Stephen Tennant's biography and being an ardent fan of Brideshead Revisited, one of favourite books. I thought the quote from the Times about the extraordinary number of letters they received on his death incredibly poignant. I have looked on line often for more posting on him and read his brother's bio ... So your post(s) were a real treat, thank you.


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