Friday, November 2, 2012

Rex Whistler's Painted Room Travelled

Rex Whistler's painted panels now adorn
the dining room at The Grove.
India Hicks
A previous post of The Devoted Classicist, "Rex Whistler Murals", presented a sampling of the work of the great artist of the first half of the twentieth century.  All the projects were incredibly fantastic in their own way, with a great advantage being Rex Whistler's great range allowing each to be so unique.  Although Whistler had a studio that made it easier to paint the large murals on canvas, he sometimes painted directly on the walls.  It is fortunate that the client insisted that this one project in particular was painted on canvas because it has travelled to another location not once but twice.

Edwina, Countess Mountbatten of Burma.
Daily Mail
All of Whistler's patrons were wealthy, but perhaps none was more celebrated than Edwina Mountbatten, Countess Mountbatten of Burma.  Born Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley, descended from the Earls of Shaftesbury, in 1901 at the family estate, Broadlands, she grew up in an environment of great priviledge.

Broadlands was improved by architect Henry Holland
beginning in 1767.
Photo from Wikipedia.
Not an academically strong student, she went to live with her maternal grandfather, Sir Ernest Joseph Cassel, one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe, after the death of his wife and only child, rather than continue her studies.  She filled the role of hostess at his London mansion, Brook House, on Park Lane and became his heir, inheriting a fortune in cash and real estate at age 20, in 1921.  She married Lord Louis Mountbatten of the British Royal Family (second cousin once removed to Queen Elizabeth II and uncle of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh) in 1922, and gave birth to two daughters, Patricia (Knatchbull) in 1924, and Pamela (Hicks) in 1929.

The stairhall of the Mountbatten penthouse at Brook House
decorated by Mrs. Joshua Cosden
in collaboration with Victor Proetz.
Country Life photo.
The living room of the Mountbatten penthouse
decorated by Mrs. Joshua Cosden with Victor Proetz.
Country Life photo.
 A new luxurious apartment building, also called Brook House, was constructed between 1933 and 1935 on site of the razed mansion, with the Mountbattens taking the duplex penthouse constructed to their specifications, satisfying a requirement that Edwina maintains a residence there.

Lady Mountbatten's boudoir at Brook House, London.
Photo by A.E. Henson for Country Life.
Published in the August 24, 1939, issue.

Another view of Lady Mountbatten's boudoir at Brook House.
Photo by A.E. Henson for Country Life.
Published in the August 24, 1939, issue.
The panel designs are classical with allegorical statuary, trophies and architecture, but personalized to represent some special meaning to the client.
Designs for the murals at Brook House.
by Laurence Whistler, Sheneval Press Ltd, 1949.
The pet lion Sabi.
India Hicks
After a couple of decades devoted to pleasure, the Mountbattens went into public service at the outbreak of World War II.  Fortunately, the Rex Whistler panels were removed from Brook House in 1939 and the building was demolished after damage from Nazi bombing.

David and Lady Pamela Hicks
Art Architector
Lady Pamela lived with her parents in India in 1947 and 1948 when her father was Viceroy of India the Governor-General of post-Partition India. Lady Pamela, the second great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria, is a former lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth II and acted as her bridesmaid at her wedding to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, her first cousin.  In 1960, she married the interior designer David Hicks.  Hicks' career was launched in 1954 when the house he had decorated for his mother and himself was published in British House & Garden magazine to great acclaim.  
Photo:  British Listed Buildings.
Soon after their marriage, the Hickses bought Britwell, a 1728 house with wings added in the early 20th century.  The panels from the Brook House boudoir were installed in Lady Pamela's study.  It appears that possibly some blank panels may have been created to make the layout work, but the scheme was very successful despite being a slightly simplified version of the original room.

Lady Pamela Hicks' study at Britwell.
Photo from
In DAVID HICKS ON HOME DECORATION, published in 1972, the designer/author wrote, "The boudoir painted by Rex Whistler for Brook House in 1937 has a pale blue background and grisaille decoration.  I continued the late 'thirties theme by using a boxy sofa and all-white upholstery, and placed early Chinese ceramics on the Louis XVI chimney."
The tax burden, along with other expenses to maintain the property led to a sale of the house and many of the contents in 1979.  But the Rex Whistler panels were again removed to be installed in the dining room of the Hickses next house, The Grove.

The Grove.
The Rex Whistler panels were expertly adapted, by all indications, to suit their present location at The Grove.

Rex Whistler's painted panels as installed in The Grove.
David Nightingale Hicks died in 1998 while still in residence at The Grove (not at Britwell Salome as reported on most websites).  It continues to be home to Lady Pamela.

Lady Pamela' grandaughter Dolly with Bun.
Photo by her father, David Flint Wood.
David Hicks wrote a number of books on interior design featuring examples of his own work to illustrate his design philosophy.  Some vintage copies are still available today including LIVING WITH DESIGN, DAVID HICKS ON HOME DECORATION, DAVID HICKS ON DECORATION -- WITH FABRICS, and STYLE AND DESIGN.  The best book about the designer, however, was written by his son Ashley Hicks, DAVID HICKS: DESIGNER.


  1. Devoted Readers, the word verification feature has totally gotten out of control. So I am trying, for a while at least, to see how it goes without it, but still with moderation (as there is an unbelievable amount of annoying commercial comments). There is still a delay in getting comments to me, however, so don't be completely discouraged, please. You are all greatly appreciated.

  2. John,

    What a fantastic post! Your style is most enlightening, and therefore very ENRICHING! Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge.


    1. Dean, it is good to see all three rooms that held/hold the Rex Whistler panels, isn't it? My knowledge is mostly a little about a lot -- at most. But I was happy to share and acquainted my Devoted Readers with Rex Whistler.

  3. Do we know why were the initial Whistler "murals" were painted on canvas? Fortunate, as it turned out in the light of later history, but wouldn't true murals have been more aesthetically pleasing?

    1. Alternately with Plas Newydd Rex was painting in 1937 a room at the top of Brook House in Park Lane for Edwina Mountbatten. By her grandfather's will she was obliged to have residence there; hence the penthouse on the new slab of flats, with a view across the tree tops of Hyde Park and a room consigned to Rex as soon as it was built. He divided the room (which was too narrow for scenic murals, being 17x23 feet) into nearly sixty rectangles of various shapes and sizes, each containing a different scene, emblem or ornament, with countless allusions to the his clients' lives, all done in grisaille on pale greyish blue. Begun in June and finished on the last day of December, which was quick, bearing in mind the designs for a wall clock, radiator grilles, painted furniture, etc. The taffeta curtains were striped in two greys, with yellow fringes and ropes.

      There is every indication that Rex painted the Brook House murals
      on site. He was,initially, for painting directly onto the plaster, but Lady Louis Mountbatten insisted on lining the walls with canvas, and was justified in 1940, when a bomb wrecked the room. (at the outbreak of
      war, the canvas was cut into vertical strips and removed to Broadlands. )

    2. Hels, some readers may be able to answer this better than I can. But my guess is that the painting on canvas was thought to expedite the whole process of completing the penthouse as it was the last in the building to be finished anyway. Perhaps the Mountbattens were in residence already; I am not sure. Of course, it was better to paint on canvas instead of plaster, anyway. If the budget can allow, all the vintage plaster walls in my renovation projects are canvased even before regular painting; it prevents the appearance of cracks.

    3. Devoted Readers, the order of comments depends on when they are written and not when they are published, so that accounts for what might seem strange in statements.

      Toby, is it known if the Rex Whistler panels were installed at Broadlands as well?

    4. In both Laurence Whistler's biography of his brother, as well as the detailed
      descriptions in the full catalogue of Rex Whistler's work, there is no mention of the panels being installed at Broadlands; merely that they were taken there for safety. Being rectangular in format, this was easily done in sections.
      The fact of the room being lined in canvas prior to painting, has led to the misleading notion that Rex worked on them in his studio. As I understand it, it was only in the case of the vast mural at Plas Newydd that the artist found it necessary to begin the work off-site, in that instance a studio leased from the scene painting firm of Alick Johnstone, in which there was
      a frame that could easily be wound up and down. The height of the penthouse walls at Brook House was comparatively more modest, being
      8 ft 9 inches.

    5. Thanks, Toby. Speaking for The Devoted Readers as well, your taking the time to add this information is greatly appreciated.

  4. Thanks DC. Glad to have this temporary respite, so that I can post a comment. As you note the verification system has been most unco-operative recently. I have read extensively on the Mountbattens, but it did not include the story of these Whistler murals, which seem to anchor their family history through several generations. As you write, Edwina Ashley inherited a great fortune from her grandfather Sir Ernest Cassell, who was a friend of King Edward VII's. As with so many of these stories, it is not really surprising that she should marry into the British Royal family, albeit a minor branch, as opposed to another Edward VII relationship which has seen a decendant marry the future king.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Columnist. I often view blogs on my iPhone and it is very, very difficult to get past Word Verification, so I know all too well.

      I met David Hicks once and was so disappointed that he was such a huge snob, a character flaw that even his son admits to in his book. (Some say he was the model for Mark Hampton's building of his Client List). But David Hicks' wife's lineage is indeed an interesting story.

      Thank you for commenting.

    2. I too met David Hicks at a lunch given by a mutual friend. I was totally disappointed because of his name-dropping, I (about his wife's family etc), and all really quite unnecessary given the company we were in and the fact that everybody knew anyway. I admired his work, but not the man. Anyway, I think it was quite near towards the end of his life, so perhaps he was more curmudgeonly that usual.

    3. Columnist, my meeting, too, was near the end of his life as well. But he had talent, undeniably, and should not have been insecure. But this is an American, and a Southerner at that. Thank you for commenting.

  5. My own interest in interior design was sparked by the work of David Hicks, so it's a pleasure to see him linked to the history of Rex Whistler's wonderful mural. I see that Broadlands is depicted on the overmantle — how good that the mural provides a sort of continuity from the Broadlands to the Grove.

    1. Mark, I love the depiction of specific architecture in decorative painting. There will be more examples in future posts, too. Thank you for commenting.

  6. I first saw photos of Whistler's murals as they were installed at Britwell more years ago than I want to admit, but this is the first time I've ever seen them in their original home, and it's beautiful.

    Judging by the room's calm, ultra-civilized atmosphere and the photos' publication date--only a week before Germany invaded Poland--you'd never guess that all of Europe stood at the brink of catclysm. Looking back, this particular issue of Country Life must have seemed like a memento mori for a way of life that was already over.

    1. S.G., I so greatly admire the combination of artistry with architecture in the murals and that they could be used so effectively in all three rooms. And you are right, of course, about the sumptuous London apartment marking the end of an era. Edwina Mountbatten would make a great subject for a film, recreating the sophisticated Thirties.

  7. Devoted Readers, be sure to click on the link in the right column under My Blog List to see the latest post on LITTLE AUGURY for P.G.T.'s choices for casting of the film (or BBC TV series) on Rex Whistler.

  8. oh my. coming upon this whlie researching The Grove = omg! love this story. AND loved the WOI fake story. GREAT GREAT GREAT!!!

    1. Joni, there's an interesting back story on The Grove, so I look forward to your post. I hope you also found the other posts about Rex Whistler, a long time favorite of mine.

      I presume you meant the 'recreation' of Nancy Lancaster's famous Yellow Room for World of Interiors. Thanks for commenting. I hope you will become a regular reader of The Devoted Classicist.


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