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In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and His Work
In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and His Work
by Mirabel Cecil
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £26.00

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Glorious Rex: An Embarrassment Of Artistic Riches, 20 Feb. 2013
In Search of Rex Whistler; convincingly confirms that he was an utterly charming man and artist, as naturally talented and socially mobile as Ryder. In his fictional portrait, Waugh was not being unfair about Whistler's work, but his expectations were too high. For Whistler's aim was to give pleasure, and the modesty of this ambition accounts for a large part of what is so charming about his work.

Reginald John "Rex" Whistler, artist, designer and illustrator, was born on June 24, 1905, at Eltham, Kent, into the respectable middle class, the son of Henry Whistler and Helen Frances Mary Ward; and no apparent relation to the celebrated artist, James McNeill Whistler. However, he was the maternal grandson of the Rev. Charles Slegg Ward, Vicar of Wootton St Lawrence, Basingstoke and maternal great-great-grandson of Paul Storr, the silversmith.

In May 1919 he was sent to boarding school at Haileybury, where he showed a precocious talent for art, providing set designs for play productions and giving away sketches to prefects in lieu of "dates" (a punishment at Haileybury, similar to "lines" whereby offenders are required to write out set lists of historical dates). Even before he left school at Haileybury, a remarkable talent for draughtsmanship, along with imagination and humour in its execution, had already become apparent in his work.

After a false start at the Royal Academy, Whistler's career was meteoric. Even as a star student at the Slade; under the redoubtable Henry Tonks, he was a lovely draughtsman and accomplished painter in oils, well earning the frank admiration of the famously demanding Professor Tonks.

By the age of twenty-two, he had become a celebrity prodigy, having successfully completed his whimsical murals for the restaurant of the Tate Gallery. The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, as the sequence is entitled, is a narrative jeu d'esprit, where already the fertility of his imagination, his ability to invent original rather than derivative romantic landscapes, the brilliance of his architectural drawing and the sheer fun of it all looks ahead to the brightest future. Acclaimed by critics and public alike for their decorative skill, their wit, and their resourcefulness, commissions soon poured in.

Throughout the 1920s and '30s, he moved easily in the strata of upper-class society that included the Sitwells, Lord Berners, and the Paget family of Plas Newydd. His friend and Slade contemporary, the exotic and terminally aesthetic Stephen Tennant introduced him to the circle of the "Bright Young Things," which gave him an entry into that gilded world and took him to places to which he otherwise might not have been. Some judged him an ephemeral socialite, but no group seems as expressive of the essential fragility of interwar British culture as this very group. It was through Stephen, that he met the writer and mystic, Edith Olivier, thirty years his senior, who became his greatest friend and confidante, and whose adoration of him sometimes appears more than maternal. But she understood him, as his own mother never really could.

It was at Plas Newydd, where his employer, Lord Anglesey, who was a most laid-back and prompt-paying patron, provided him with the opportunity to create his greatest masterpiece, the mural, Kingdom by the Sea. Gracing the walls of the 58'-long dining-room, painted on a single length of canvas, it shows two towns "bristling with domes and columns", an island with a ruined fort, mountains and a beach. It mirrors, in an extravagant and joyful explosion of artistic invention, classical and romantic fantasy and family in-jokes, the view of the Menai Straits and mountains seen from out of the window. In it a daughter of the house, Lady Caroline Paget sails alone in a boat with a red sail.

Lady Caroline, his greatest love, who loved him without the intensity that he loved her, thought he would have become one of the greatest portraitists of the 20th century and, relishing new ideas in stage design, also one of the most famous designers of his day. While towards the end of his life, all his friends thought that soldiering had changed both him and his art. His work, so often fanciful, rococo and gorgeous, became increasingly darker and more naturalistic.

It becomes clear through the reading, that Whistler was successful because he was quintessentially of his moment. He fitted perfectly into the prevailing late-Georgian taste for fanciful ornamentation and playful chinoiserie, possessing as he did an effortless talent for turning out inventive set designs, illustrations, book plates, invitations and textiles.

His lightness of touch is at the very centre of his art, but it is also the quality that many people find so difficult to sympathise with today. For a pall of good taste seems to hang over late-Georgian art, poetry and music like polite applause with gloved hands. Whistler's rococo fantasies with their plumes and conch shells, swags and curlicues, might be considered a trifle twee, or a little too lady-like. But remember that the ultra-sophisticated inter-war generation to which Whistler belonged knew deep down that it was living on borrowed time before the next war. They valued the delicacy, wit and artifice of Whistler's art precisely because it turned its back on reality. Perhaps they saw him as an antidote to the pretension of Bloomsbury and seriousness of the Euston Road School.

Although art historians haven't forgotten Whistler exactly, still they don't quite know what to do with him, hopefully, with this new work, a more current understanding of his works will be garnered by a flip through its pages. His art seems to come out of nowhere - at least, it is hard to think of a single British artist who could be called a predecessor, though his interest in ornamental prints and colour illustrations of the 1840s is obvious. A genuine original, he turned for inspiration to a then-despised period in the history of art, the high baroque and rococo - paralleling Sacheverell Sitwell's groundbreaking studies of 17th-century art and architecture of the same period.

There is an underlying tragedy to Whistler's story. Despite his early success and almost charmed life, he died on active service, as an officer in the Welsh Guards. But before that, he had been passed over as an official war artist, apparently because he was seen as a fashionable lightweight, referred to as a "book illustrator". Although he was undeniably a master of graphic art, his very versatility seems to have been held against him by the art establishment.

The Cecils make a good case for the originality of his vision as an artist, especially in the field of his mural painting: 36, Hill Street, London W1, in 1936; Lady Louis Mountbatten's sitting room at Brook House, London W1, and Plas Newydd, Anglesey, in 1937; and Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire, 1938-39. The variety of the work which he undertook dazzles: murals (his most lasting legacy), portraits (his best are in the first rank), stage design (The Rake's Progress and Love for Love are a delight), advertisements (particularly for Shell), and covers and illustrations for over 100 books. The humour in the detail and architectural splendour of those for Gulliver's Travels (apart, perhaps from an epicene Gulliver) are by far the best that Swift's adventure and satire have ever had.

The authors also point to his imaginative approach to portraiture. Furthermore, Whistler was at the peak of his abilities as a set designer when he died. In 1944, his spectacular sets for the ballet Le Spectre de la Rose drew a collective sigh from the war-weary audience when the curtain went up; difficult to get the details right, he wrote "from a tank?. In those years, he tried to avoid being pigeonholed as a set designer but, had he survived, he could have enjoyed an international status similar to that of Cecil Beaton and his Slade contemporary Oliver Messel.

Beaton who thought he would have become another Turner; summed up his skill with generosity: "Not a modern artist in the accepted sense, he brought the style, the wit and the values of an earlier age to bear on his own period." Whistler and Beaton were really the recording angels of the age.

However, it makes one pause and think, had Rex not been killed in Normandy in 1944 at the age of thirty-nine, in what direction would his great talent have gone? It is futile to speculate, but had he lived, in my Esoteric opinion, it would have been Whistler and not Beaton who would have gone on to design for such films as Gigi and My Fair Lady. Ah the might have beens of history!

Aside from the most infinitesimal mistakes that would evade even the most vigilant critic, the only complaint that I had about this book was that it had to end, though no fault of its own, rather that fate decreed an abbreviated life for Rex Whistler. So make room on your Esoteric bookshelf for this 5-star masterpiece.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 6, 2013 5:04 AM BST


Lordy! Tutankhamun's Patron as a Young Man
Lordy! Tutankhamun's Patron as a Young Man
by William Cross
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cross's Magnificent Obsession!, 9 Dec. 2012
It was once said, that an excellent biography depends more on its writer than the subject. Though I might agree with this thought in general, I daresay, as with most things there is a bit more to it than that. Rather it is a fine crafting of the two together, with perhaps ever so slight an emphasis on the biographer!

A subject's life under consideration for a biography, though perhaps interesting on the surface, typically tends to hide its best bits under the surface. This is where the amateur biographer and the dedicated of the species are set apart.

Those of the amateur variety tend to spew forth a rehash of what has been said before, further implying their ineffectual abilities by penning something that has been previously addressed. Whereas the dedicated biographer looks further afield in the literary realm, for subjects of a more esoteric nature.

We the reader, owe them a great debt of gratitude. For without such authors, various personalities such as, Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, Tilly Losch, Evan, 2nd Viscount Tredegar, the Dennistouns, the Hon. Gwyneth Ericka Morgan or, George, 5th Earl of Carnarvon would never have seen the light of day in biographical form, forever to be lost amongst disjointed archives separated round the globe. The very fact that such are chosen is a firm guarantee that such a biographer is aligned with telling the story; that is his main focus, his Holy Grail!

We possess today, one biographer in particular who is always intrigued not only by subjects that few people would ever be inclined to touch with their pen, but one who insists on getting to the meat of the subject, a biographer who finds himself in his mettle when he is arms deep in some musty old archive, touching upon facts that have not been disturbed in decades, finding what others have missed. Only a biographer such as this, can guarantee positioning subject and facts in such a way that we the reader are both entertained and educated at the same time.

The author described, is a perfect combination of researcher and biographer, William Cross.

William Cross initially set himself a part with his incredible biography, The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon!

With November 2012, being the 90th anniversary of the discovery and the opening of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, it struck me as an excellent moment in time to praise one of William Cross's most recent works, Lordy! Tutankhamun's Patron as a Young Man!

Upon reading Lordy!, we the reader become aware rather quickly that this is the back story, what came before, or a prequel if you will to Life and Secrets and describes the life of George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, his parents, siblings and family, long before his life changing marriage to the tumultuous Almina. Rather enticingly it examines the various sides of this rather complex aristocrat, from determining whether he exhibited homosexual tendencies, to his controversial friendship with, Prince Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh, a rather worn roué, grandson and scion of the legendary `Lion of the Punjab' Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Lordy! even reveals the true cause of his death following his discovery along with Howard Carter of Tutenkhamun's tomb. Now is not the time to divulge such offerings, it behooves one to read the book to find the answers one seeks.

Although it is never my goal to share the full particulars of a book within my reviews, otherwise, what would be the point of reading it, however, in this instance, I do find that perhaps a few lines from the first chapter; will garner further interest in reading the pages for your own benefit, besides it gives us tremendous insight into the subject of the book.

"Lordy cowered in his cubbyhole, as scared as a hunted rabbit. The den was one of several hideaways in the grounds that he would retreat to alone. But the search party of unrelenting hunters, drawn from the estate tenants at Eggesford House, were hell bent on finding him before the evening's darkness fell on this dismal January day. The closeness of the trackers made him shiver; these roughnecks were capable of giving a fellow a clout. He was unnerved further on hearing mention of them bringing out his uncle's fiendish pack of foxhounds to help in the search."

"As the pursuers approached the spot where he'd dug in, Lordy heard the cheeky blighters refer to him as `the brat' and call out his family's pet name: `Porchey.' Then the mob bellowed, at least more reverentially, his formal rank of `Your Lordship,' and `M'Lord.' The boy was indeed an English lord, the son of an Earl, with the courtesy title of Viscount Porchester. He was the heir to the Herbert family name, titles, and estates, notably, Highclere Castle in Hampshire."

"Despite suffering from the cold and damp, Lordy, was determined to stay hidden. On that freezing day in 1879, the scrawny twelve year old was contemplating a fearful act for one so young; suicide through exposure."

"He could not give himself up; that would be weak willed. Even as a fierce snowstorm blew through the Devonshire countryside, he proved his mettle in refusing to obey instructions to come inside. Instead, he stayed outdoors nursing a `maudlin mood,' a phrase often applied to his state of mind by Lady Winifred, his `clever clogs sister,' who was aged fourteen."

This fascinating entrée, is how Cross introduces us to the boy, before he became the man, who was later involved in one of the greatest archaeological finds the world has ever known! Again, the facts below the surface, often overlooked, inherently prove to be some of the best, ably conveyed in this introduction.

Intimately told from Lordy's point of view, Cross has painstaking excised the facts of the matter from private family letters, diaries, newspapers and other historic documents, like a forensic biographical craftsman!

Though long since dead, Carnarvon, died on Monday, April 5, 1923, you can almost forgive his lordship such a calamity, since we now have William Cross to revive his boyhood years by breathing life back into this rare individual, long before even he himself knew that his name would be forever associated with the lore of ancient Egypt!

I highly encourage you to read this book along, with other works by William Cross.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 10, 2015 3:22 AM BST


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