Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Rex Whistler (1905 - 1944)

This magnificent self portrait, painted 1940 on the first-floor balcony of 27, York Terrace, Regent’s Park, celebrated the arrival of Whistler’s first uniform. He had been commissioned into the Welsh Guards as Lieutenant 131651. At the age of 35, he had been eager to join the military.

Whistler was killed in action four years later in Normandy as a tank commander at the age of 39. In his relatively brief career, a series of witty, story-telling murals had established Whistler as a singular figurative artist. One, who must, so the experts say, had he lived, have gone on to rival Hockney and Freud.


Rex (Reginald John) Whistler was born at Eltham, Kent in 1905. Drawing well from an early age, it wasn't easy for him to stick to the discipline of a formal education. However, he completed his first big commission at the age of 22: a huge mural in the restaurant of the Tate Gallery, which, on that strength, earned the epithet of 'most amusing room in Europe'.

Later he carried out other mural commissions, including his masterpiece, the 58 foot Claudian fantasy at Plas Newydd, Isle of Anglesey.

Painted between 1936 and 1937, the mural is also full of love – for the family as a whole, but most of all for Lady Caroline, the beautiful eldest daughter. Whistler's love for Lady Caroline – who married someone else – is revealed in the coded references he includes in his Arcadian and Romantic view of a coastal landscape.



He also painted portraits, landscapes, and witty sketches for advertising, but was perhaps best known for his exquisite book illustrations (in such titles as Gulliver's Travels or Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales) and for his fine theatre designs. He worked together with Gielgud, de Valois, Cochran and others on productions as diverse as Fidelio, Victoria Regina, The Rake's Progress or Wake Up and Dream.



When war broke out, he was eager to join the army though he was already 35. He was commissioned into the Welsh Guards as Lieutenant. His artistic talent was greatly appreciated in the military and he was able to find time to continue some of his work. In 1944 he was sent to France following the D-Day Landings. In July he was with the 2nd (Armoured) Battalion in Normandy as the invasion force was poised to break out of the salient east of Caen. On the 18th of July, his tank drove over some felled telegraph wires, which became entangled in its tracks. He and the crew got out to free the tank from the wire when a German machine gunner opened fire on them, preventing them from getting back into their tank. Whistler dashed across an open space of 60 yards to instruct its commander to return the fire. As he climbed down from the tank, a mortar bomb exploded beside him and killed him straight away. He was the first fatality suffered by the Battalion in the Normandy Campaign.

The two free tanks of his troop carried out their dead commander's orders before returning to lay out his lifeless body beside a nearby hedge. Whistler's neck had been broken, but there was not a mark on his body.

Which is, after all, a little comfort.

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