Rex Whistler and the Smoking Urn

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 Above the drawing room fireplace rises a giant, gothic urn, wraiths of slow-motion smoke drifting toward the ceiling…

This made the greatest impression on me as a child, surely everything the artist intended.

None of it was real but in those few seconds of understanding I experienced pure awe. More magic followed. The artist had included a small pot of paint and a brush on one of the ledges, as if left behind. I seem to remember a packet of cigarettes in there too. Then there was the harsh fact that he would die in the war that began in the year the trompe l’oeil was finished, still in his thirties, and that this was his last work of this kind.

The mural was commissioned for Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire by Maud Russell, whose connections to Evelyn Waugh’s set of ‘bright young things’ led to her meeting Rex Whistler (1905-1944). I’ve since learned that Whistler was an inspiration for Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, which makes it all the more poignant.

Self-portrait by Rex Whistler

On my childhood visit I remember having only 10p in my pocket and being unable to decide whether to buy the pamphlet to learn more or the postcard – well, here’s the latter. It was an empty National Trust kiosk and I remember baking afternoon sun and the uncommunicative and unrelentingly sour woman inside as I explained why I was taking a little while, while that awful hand of death that you sometimes found with the National Trust shadowed the vitality I’d just experienced…

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