Rex’s Restaurant

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The refurbished Tate Britain reopened this week, including the Rex Whistler restaurant, the walls of which are lined with Rex Whistler’s painting The Pursuit of Rare Meats.

Whistler Tate 1

Here’s a brochure, dating from some point mid-century, which explains the painting. The story was a collaboration with the novelist Edith Olivier.

Whistler Tate 3

An expedition leaves the ducal palace of Epicurania, which includes the Crown Prince Etienne and Princess Claudia, led by the son of an impoverised Polish nobleman on a bicycle (a character depicted as Rex Whistler). They travel through a typically Whistler-ish Arcadian landscape, where his dark humour is often at work: “Meanwhile, a disaster occurs upstream where, due to his excitement at seeing a balloon overhead, a small boy falls into the river and is drowned”.

Whistler Tate 4

The Pursuit of Rare Meats ends with the news that, “A sad result of the expedition was the death of the dowager duchess, who took too keen an interest for her age in sampling the rare meats collected”.

Whistler in the wind

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There is much more recognition of Rex Whistler these days, but his brother Laurence has also left behind some amazing work. Here are two windows – inscribed on glass with scriber and drill – from St Nicholas Church, Moreton, Dorset.

Summer, Laurence Whistler

Detail of the Seasons window, with butterflies about to burst from the bubble

The church was hit by a German bomber in World War II, and rebuilt with the windows engraved or deep cut, acid-etched or sandblasted by Laurence Whistler with craftsmen where necessary. These images (with a little adjustment) are reproduced from the guide book and are originally from Scenes and Signs on Glass from the Cupid Press, Woodbridge.

The Trinity Chapel window, Laurence Whistler

Trinity Chapel window, 1982

The Trinity Chapel window is a tribute to a pilot shot down in the Battle of France in 1940, and genuinely stunning. Sunlight and rain reveal nature regenerating, with scenes of Salisbury Cathedral near to where the pilot was stationed, and his cottage home. Vapour trails are suspended and in the corner is a broken propeller bearing two sets of initials and the dates of the pilot’s brief marriage.

I can’t help thinking this would have been quite a personal and possibly a difficult project. In his book Initials in the Heart, Laurence Whistler records the happiness of his marriage to the actress Jill Furse, and the cottage in Devon they shared. She died in 1944 at just 28. It was the same year in which his brother Rex was killed in the war.

Laurence Whistler, Jill Furse, 1941

Laurence Whistler and Jill Furse, with family, Devon, 1941, from Initials in the Heart, published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964

I’ve collected quite a few of Laurence Whistler’s books of poems and his biographies of his brother. The diligence with which he kept memory alive is incredibly moving, and I think he is an excellent, insightful writer.

More of that another day…

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…

Medieval mummers, May Day and Lammastide

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There was a box of old stamp postcards from 30-odd years ago in a charity shop yesterday, and I found these great folklore images from 1981. (The artist is Fritz Wegner.) They remind me a little of Rex Whistler (more of him another time).

There is a fourth one for Valentine’s Day, but it was the odd one out for me. I’ve substituted ‘Side shows’ instead, which dates from 1983’s British Fairs issue, by Andrew Restall.

This is a good time to mention The Museum of British Folklore – at the moment it has no permanent home. A couple of years ago there was a small but beautiful temporary exhibition for a few weeks at Port Eliot in Cornwall. Atmospheric wonders included this lantern…