New book offers a fresh appraisal of Whistler and his art

Edith Oliver

Edith Oliver - Credit: Archant

Rex Whistler: Inspirations reveals a different side to the artist best known for his murals, depicting his friendships, inspirations and illustrations, says Alison Oldham.

Rex Whistler is best known for his murals - dream-like landscapes with trompe l’oeil effects, classical allusions and architectural constructions.

For Londoners the most accessible of these witty panoramas is The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats in Tate Britain’s restaurant.

Completed in 1927, it was damaged a year later by a notorious Thames flood but was recently fully restored.

This mural triggered a chain of commissions and took Whistler – whose parents were a builder and clergyman’s daughter – into a world of wealth and privilege. His circle included flamboyant socialite Stephen Tennant, society photographer Cecil Beaton and the eccentric Sitwell siblings.

His mature masterpiece is a mural in the dining room of the grand 18th century Gothic house Plas Newydd in Anglesey, the family home of the love of his life, Lady Caroline Paget.

But there’s much more to Whistler’s art than his murals as revealed by the first art book from Pimpernel Press, a publishing house based in Maida Vale, founded last year by Jo Christian.

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Rex Whistler: Inspirations comprises two complementary volumes describing sources of inspiration for his portraits, theatre sets and costumes, book illustrations, advertisements – and for the murals.

The first volume, Family, Friendships, Landscapes, is by Hugh Cecil, the son of historian and biographer Lord David Cecil who was a close friend of Whistler. Hugh’s wife Mirabel co-authored the second volume, Love and War, which focuses on the years immediately before Whistler’s death in battle in 1944. The Cecils, who have lived in Little Venice for 13 years, spent five years researching their 2012 biography In Search of Rex Whistler, which Jo Christian edited for Kentish Town publisher Frances Lincoln.

Inspirations includes previously unpublished material, largely from Whistler’s time in Rome in 1928 and from the collection of the Paget family. Illustrations not in the biography include an exuberant cartoon of the chaotic arrival of hundreds of evacuee children for Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady, a quasi autobiographical account of the wartime experiences of Edith Olivier.

A rector’s daughter 30 years his senior, Olivier met Whistler on the Italian Riviera in 1925 when he was 19. They shared a sense of humour and playfulness and a love of Wessex. This friendship, his longest-lasting, was nurtured at her modest home in the park of Wilton House, Wiltshire.

One of many intriguing illustrations in Inspirations is the 1937 watercolour of her Long Room, showing her playing supine host to Rex, Lady Ottoline Morrell and David Cecil. The portrait, made as Whistler and Olivier listened to news of the war on the wireless, expresses tender regard.

These two volumes, elegantly and authoritatively written, are £14.99 each or in a slipcase as a pair for £30. They are a foretaste of Whistler books to come from Pimpernel this year and next – the illustrated letters and a facsimile edition of the hand-written, illustrated anthology of his favourite poems compiled with Stephen Tennant when they were Slade students.