By the time of his death at just 39-years-old, Rex Whistler (1905 – 1944) had created eight major murals and other interior decorations; more than 100 portraits and nearly as many landscapes and other paintings; designed and illustrated more than 90 books; and had been responsible for set designs for 35 theater, opera and ballet productions.
The above self-portrait was probably painted in 1933 when Whistler was 28-years-old. He stands confidently against a romantic landscape under dark, looming clouds.
Allusions to 18th century gardens were made in the mural Whistler had been commissioned to paint onto the walls of the restaurant at The Tate in 1928. The murals have been restored and the restaurant is now named the “Rex Whistler Restaurant”. The murals are titled The Expedition In Pursuit Of Rare Meats and depict a story which he had devised in collaboration with writer Edith Olivier (1872-1948) whom he had met in 1925. They remained close friends until his passing, and Whistler painted striking portraits of Olivier and her family.
Whistler was accepted at the Royal Academy but he disliked the regime there and was “sacked for incompetence”. He then proceeded to study at the Slade School of Art, where he met Stephen Tennant. Known for his decadent lifestyle, Tennant was called “the brightest” of the “Bright Young Things”. Tennant was one of Whistler’s best friends and frequent model. Through Tennant, he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the two men became close.
Whistler was a fine painter, but also a commercial artist. He was commissioned to do posters and illustrations for Shell Petroleum and the Radio Times, and also created designs for Wedgwood China. Whistler’s elegance and wit ensured his success as a portrait artist among the fashionable; he painted many members of London society, including Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton and other members of the set to which he belonged that became known as the “Bright Young Things”.
He painted several self portraits, the earliest dating from 1924, writing:
“I am at present at work on a painting of myself; with a mirror beside my canvas. I find my sitter always most obliging, and unlike some others, always ready to pose for me when I wish.”
Whistler, like many other artists in war, seems to have predicted his own death. Just days before he was killed, he remarked to a friend that he wanted to be buried where he fell, not in a military cemetery. On the night before his death, a fellow officer named Francis Portal talked for a while. Before they parted, Portal remarked: “So we’ll probably see each other tomorrow evening.” Whistler replied: “I hope so.”
Below in one of his last self portraits showing him wearing the uniform of the Welsh Guards on the day in 1940 that he received it. Four years later he was killed leading his tank into action on his first day of active service.
He is buried in Banneville-La-Campagne. The London Times received more letters about Whistler’s death than for any other WW II death.