There are certain artists whose untimely death invests them with a halo of mystique. Others, in spite of a life cut short by war or other unfortunate accident, no matter what their merits, end up in a sort of limbo, almost awaiting the liturgical signal that would free them from that state.
Why doesn’t Rex Whistler rank among the most significant painters of the 20th century British school? In our internet-driven era, Wikipedia does not even include him in its entry of List of British painters for the first half of the past century. Was it that his exceptional talent seemed effortless in most circumstances? Or was it that he never embraced a specific narrative in his art?
From an early age he was surrounded by an aura of “golden boy”, in spite of his modest origins. Henry Tonks the fierce and critical director of the Slade School of Art, which Whistler attended, wrote of him: ”I have never met anyone like him. He amuses me because he has a certain gift of humor…directly he is launched, he will be an amazing success”. Whistler was 16 at the time.
The prophecy did only take six years to be fulfilled. At 22, he was commissioned by the Tate Gallery to paint a mural for their restaurant: “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats”, an extravagant and amusing title that heralded the mood of lightness and dazzling visuals that lasted for more than a decade. His friendship with Stephen Tennant introduced him to a sophisticated and elitist circle of friends where his own self-effacing style made him an overnight success. He was a close friend of Cecil Beaton and through him, he embraced that pastoral and carefree existence of parties, charades and “the worst-is-over” attitude that characterized much of the artistic endeavors between the wars.
Prolific and versatile, expressing his talents through painting, theatre sets, graphic design, murals and book covers, there was barely any medium that could resist him. “So great was his facility that other people might well labour for months to achieve the results he flicked off expertly in a few twists of his pen”, wrote Beaton about this gifted and loving individual.
At 39, war came to put an end to his life and to leave us puzzling about his status in the art world. His work was becoming increasingly somber of late. He was being engulfed by the incoming tide of gloom but perhaps not enough to offer a body of work in contrast to the untroubled production of the early years. He may well lack that touch of anguish that would lift him off from that uncertain status. With or without the dark side, he deserves a much larger recognition.