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In Search of Rex Whistler


A self-portrait of the artist in uniform, before he headed into World War II, never to return. His brushes are tied. Two remain loose; uncleaned. He is leaving work unfinished, and is drinking a last glass of wine, alone.

Had the artist Rex Whistler not been killed in Normandy in 1944 at the age of 39, in what direction would his great talent have gone? It is futile to speculate, write Hugh and Mirabel Cecil, the authors of this sumptuously illustrated new biography. But many did. Cecil Beaton thought he would have become another Turner. My mother Caroline Paget, his greatest love (but who loved him without the intensity that he loved her), thought he would have become one of the greatest portraitists of the 20th century and, relishing new ideas in stage design, also one of the most famous designers of his day. All his friends thought that soldiering had changed both him and his art.

At 21, Rex began his second mural commission, for the restaurant at the Tate.

The variety of the work which he undertook in the next 12 years dazzles: murals (his most lasting legacy), portraits (his best are in the first rank), stage design (The Rake’s Progress and Love for Love are a delight), advertisements (particularly for Shell), and covers and illustrations for over 100 books. . .

Rex died in Normandy while braving machine fire to find tank support for his men.

The Cecils big new biography contains beautiful reproductions of his work.

Comments (1)

Thank you for putting this up! It reminds me to order that book PDQ. I had the privilege of meeting Rex's brother Laurence, the poet and glass engraver, whose book "The English Festivals" would deserve a whole post of its own on your blog. (As would his poetry, his glass, and his autobiographical "The Initials in the Heart".) Rex's work is wonderful, elegant and slightly fey, and I'm so glad he is back in favour and remembrance.

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