Rex Whistler born 24 June 1905 (d. 1944)
Rex Whistler, Reginald John 'Rex' Whistler. English Artist, designer and illustrator.
Rex Whistler was the son of Henry and Helen Frances Mary Whistler. He was sent to board at Haileybury in May 1919 where he began to show a precocious talent for art, providing set designs for play productions and giving away sketches to prefects in lieu of 'dates' (a punishment unique to Haileybury, similar to 'lines' but whereby offenders are required to write out long, set lists of historical dates).
After Haileybury the young Whistler was accepted at the Royal Academy but disliked the regime there and was 'sacked for incompetence'. He then proceeded to study at the Slade School of Art where he met The Honourable Stephen Tennant, soon to become one of his best friends and a model for some of the figures in his works. Through Tennant, he later met the poet Siegfried Sassoon and his wife Hester, to both of whom Whistler became very close.
Upon leaving the Slade he burst into a dazzling career as a professional artist. His work encompassed all areas of art and design. From West End theatre to book illustration (including works by Evelyn Waugh and Walter de la Mare, and perhaps most notably, for Gulliver's Travels) and mural and trompe l'oeil painting. Paintings at Port Lympne, Plas Newydd [detail below] and Dorneywood amongst others, show his outstanding talent in this genre.
During his time at Plas Newydd he may well have become the lover of the daughter of the 6th Marquess of Anglesey, the owner of the house who had commissioned him to undertake the decorative scheme. Whistler and Lady Caroline Paget are known to have become very close friends and he painted numerous portraits of her, including a startling nude. Whether this painting was actually posed for or whether it was how Rex imagined her naked is a matter of debate.
His most noted work during the early part of his career was for the Cafe at the Tate Gallery completed in 1927 when he was only 22. He was commissioned to produced posters and illustrations for Shell Petroleum and the Radio Times. He also made designs for Wedgwood china based on drawings he made of the Devon village of Clovelly. Whistler's elegance and wit ensured his success as a portrait artist among the fashionable and he painted many members of London society, including Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton and the other members of the set which he belonged to and which became known as the 'Bright Young Things'.
When war broke out, though he was 35, he was eager to join the army. He was commissioned into the Welsh Guards as Lieutenant 131651. His artistic talent, far from being a stumbling block to his military career, was greatly appreciated and he was able to find time to continue some of his work, including a notable self portrait in uniform now in the National Army Museum [pictured left]. In 1944 he was sent to France following the D-Day Landings.
In July he was with the 2nd (Armoured) Battalion in Normandy as the invasion force was poised to break out of the salient east of Caen. On a hot and stuffy 18 July his tank, after crossing a railway line, drove over some felled telegraph wires beside the railway, which became entangled in its tracks. He and the crew got out to free the tank from the wire when a German machine gunner opened fire on them, preventing them from getting back into their tank. Whistler dashed across an open space of 60 yards to instruct its commander to return the fire. As he climbed down from the tank a mortar bomb exploded beside him and killed him instantly, throwing him into the air. He was the first fatality suffered by the Battalion in the Normandy Campaign. The two free tanks of his troop carried out their dead commander's orders before returning to lay out his corpse beside a nearby hedge, after first having removed his personal belongings. Whistler's neck had been broken, but there was not a mark on his body. The troop was then immediately called away to act as infantry support. When that evening permission was obtained to locate and bury Rex Whistler, they found that this had already been done by an officer of the Green Jackets, a regiment in which Whistler's younger brother, Laurence (an acclaimed glass engraver and poet) was serving.
Later the body of Rex Whistler was moved to a grave in the Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery in Calvados, about two miles from the place where he was killed on his first day in action. His grave can still be found there today in the immaculately kept Military Cemetery.
Because he died relatively young and his art was more decorative than 'serious' and is far from fashionable now, there is little evidence either way on Rex Whistler's sexuality. However, he moved in very 'artistic' circles, never married and many of his closest friends certainly were gay - and most of his work is decidedly camp, draw your own conclusions.
Photograph of Rex Whistler by Cecil Beaton
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