Rex Whistler
Reginald John 'Rex' Whistler (24 June 190518 July 1944) was a British artist
An artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only...

, designer and illustrator.


Rex Whistler was born in Eltham, Kent
Kent is a county in southeast England, and is one of the home counties. It borders East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London and has a defined boundary with Essex in the middle of the Thames Estuary. The ceremonial county boundaries of Kent include the shire county of Kent and the unitary borough of...

, the son of Henry and Helen Frances Mary Whistler. He was sent to board at Haileybury
Haileybury and Imperial Service College
Haileybury and Imperial Service College, , is a prestigious British independent school founded in 1862. The school is located at Hertford Heath, near Hertford, from central London, on of parkland occupied until 1858 by the East India College...

 in May 1919 where he showed a precocious talent for art, providing set designs for play productions and giving away sketches to prefects in lieu of "dates" (a punishment at Haileybury, similar to "lines" whereby offenders are required to write out set lists of historical dates).

After Haileybury the young Whistler was accepted at the Royal Academy
Royal Academy
The Royal Academy of Arts is an art institution based in Burlington House on Piccadilly, London. The Royal Academy of Arts has a unique position in being an independent, privately funded institution led by eminent artists and architects whose purpose is to promote the creation, enjoyment and...

 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
Stephen Tennant
Stephen James Napier Tennant was a British aristocrat known for his decadent lifestyle. It is said, albeit apocryphally, that he spent most of his life in bed.-Early life:...

, 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
Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon CBE MC was an English poet, author and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon's...

 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 the West End theatre
West End theatre
West End theatre is a popular term for mainstream professional theatre staged in the large theatres of London's 'Theatreland', the West End. Along with New York's Broadway theatre, West End theatre is usually considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English speaking...

 to book illustration (including works by Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh
Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh , known as Evelyn Waugh, was an English writer of novels, travel books and biographies. He was also a prolific journalist and reviewer...

 and Walter de la Mare
Walter de la Mare
Walter John de la Mare , OM CH was an English poet, short story writer and novelist, probably best remembered for his works for children and the poem "The Listeners"....

, and perhaps most notably, for Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver's Travels
Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, better known simply as Gulliver's Travels , is a novel by Anglo-Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift that is both a satire on human nature and a parody of...

) and mural
A mural is any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling or other large permanent surface. A particularly distinguishing characteristic of mural painting is that the architectural elements of the given space are harmoniously incorporated into the picture.-History:Murals of...

 and trompe l'oeil
Trompe l'oeil
Trompe-l'œil, which can also be spelled without the hyphen in English as trompe l'oeil, is an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three dimensions.-History in painting:Although the phrase has its origin in...

 painting. Paintings at Port Lympne (now known as Port Lympne Wild Animal Park), Plas Newydd
Plas Newydd
Plas Newydd, located in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, Anglesey, Wales, is the country seat of the Marquess of Anglesey. The family's former principal seat at Beaudesert, Staffordshire, was sold and demolished in the 1930s....

 and Dorneywood
Dorneywood is a moderately large Queen Anne style house built in 1920, near Burnham in the South Bucks District of Buckinghamshire, England. It was given to the National Trust by Lord Courtauld-Thomson in 1947 as a country home for a senior member of the Government, usually a Secretary of State or...

 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
Charles Paget, 6th Marquess of Anglesey
Charles Henry Alexander Paget, 6th Marquess of Anglesey GCVO was a British peer.Paget was born in 1885, the son of Lord Alexander Paget, was educated at Eton and the Royal Military College Sandhurst and in 1905 he succeeded as Marquess of Anglesey on the demise of his childless cousin, the 5th...

, the owner of the house who had commissioned him to undertake the decorative scheme. Whister and Lady Caroline Paget
Lady Caroline Paget
Lady Caroline Paget was the daughter of Charles Paget, 6th Marquess of Anglesey and Lady Marjorie Manners, eldest daughter of the 8th Duke of Rutland. She was born on 15 June 1913, and became the second wife of Sir Michael Duff, 3rd Baronet, on 14 July 1949.During the thirties, she was a notable...

 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
Tate Britain
Tate Britain is an art gallery situated on Millbank in London, and part of the Tate gallery network in Britain, with Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. It is the oldest gallery in the network, opening in 1897. It houses a substantial collection of the works of J. M. W. Turner.-History:It...

 completed in 1927 when he was only 22. He was commissioned to produced posters and illustrations for Shell Petroleum and the Radio Times
Radio Times
Radio Times is a UK weekly television and radio programme listings magazine, owned by the BBC. It has been published since 1923 by BBC Magazines, which also provides an on-line listings service under the same title...

. He also made designs for Wedgwood
Josiah Wedgwood
Josiah Wedgwood was an English potter, founder of the Wedgwood company, credited with the industrialization of the manufacture of pottery. A prominent abolitionist, Wedgwood is remembered for his "Am I Not A Man And A Brother?" anti-slavery medallion. He was a member of the Darwin–Wedgwood family...

 china based on drawings he made of the Devon
Devon is a large county in southwestern England. The county is sometimes referred to as Devonshire, although the term is rarely used inside the county itself as the county has never been officially "shired", it often indicates a traditional or historical context.The county shares borders with...

 village of Clovelly
Clovelly is a village in the Torridge district of Devon, England. It is a major tourist attraction, famous for its history and beauty, its extremely steep car-free cobbled main street, donkeys, and its location looking out over the Bristol Channel. Thick woods shelter it and render the climate so...

. 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
Edith Sitwell
Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell DBE was a British poet and critic.-Background:Edith Sitwell was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, the oldest child and only daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall; he was an expert on genealogy and landscaping...

, Cecil Beaton
Cecil Beaton
Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton, CBE was an English fashion and portrait photographer, diarist, painter, interior designer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre...

 and the other members of the set which he belonged to and which became known as the "Bright Young Things"
Bright Young People
The Bright Young People was a nickname given by the tabloid press to a group of bohemian young aristocrats and socialites in 1920s London. They threw elaborate fancy dress parties, went on elaborate treasure hunts through nighttime London, and drank heavily and experimented with drugs—all of which...


His activities also extended to ballet design. He designed the scenery and costumes for Ninette de Valois
Ninette de Valois
Dame Ninette de Valois, OM, CH, DBE, FRAD, FISTD was an Irish-born British dancer, teacher, choreographer and director of classical ballet...

 and Gavin Gordon
Gavin Gordon (composer)
Gavin Gordon was a Scottish bass singer, actor and composer, best known for his 1935 Hogarthian ballet The Rake's Progress.-Biography:Gavin Gordon was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1901, as Gavin Muspratt Gordon Brown...

's Hogarth
William Hogarth
William Hogarth was an English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist who has been credited with pioneering western sequential art. His work ranged from realistic portraiture to comic strip-like series of pictures called "modern moral subjects"...

-inspired 1935 ballet The Rake's Progress
The Rake's Progress (ballet)
The Rake's Progress is a short 1935 ballet, based on the drawings of William Hogarth, with music by Gavin Gordon , choreography by Ninette de Valois, and set design by Rex Whistler....


When war broke out, though he was 35, he was eager to join the army. He was commissioned into the Welsh Guards
Welsh Guards
The Welsh Guards is an infantry regiment of the British Army, part of the Guards Division.-Creation :The Welsh Guards came into existence on 26 February 1915 by Royal Warrant of His Majesty King George V in order to include Wales in the national component to the Foot Guards, "..though the order...

 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
National Army Museum
The National Army Museum is the British Army's central museum. It is located in the Chelsea district of central London, England adjacent to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the home of the "Chelsea Pensioners". The National Army Museum is open to the public every day of the year from 10.00am to 5.30pm,...

. In 1944 he was sent to France following the D-Day
D-Day is a term often used in military parlance to denote the day on which a combat attack or operation is to be initiated. "D-Day" often represents a variable, designating the day upon which some significant event will occur or has occurred; see Military designation of days and hours for similar...


During the war, he was the burial officer of his regiment, and his soldiers became somewhat suspicious of the 20 crosses he carried on his tank. He decided that just because he was at war, doesn't mean he couldn't paint, and therefore also carried a bucket hanging off the side of his tank to carry his paintbrushes.


In July he was with the Guards Armoured Division in Normandy
Normandy is a geographical region corresponding to the former Duchy of Normandy. It is in France.The continental territory covers 30,627 km² and forms the preponderant part of Normandy and roughly 5% of the territory of France. It is divided for administrative purposes into two régions:...

 as the invasion force was poised to break out of the salient east of Caen
Battle for Caen
The Battle for Caen from June-August 1944 was a battle between Allied and German forces during the Battle of Normandy....

. On the 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 another tank to instruct its commander, a Sergeant Lewis Sherlock, to return the fire. As he climbed down from Sherlock's 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, so when that evening Sherlock obtained permission to locate and bury Rex Whistler, he found that this had already been done by an officer of the Green Jackets, a regiment in which Whistler's younger brother, Laurence
Laurence Whistler
Sir Alan Charles Laurence Whistler, CBE was a British poet and artist who devoted himself to glass engraving, on goblets and bowls blown to his own designs, and on large-scale panels and windows in churches and private houses...

 (an acclaimed glass engraver and poet) was serving. Among the many works of art produced by Rex Whistler during his time in the forces was a fine pencil portrait of Sergeant Sherlock.

It seems as if Whistler, like many other artists in war, 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, Francis Portal came up to him and they talked for a bit. Before they parted, Portal remarked "So we'll probably see each other tomorrow evening." Wistfully, Whistler replied "I hope so."

A memorial glass engraving by Laurence Whistler (the Rex prism) is to be found in the Morning Chapel at Salisbury
Salisbury is a cathedral city in Wiltshire, England and the only city in the county. It is the second largest settlement in the county...

 Cathedral. To see a video of the Rex prism click

Further reading

  • S. Calloway, Rex Whistler The Triumph Of Fancy [exhibition catalogue, Royal Pavilion, Brighton & Hove] (2006)
  • J. Spencer-Smith, Rex Whistler's War 1939 - July 1944 Artist into Tank Commander [exhibition catalogue, National Army Museum] (1994)
  • Laurence Whistler
    Laurence Whistler
    Sir Alan Charles Laurence Whistler, CBE was a British poet and artist who devoted himself to glass engraving, on goblets and bowls blown to his own designs, and on large-scale panels and windows in churches and private houses...

    , The Laughter and the Urn The Life of Rex Whistler (1985)
  • Laurence Whistler
    Laurence Whistler
    Sir Alan Charles Laurence Whistler, CBE was a British poet and artist who devoted himself to glass engraving, on goblets and bowls blown to his own designs, and on large-scale panels and windows in churches and private houses...

     and R. Fuller, The Work of Rex Whistler (1960)
  • E. Olivier, In Pursuit of Rare Meats, being the story of the Rex Whistler Murals on the Tate Gallery Restaurant, H.M.S.O. (1954)
  • Laurence Whistler
    Laurence Whistler
    Sir Alan Charles Laurence Whistler, CBE was a British poet and artist who devoted himself to glass engraving, on goblets and bowls blown to his own designs, and on large-scale panels and windows in churches and private houses...

    , Rex Whistler, his Life and his Drawings (1948)
  • A. Hambling, Haileybury in Two World Wars, The Haileybury Society, Haileybury, Hertford, (2002)
  • Osbert Sitwell
    Osbert Sitwell
    Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, 5th Baronet, was an English writer. His elder sister was Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell and his younger brother was Sir Sacheverell Sitwell; like them he devoted his life to art and literature....

    , Noble Essences (1950)

External links

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