Rex Whistler

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Rex Whistler
Rex Whistler - Self-Portrait 1934.jpg
Self-Portrait, 1934
Reginald John Whistler

(1905-06-24)24 June 1905
Died18 July 1944(1944-07-18) (aged 39)
EducationSlade School of Art (1922)
Known for
Notable workTate restaurant mural; the 58 foot 'Sea-scape Fantasy' at Plas Newydd, Isle of Anglesey
Movementnon-conformist, baroque revival
RelativesLaurence Whistler (brother)
Patron(s)Welsh Guards

Reginald John "Rex" Whistler (24 June 1905 – 18 July 1944) was a British artist, who painted murals and society portraits, and designed theatrical costumes. He was killed in action in Normandy in World War II. Whistler was the brother of poet and artist Laurence Whistler.


Reginald John Whistler was born in Britain on 24 June 1905, in Eltham, Kent (now part of the Royal Borough of Greenwich), the son of architect and estate agent Henry Whistler and Helen Frances Mary, the daughter of Rev. Charles Slegg Ward, vicar of Wootton St Lawrence, and through her mother a descendant of the goldsmith and silversmith Paul Storr.[1][2]

Medusa (1926), ink and watercolour
Cover of the Christmas 1931 edition of Radio Times

His best known work during the early part of his career was for the café at the Tate Gallery,[3] completed in 1927 when he was only 22. He was commissioned to produce posters and illustrations for Shell Petroleum and the Radio Times. He also created designs for Wedgwood china based on drawings he made of the Devon village of Clovelly, and costumes "after Hogarth" for the premiere production of William Walton's ballet The Wise Virgins, produced by the Sadler's Wells Company in 1940.[4]

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".[3] His murals for Edwina Mountbatten's 30-room luxury flat in Brook House, Park Lane, London were later installed by the Mountbattens' son-in-law, decorator David Hicks, in his own houses.[3]

Second World War[edit]

Self-Portrait in Welsh Guards Uniform (1940)

When war broke out, although he was 35, Whistler was eager to join the army. He was commissioned into the Welsh Guards as a Second lieutenant in June 1940.[5] He served in the Guards Armoured Division.[6]

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 it did not mean he could not paint, and he therefore also carried a bucket hanging off the side of his tank for his paintbrushes.[7]


Whistler is said 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 came up to him, and they talked for a while. Before they parted, Portal remarked, "So we'll probably see each other tomorrow evening." Wistfully, Whistler replied, "I hope so."[7] He was killed on 18 July 1944, after he left his tank to go to the aid of other men in his unit, killed by a mortar bomb.[8] His body now lies in Section III, Row F, Grave 22 of Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery, situated 10 kilometres east of Caen.[9] Reportedly, The Times newspaper received more letters about Whistler's death than for any other war victim.[3]

The Rex Prism at Salisbury Cathedral

A memorial glass engraving by his brother, Laurence Whistler (the Rex prism) was placed at the Morning Chapel at Salisbury Cathedral. Laurence also wrote a biography of his brother The Laughter and the Urn (1985).[3]

Whistler's death is mentioned in a letter to Alec Guinness in 'Sir John Gielgud A Life in Letters', edited by Richard Mangan (Arcade Publishing 2004), p. 75. Gielgud notes that 'Whistler's death is a major tragedy' adding that 'He wanted to prove that 'artists can be tough' and alas, he has done so - but the world is greatly the poorer for his sacrifice'.


In 2013, the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum acquired an archive, compiled by Laurence Whistler after Rex's death, consisting of thousands of drawings, book illustrations, stage and mural designs and other material by Whistler.[10] The museum mounted an exhibition based on this material in the summer of 2013.[11]



  1. ^ Paul Storr 1771–1844, Silversmith and Goldsmith, N. M. Penzer, Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1971, pp. 16–17
  2. ^ "Whistler, Reginald John [Rex] (1905–1944), artist : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - oi". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36856. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ a b c d e Pentreath, Ben (30 November 2012). "The mural imperative: The magical visions of the between-the-wars painter Rex Whistler have their modern-day incarnations". Retrieved 2 December 2012.
  4. ^ "PROMENADE CONCERT Part 2". The Radio Times. No. 1346. 29 July 1949. p. 22. ISSN 0033-8060. Retrieved 24 July 2020.
  5. ^ "No. 34875". The London Gazette. 14 June 1940. p. 3699.
  6. ^ Richard Doherty (16 July 2013). British Armoured Divisions and their Commanders, 1939–1945. Pen and Sword. pp. 164–. ISBN 978-1-4738-2674-8.
  7. ^ a b Beevor, Antony. D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. Toronto, Canada: Penguin Books, 2009. 313 pp.
  8. ^ "Rex Whistler's self-portrait in Welsh Guards uniform, May 1940". National Army Museum. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  9. ^ Commonwealth Wargraves Commission entry.
  10. ^ Maeve Kennedy (25 August 2013). "Rex Whistler, the prolific, overlooked British artist of the early 20th Century". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 August 2013.
  11. ^ Laura Cumming (18 August 2013). "Rex Whistler: A Talent Cut Short – review". The Observer. Retrieved 27 August 2013.
  12. ^ Murray, Jessica (4 August 2020). "Tate removes reference to 'amusing' restaurant after racist images in mural draw anger". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 August 2020.
  13. ^ Chu, John (2021). 100 paintings from the collections of the National Trust. David A. H. B. Taylor, National Trust. London. ISBN 978-0-7078-0460-6. OCLC 1259546913.

Further reading[edit]

  • d'Abo, Lady Ursula (2014). Watkin, David (ed.). The Girl with the Widow's Peak: The Memoirs. London: d'Abo Publications. ISBN 978-1907991097.
  • S. Calloway, Rex Whistler The Triumph of Fancy (2006), exhibition catalogue, Royal Pavilion, Brighton & Hove
  • J. Spencer-Smith, Rex Whistler's War 1939 - July 1944 Artist into Tank Commander (1994), exhibition catalogue, National Army Museum
  • Laurence Whistler, The Laughter and the Urn: The Life of Rex Whistler (1985)
  • Laurence Whistler and Ronald Fuller, The Work of Rex Whistler (1960), catalogue raisonné
  • E. Olivier, In Pursuit of Rare Meats, being the story of the Rex Whistler Murals on the Tate Gallery Restaurant, HMSO (1954)
  • Laurence Whistler, Rex Whistler, his Life and his Drawings (1948)
  • A. Hambling, Haileybury in Two World Wars, Haileybury, Hertford: The Haileybury Society (2002)
  • Osbert Sitwell, Noble Essences (1950)
  • Hugh Cecil and Mirabel Cecil, In Search of Rex Whistler, Frances Lincoln (2012)
  • Hugh Cecil and Mirabel Cecil, Rex Whistler at Plas Newydd, 1936–38, National Trust (2019) ISBN 978-0-70780448-4
  • Anna Thomasson, A Curious Friendship – The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing, Macmillan (2015)

External links[edit]