A big, thick, nicely illustrated biography is perfect reading for snowy days. Especially a well-written biography of an interesting character such as an elusive, contradictory, elegant, enormously talented and well-connected artist who died far too young and under-appreciated.
I'm fascinated by the way people choose to live their lives, the choices they make, the opportunities they take or create or miss, and a good biography will get close to its subject but also view him or her from a more objective distance, and reveal something of the contrast between private and public, domestic and official. The Laughter and the Urn, the 1985 biography of Rex Whistler by his brother, Laurence, does all this, and I would recommend it for long sessions on the settee with tea, quilt and fire, as the snow falls, the light fades, and the world grows quiet.
I often choose ex-library copies when buying on abebooks because I like the stamps and marks, knowing where they came from, and how many people have read a book now sadly marked 'DISCARDED'. This book hadn't been taken out very often which is a shame because it's a truly compelling, thoughtful biography by a poet and writer, but also a brother. I don't think I've ever read a biography of a one brother by another before, and realised early on what a huge difference it could make. Having just read the newest book about RW which is excellent but more a general overview of his life and work than a true biography, it was marvellous to get a much closer understanding of RW's personality from LW's accounts of their shared world of childhood, and the revealing, often funny details of the family and school life - and only a brother who was there could have written these.
There is some ambivalence in fraternal relations in the central section of the book (LW, seven years younger, often felt overshadowed by his immensely successful, social butterfly brother, and at times appears to despise or at least mistrust the 'bright young thing'/socialite circles in which he moved) and the information about the 1920s and 30s is mostly public knowledge. But the brother-biographer comes into his own in the early years (as above), and again in the final years (1939-44) when they were both soldiers, and LW is meticulous in covering RW's war experiences. In these two sections he writes quite differently, with a sense of their bond and closeness but never worship, nostalgia or sentimentality. There is humour, clear-sightedness and a fair placing of RW where he deserves to be for posterity and, above all, deep brotherly love and affection.
I finished it last night, a little stiff from sitting still for so long, and very moved by the final chapters. Today I'm still thinking about what we choose to value or overlook, and how an artist or writer can miss out the acclaim he or she deserves when alive. Apart from Edith Olivier, high society and the art world never really appreciated RW and his talents, not in the way his family did when he was young and his fellow-soldiers did when he was older. There was much wringing of hands and elegant letter-writing when he died, but there could have been far more active acknowledgement of his wonderful talents and output while he lived. Too often we don't realise or articulate how much something or someone means to us they are taken away.