[Rex Whistler in his Fitzroy Street studio in 1936, by Howard Coster]
There are many gifts I would like to possess besides the obvious ones that continue to elude me such as tact, piano-playing, and successful egg-poaching, but above all I would love to be able to draw. If I could draw, I could move onto painting, but without drawing it would just be splashing about with colour. Every artist I admire could/can draw beautifully (I'm thinking immediately of Stanley Spencer, David Hockney, Van Gogh, Mary Fedden, Quentin Blake, Ford Madox Brown), but I've never envied anyone their drawing skills as much as I now envy Rex Whistler (1905-1944) his phenomenal - almost magical - ability with pens and pencils.
I was given the huge, richly illustrated new book about RW for Christmas, and just last night finished it with a feeling of enormous sadness due to the fact that his tremendous talent was lost in the Second World War. He died at the age of 39, had accomplished a huge amount, but never achieved the level of serious recognition he deserved. It seems his fanciful, witty, dandyish C18 style was seen as lightweight, particularly as murals (an art-form funded by rich patrons creating unique interiors in grand houses), theatre design and illustrations were his stock-in-trade before the war.
[Self-portrait in Welsh Guards' uniform (1940) Rex Whistler]
However, when you read about his drawing genius, his incredible recall of places and buildings, and his fantastic imaginative landscapes, it's clear that he was a quite unique artist who created an awe-inspiring body of work. But what I enjoyed most was reading about his facility for drawing. He carried a drawing kit wherever he went (he even had a box of paints and canvases welded to the back of his tank) and had a cigarette case which held razors for sharpening pencils - but no cigarettes. He drew non-stop from an early age and could draw even when surrounded by a crowd of people and while holding a long conversation. He drew on letters, bills, walls, any surface that could be embellished, improved, made more beautiful. Of course, he also painted after doing the drawing and sketching, and the details that he included in his huge murals are what make them so fascinating, the tiny personal touches, jokes, inscriptions, initials and coded messages.
[Smoking urn in the Whistler Room at Mottisfont, painted 1938-9]
The book is excellent on RW the artist but in the end fails to find RW the man, despite the search of the title. In some ways it doesn't matter as his art and his life are captivating, but the true personality behind the work remains something of an enigma; it's not clear why he didn't apply to be an official war artist and why he himself seemed to devalue his own work as he grew older. The end of the book and the end of his life are both reached with tremendous regret: for the lost artist, but also for all the potential great art that was lost when he died.