Original pen & ink drawing by Rex Whistler (1905-1944)
Provenance: The BP Shell Collection Sotheby's Olympia London Sept 10, 2003
Art Sz: 10.5"H x 7.25"W
Frame Sz: 19"H x 15.5"W
Reginald John Whistler was born in Britain on 24 June 1905, at Eltham, greater London, the son of architect and estate agent Henry Whistler and Helen Frances Mary, daughter of Rev. Charles Slegg Ward, vicar of Wootton St Lawrence, near Basingstoke, Hampshire. In May 1919 he was sent to boarding school at Haileybury, 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, but disliked the regime there and was "sacked for incompetence". He then proceeded to study at the Slade School of Art, where he met 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 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 to book illustration (including works by Evelyn Waugh and Walter de la Mare, and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels) and mural and trompe-l'oeil painting. Paintings at Port Lympne Mansion (within Port Lympne Wild Animal Park), Plas Newydd, Mottisfont Abbey and Dorneywood among 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 Whistler imagined her naked is a matter of debate.
His most noted work during the early part of his career was for the café at the Tate Gallery, 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. 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". 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.
Whistler's activities also extended to ballet design. He designed the scenery and costumes for Ninette de Valois and Gavin Gordon's Hogarth-inspired 1935 ballet The Rake's Progress.