Rex Whistler made his name in 1927 with In Pursuit of Rare Meats, the mural decoration for the new refreshment room at the Tate Gallery. He had a genius for pastiche, and echoes of eighteenth- century elegance haunt these murals as they do so much of his work as a painter, decorator, designer and illustrator. However, the vein of more earthy contemporary humour, apparent in his advertisements for Shell Mex and elsewhere, should not be underestimated.
Rex Whistler was born in Eltham, Kent, on 24 June 1905. He was the son of an architect and estate agent, and elder brother of the writer and glass-engraver Laurence Whistler. Discovering his talent while still a very young child, he won prizes from the Royal Drawing Society every year from 1912 to 1923.
Indeed his backwardness in other lessons – at Haileybury School (1919-22) – made inevitable a career in art. Yet he was considered incompetent by the staff of the Royal Academy Schools, where he spent his sixteenth year, and so transferred to the Slade School of Fine Art to work under the sympathetic direction of Henry Tonks (1922-26).
Making a great success for himself there, he won a scholarship to the British School in Rome which he took up in 1928 on completing murals at Shadwell and in the Tate Gallery. Whistler had a genius for pastiche, and echoes of eighteenth-century elegance haunt these murals as they do all his work as a painter, decorator and illustrator. His illustrative work is well exemplified by an edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1930), which transforms Swift’s biting verbal satire into a visually delightful jeu d’esprit. However, the vein of more earthy contemporary humour, apparent in his magazine illustrations and elsewhere, should not be underestimated.
During the 1930s, Whistler worked on his great mural scheme at Plas Newydd, Anglesey and began to develop a further career as a stage designer. But joining the Welsh Guards as a volunteer in 1940, he was killed on active service in Normandy on 18 July 1944.
His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A.