This exhibition is the latest in Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum’s series of shows exploring the work of significant British artists with links to the locality, starting with Constable & Salisbury in 2011, and Circles & Tangents: Art in the Shadow of Cranborne Chase in 2012.
Rex Whistler (1905-44) leased the handsome Walton Canonry in Salisbury Cathedral Close, sometimes known as Whistler House, a few doors from Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum. He spent much time in the locality, at nearby Wilton House, whose architectural features and Palladian Bridge inspired – and appear in – much of his work; with his close friend, Edith Olivier, at Daye House, which he painted many times, on the Wilton Estate; at Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey, where he created magnificent trompe l’oeil designs for Maud Russell’s drawing room, now called the Whistler Room; at Ashcombe, which he visited on many occasions and, together with Oliver Messel and Lord Berners, decorated Cecil Beaton’s bedroom; on Salisbury Plain, when training with the Welsh Guards, and in the village of Codford where he was stationed.
The magnificent, rotating Rex Prism, engraved by Sir Laurence Whistler with scenes in and around the cathedral, is a memorial to his brother Rex. It is displayed in the Morning Chapel of Salisbury Cathedral, which is opposite the Museum.
Rex Whistler was a prominent and prolific twentieth century artist on the British scene between the wars. A prodigious worker, he produced enchanting and important mural cycles, stage designs and book illustrations, as well as portraits, designs for the decorative arts and commercial material. At the outbreak of war, he joined the Welsh Guards, training as a tank commander on Salisbury Plain, 1941-4, where he not only painted and sketched many of his fellow soldiers, but also transformed the interior of the officers’ mess - painting the inside as a Bedouin tent. Tragically, he was killed on his first day of action in Normandy, in 1944.
This exhibition, which embraces Whistler’s whole career and artistic development, has a special emphasis on his Wiltshire connections. The show includes around 75 items that are key to his oeuvre and demonstrate his importance as a painter. There are loans from important collections including the Regimental Headquarters of the Welsh Guards, Wilton House, the Whistler Archive and a number of private collections, as well as oil paintings owned by Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, bequeathed by Edith Olivier’s family. A number of items are exhibited in public for the first time.
It is the wish of both the Museum and the Whistler family that the Rex Whistler Archive in its entirety (paintings, drawings, decorative arts, designs, photographs and letters, from his earliest output until his death) will be purchased by the Museum so that it can be housed here permanently.
Film maker Daniel Whistler, nephew of Rex, who has unrivalled access to material, and leading researchers on his uncle, is making a short film to introduce the exhibition at the Museum. It will include the murals at Plas Newydd and Port Lympne.
To complement the exhibition, visits combining Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum with Salisbury Cathedral, Wilton House and Mottisfont Abbey can be made.