By Anna Thomasson
I first came across Rex Whistler some years ago at Plas Newydd on Anglesey. There he had painted his largest and most famous mural, begun in 1936. The dining room looks out across the Menai Strait to the looming mountains of Snowdonia. Rex’s mural, on the opposite wall is an Arcadian reflection, the view from the windows transformed into a lively Mediterranean scene of swirling clouds, turquoise seas, Baroque churches and stately gondolas. In the foreground Neptune has escaped into the house, leaving his crown and trident on the harbour wall and his wet footprints on the quayside.
I was immediately intrigued. Playful and whimsical, this was nothing like my idea of 1930s art, and Rex, nothing like I expected of a 1930s artist. It seemed that Rex was a romantic figure, he was diffident and enigmatic. His art was more inspired by the romance of the past than by the present and his short life was overshadowed by his early death (at the age of 39) during the Second World War in the summer of 1944. He is sometimes considered an inspiration for the character of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s lament for a lost world of country house splendour.
As I began to research Rex someone else suddenly emerged, often clutching a cigarette and holding court in Cecil Beaton photographs of the Bright Young People, an animated, older woman with black hair, a strong nose and enormous gold earrings. And there she was amongst letters in archives and footnotes in biographies. Rex first met Edith Olivier in the spring of 1925 at a villa on the Italian Riviera. Both were guests of Stephen Tennant, the mercurial young aristocrat then hailed by the press as ‘the brightest of the bright young things’. Rex and Stephen were students at the Slade School of Art where they had become great friends. Edith was an old friend of Stephen’s mother Pamela. In the previous winter Edith’s sister and lifelong companion had died leaving her alone for the first time in her life. She had believed her life was over. Pamela and Stephen decided to invite her to Italy and lure Edith out of her mourning. And there she met Rex Whistler. The friendship that developed between them was to be the most important of their lives. It was to transform them both. Rex was then nineteen and Edith fifty-two.
Edith had already lived a fascinating life. A spinster, the daughter of the rector at Wilton in Wiltshire, she had grown up within the lofty, liberal environs of Wilton House, studied at Oxford and developed the Women’s Land Army during the First World War. Later she was awarded an MBE for her work. She had both profound Christian faith and supernatural visions, claiming to feel the energies of the mythical Wiltshire landscape in her bones. After her father’s death she would move with her beloved sister Mildred to a house in a quiet corner of the Wilton estate surrounded by rivers and woods that had inspired Sidney’s Arcadia.
Edith had kept a diary since childhood. She had written in it every night in bed with the exception of several days after her sister’s death when the small, leather-bound book remained unopened beside her bed. Those diaries are kept neatly boxed in the county archives in Wiltshire along with Edith’s vast collection of correspondence. I travelled down to Wiltshire, staying in a bed and breakfast nearby and waiting eagerly with my laptop as the record office opened each morning. During those weeks I spent in Edith’s archives, almost blinded by Edith’s impossible handwriting, the story of Edith and Rex’s lives, of their friendship and the friendships they shared tumbled out of the boxes. Over the years that followed that meeting in Italy, a circle of younger men developed around Edith, drawn to her youthful spirit, her open-mindedness, her wisdom and delight in things. And so there in the archive was Rex, each letter and envelope beautifully illustrated with amusing cartoons or Rococo frames; there was Stephen Tennant, who lived nearby at Wilsford, his pastel-coloured paper and tissue-lined envelopes, his colourful loopy handwriting declaring his love or his loathing for whatever had then caught his eye. There was his lover, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, the composer William Walton and the photographer Cecil Beaton.
Beaton joined the circle of friends in 1927. His star was then on the ascendancy, he was a trailblazing photographer whose innovative portraits of socialites and actresses were the talk of the town. Beaton’s camera came out at every possible moment; he was always poised to capture (and usually to choreograph) the antics of his friends. And so his archives, now owned by Sotheby’s, provided me with an extraordinary window onto that world. What I only imagined while reading the diaries and letters suddenly came alive in front of my eyes.
But perhaps most thrilling and telling for me was what Antonia Fraser calls ‘ocular research’, travelling to the places where Rex and Edith had lived and worked. Plas Newydd, Tate Britain, Mottisfont, there seeing Rex’s work in situ, the spirit of the age and the spirit of those places were profoundly tangible. Rex’s Fitzroy Street studio was bombed during the Blitz, but walking down that elegant Georgian street, staring up at the expansive windows and glimpsing graceful drawing rooms, it is easy to imagine him at work or leaning against the fireplace smoking as in a portrait of him from the thirties. In Wilton, I loitered at the gates and was welcomed in to the Rectory where Edith had been born and lived for many years with her family. A graceful, red-brick, doll’s house kind of place, with a long sweeping lawn leading down to the river at the back of the house. It lingered in Edith’s imagination for the rest of her life.
But it was Edith’s home, the Daye House, the old dairy for Wilton House, tucked away in a wooded corner of the estate, that fascinated me most. Edith’s house became a haven not only for Rex but for all her younger friends. The heart of the house and indeed the heart of Edith’s life was the Long Room, really an old wooden army hut attached to the side of the house. Over the years it had slowly transformed into an elegant drawing room filled with books and paintings. Rex painted it in 1937 and it was his favourite painting. He asked Edith, if he died first, would she bring it with her when she came. In the painting Edith reclines on her chaise as she always did, entertaining Lord David Cecil and Lady Ottoline Morrell while Rex leans beside the fireplace. It was in that room that Cecil Beaton sprawled on the floor selecting pictures for his first book with Edith’s help. It was where William Walton worked on his first symphony while saying with Edith for weeks on end.
Edith died in 1948, only four years after Rex’s tragic death in the war. Though the Long Room was dismantled decades ago the Daye House still stands, hidden behind the high wall of the Wilton estate and as Edith had earlier written, veiled in ‘green silence . . . within a “Charm of birds” ’.
Simon reviews A Curious Friendship in the Non-Fiction section.