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Whistler at Mottisfont

Glamour, tragedy and theatrical fairy tales.

Youthful, at ease, dreaming—his athletic limbs lounging in the Mediterranean sun; the young man poses for society photographer, Cecil Beaton.

His name is Rex Whistler. Born a humble builder’s son he is now an artist, fêted from Broadway to British high society, and one of the Bright Young Things; a fast-living group of creatives from the roaring twenties.

This hazy, black-and-white image is part of a new exhibition at the National Trust’s Mottisfont Abbey. Rex Whistler: More Than Murals showcases a lifetime’s work by the prodigiously talented illustrator, set-designer and muralist who died young, killed in Normandy during the Second World War.

Why Whistler, here in Hampshire? Take a tour of the Abbey and the answer becomes magnificently clear. Just past the entrance hall is The Trompe L’Oeil Room, the artist’s last major work before leaving to fight in France.

Commissioned in 1939 by Maud Russell, the Abbey’s châtelaine and society hostess extraordinaire, it was a final hurrah to thirties excess, all gin, gramophones, sharp talk and bias-cut dresses. The soaring columns and seemingly vaulted ceiling bear cheeky comparison to the Abbey’s cramped, haunting Medieval Cellarium. Who knows what the ascetic monks would have made of Maud’s soirées in this luscious room?

They might look 3D, but incredibly these walls are flat-as-a-pancake: no columns, no ledges, no moulded plasterwork. The technique is called trompe l’oeil and it is much favoured by set-designers. Bingo. The overlap between Whistler’s work in theatre and high society becomes clear, a theme examined by the exhibition.

Illustration of Hans Christian Andersen and Lady Caroline Paget by Rex Whistler

Maypole Round Shell Pump by Rex Whistler

One image depicts detailed plans for the homes of Mountbatten and Sassoon another, set designs for Covent Garden and Broadway where lines of perspective, costume and lighting are all recorded in minute detail. This exacting exuberance is seen everywhere from fairytale illustrations of mermaids and pirate ships to wigged aristos and grotesque, Regency Maypole dancers.

Whistler’s eye was uncompromising and, after a less-than-satisfactory first experience in set design, he vowed to have complete control over costume and lighting as well. This strong vision often saw him clash with patrons; look carefully below one of the armour and sword set-pieces in The Trompe L’Oeil Room to see a pair of hands crossed at the wrists. It is a subtle allusion, some say, to the tussles he had with Maud Russell over the room’s design.

Despite this, theirs was a profound relationship—in her diary, dated 5 Nov 1939, Mottisfont’s First Lady wrote:

“Sat. morning Rex finished the room & left. He left quickly & I felt as if a loved person had gone forever or as if part of the house I was living in had been suddenly pulled down.”

Sharp eyes will find the room’s other quirk. On a false ledge, high-up, there’s a trompe l’oeil paint pot, brush and a box of matches. It is executed with great care yet seemingly left for mere moments, as the distracted artist took tea. Alongside it, an inscription reads:

“I was painting this Ermine curtain when Britain declared war on the Nazi tyrants. Sunday September 3rd. R.W.”

A war from which Whistler never returned.


Mottisfont Abbey, Mottisfont, Romsey, SO51 0LP.

The exhibition runs until 23 April 2017 and is open daily 11am-4pm. It is featured in this week’s Muddy Guide. Admission is included in the ticket price for the Abbey and its grounds. Children under-seven won’t enjoy the exhibition, but you can tag-team with the younger ones if necessary—the grounds are absolutely child-friendly with wooden and water play areas and beautifully thought-out seasonal trails based around classic children’s tales. This summer it’s The Gruffalo, watch this space for a review.


Words: Mary Malyon, Editor Muddy Stilettos, Hampshire

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