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Whistler at Mottisfont

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 from the roaring twenties much-like Radio One’s Grimmy and his motley crew of c’lebs.

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

Why Whistler, here in Hampshire? Enter the Abbey itself, straight ahead and to your right, and the answer becomes magnificently clear: known as the Trompe L’Oeil Room, it was Whistler’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 is a Cathedral to the thirties in all its excess: the gin, the gramophones, the sharp talk and bias-cut dresses. Soaring columns and seemingly vaulted ceilings bear cheeky comparison with the Abbey’s cramped, haunting Medieval Cellarium, who can imagine what the ascetic monks might have made of this luscious room and its wild inhabitants?

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

Here you have detailed plans for the homes of Mountbatten and Sassoon and there, set designs for Covent Garden and Broadway: lines of perspective, costume and lighting recorded in minute detail. This exacting exuberance is seen everywhere from fairytale illustrations of mermaids, pirate ships and wigged aristos — my seven-year-old year thought they looked like Cinderella — to 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.

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, executed with great care yet seemingly left as the distracted artist took tea. And the inscription: ‘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.

The exhibition runs until 23 April and is open daily 11am – 4pm. It’s 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 Abbey’s 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.

Mottisfont Abbey, Mottisfont, Romsey, SO51 0LP.

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The Urban Guide to the Countryside - Hampshire