Rex Whistler Exhibit at Mottisfont Abbey

The Guardian has reported an exhibit of the works of artist Rex Whistler at Mottisfont Abbey, a National Trust property located in Hampshire between Winchester and Salisbury. Whistler decorated the interior of the house in the late 1930s when it was occupied by Maud Russell. Most biographies of Whistler conclude that this was one of Whistler’s most fraught country house assignments, with the owner constantly changing her mind about the details. The Guardian’s description of the exhibit tells a somewhat different story:

[Maud Russell] was portrayed as constantly interfering with Whistler’s work, changing her mind and generally making the job a misery – but that was not the truth of the relationship in her diaries, and it’s good to have this chance to set the record straight. She was highly intelligent and very interested in creating a room in keeping with the history of the house.” Whistler’s last great mural, fantasy gothic architecture covering walls and the ceiling of Russell’s huge drawing room, took far longer than expected. She tried to pay him extra, but he only accepted £100: she wrote in her diary that it was the first time in her life that anyone refused to accept her money. The diaries – A Constant Heart, edited by her granddaughter and to be published in February by Dovecote Press – also reveal her sadness when he finally did finish.

Whistler and Waugh knew each other and had a close mutual friend in Diana Cooper. Waugh admired some of Whistler’s works but had reservations about others; Whistler’s drawings were used posthumously to illustrate Waugh’s 1947 pamphlet Wine in Peace and War. Whether Waugh ever visited the murals at Mottisfont is not known to your correspondent but he was not a close friend of the family that owned it. According to the Guardian

Evelyn Waugh is said to have based Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited on Whistler – but Govier [curator of the exhibition] believes both he and Russell had far fewer affairs than credited with. Whistler was welcomed as much for his charm as his talent in a procession of wealthy houses. The designer Cecil Beaton described his conversation as “enchantingly funny”, though he added: “No gossip – doesn’t know any. No sex talk – doesn’t think of it.”

There is not much in Whistler’s character that rubbed off on Ryder except perhaps for his friendship with his Slade School classmate Stephen Tennant whose wealthy family occupied a country house not far from Mottisfont called Wilsford House. This was Whistler’s introduction to the upper class world in which he afterwards thrived. Tennant like Sebastian Flyte suffered an alcoholic decline in his later years, but Whistler unlike Ryder never married, and unlike Ryder, Whistler painted country house interiors rather than the exterior views that made Ryder’s reputation. There is another Waugh character that can more reliably based on Whistler–this is the young artist Arthur who is decorating Julia Stitch’s house in the first chapter of Scoop. The exhibit continues until April 23rd. Details are available here.

UPDATE (18 March 2017): Maud Russell’s wartime diaries (A Constant Heart) have now been published and are reviewed in a recent issue of the Daily Mail. The review is more interested in the extent to which the diaries describe her affair with Ian Fleming than to her influence on Rex Whistler’s murals.

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