Waugh, Rex Whistler and the English Martyrs

Peter Hitchens has written an essay entitled “Latimer and Ridley Are Forgotten: A Protestant Understanding of England’s Martyrs.” This appears in the current issue of First Things, a nonsectarian religious journal. He argues that Roman Catholics have more effectively promoted their martyrs in the cause of their religion in England than has been the case with martyrs for the Anglican cause. His arguments are intended to put both sets of martyrdoms into a more balanced historic context.

In the course of his essay, he refers to a painting depicting Roman Catholic martyrs done by Rex Whistler. According to Hitchens, the Roman Catholics:

… needed a martyrs’ memorial. [Thomas] More and Fisher, like Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, were undeniably great and courageous Englishmen, and eloquent ones, too. One especially potent use of their memory can be found in St Wilfrid’s Chapel in the Brompton Oratory in London, perhaps the supreme headquarters of Catholic militancy in England. Above the altar of the English martyrs, in a side chapel of this majestic church, is a powerfully sinister and suggestively grim mural. It looks very old, but it was painted in 1938 by Rex Whistler (who is possibly the model for Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited). It depicts executions at Tyburn, London’s principal place for such things, and is flanked by idealized portraits of More and Fisher.

The execution scene is a masterpiece. The callous, lumpish crowd, backs turned on us, watches as several bodies dangle from a triangular gibbet. …  A strong impression of evil and cruelty comes out of the frame, as I am sure it is meant to do. I would not want an impressionable child to see it. It is one of the most powerful pieces of propaganda I have ever experienced. When I recently revisited it, I was astonished to find how small it actually is. I had remembered it as huge.

But it is not quite true. It does not make the point it seeks to make. More and Fisher died for political offenses at the hands of a Catholic coreligionist [Henry VIII] who believed in the Real Presence and other essentials of the unreformed faith until the day he died, excommunication or no excommunication. Nor did More and Fisher die amid the crowded squalor of Tyburn, on a gibbet or in the flames. They were beheaded, a swift and merciful death by the standards of the age, at Tower Hill. Whistler’s gruesome picture…refers to something entirely different.

This is said to be Whistler’s only painting of a religious subject. He was not a Roman Catholic. Waugh knew him through mutual friends such as Diana Cooper. Waugh also used Whistler’s drawings to illustrate his postwar pamphlet Wine in Peace and War and commented on his work in letters and essays. He is also the model for a minor character in Scoop. But so far as I am aware, Waugh never mentions this religious painting in the Brompton Oratory, although he was surely aware if it. It was painted only after Waugh wrote Edmund Campion in 1935, which also deals with the subject of martyrdom. According to Whistler’s biographers, the painting was stolen in 1983, but there are photos on the internet (although these may depict a restored copy). The biographies offer little by way explanation of how Whistler came by the commision to paint it.

 

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