“Lost” Rex Whistler Painting to Be Exhibited

A recent issue of The Oldie has an article about a painting by Rex Whistler which had been thought to be lost or stranded and unappreciated in an unknown private collection. The article is by Mirabel Cecil, co-author with her husband of a recent biography of Whistler. The painting in question is Ulysses’s Farewell to Penelope painted in 1931-32. Probably stimulated by reading about the painting in the Cecils’ book, the owner, identified only as “Penelope”, contacted Mirabel and offered to show it to her. This revealed the following provenance:

How the painting came to be with this family is straightforward; how Rex came to paint it and give it to its original owner is more mysterious. The owner is called Penelope. She saw the picture and loved it. In 1975, it was sold at auction for £2,500. So far, so transparent. The catalogue entry for the sale read, ‘The property of Mrs Peter Hastings, from the collection of her father, Sir Malcolm Bullock, Bt.’

Mirabel Cecil goes on to describe how Whistler painted the picture for Bullock whom he had accompanied on a trip to Paris earlier in 1931. He wanted to dissociate himself from Bullock, who was a fairly open homosexual, but to do so graciously. Waugh was also acquainted with Bullock and mentions him in his letters. There was also correspondence between them which turned up in a 2017 episode of the BBC’s Who Do you Think you Are series. The subject was TV presenter Clare Balding who is Bullock’s great grand daughter. She found letters from Waugh while researching for the program. See previous post.

The Oldie’s article proceeds to a discusion of details of the painting as well as Whistler’s life and career and toward the end brings in Evelyn Waugh. This is based on Mirabel’s discussion of the poor display of Whistler’s self-portrait in Army uniform in the collection of the National Army Museum in Chelsea:

…The caption is in poor taste as well as being pretty useless. Instead of explaining who Rex actually was, his dates, or how this self-portrait has come to be here, it states only that he was the model for the painter Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. This is not even proven, although the museum’s caption presents it as fact.

The only record we have of Evelyn Waugh on Rex is in a letter Waugh wrote to their mutual friend Lady Diana Cooper: ‘I barely knew Rex Whistler. How I love him for asking, “What has victory to do with it?” It was the question one longed to hear asked in the last years of the war and not hearing it made me morose. It is the theme of my own little trilogy.’ (Waugh refers to his Sword of Honour war trilogy, and not to Brideshead Revisited.) Waugh wrote this years after the war; but it shows his contemporaries’ admiration for Rex. Waugh, Diana Cooper, Cecil Beaton… they all loved him for who he was. And they respected him for the brave decision he made in giving up his successful career and enlisting in order to fight the Nazi tyranny.

Waugh is recorded to have met Whistler on at least two occasions. The first was at a party in September 1933 at the home of Whistler’s close friend Edith Olivier near Salisbury in Wiltshire. At Christmas 1942, they were also both at a party given by Daphne Weymouth at her home on the other side of Wiltshire. They were both stationed in an Army post nearby at the time. On both occasions, Waugh is reported to have been hopelessly drunk and may not have remembered much about Whistler. He also used Whistler as the model for the character Arthur who is doing a painting on the walls of Julia Stitch’s house in the early pages of Scoop. Finally, after Whistler’s death in the War, his drawings were used to illustrate Waugh’s booklet Wine in Peace and War (1947). The drawings were in his correspondence with Saccone and Speed, the wine merchants who sponsored Waugh’s book for which he was paid in champagne.

The online version of The Oldie article includes two reproductions of Ulysses’s Farewell as well as the Army self-portrait mentioned above. Ulysses’s Farewell looks very much like a study for the mural Whistler did later in the 1930s at Plas Newydd. See recent post. According to The Oldie, Ulysses’s Farewell will be placed on exhibit later this year at the Salisbury Museum.

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