Rex Whistler exhibition at Mottisfont

A pencil self-portrait by Rex Whistler

This event happened in winter-spring 2017 and is now finished.

On show until 23 April, Rex Whistler: More than Murals includes large-scale paintings to working designs, sketches and some personal items. The exhibition borrows work from Plas Newydd, the Whistler Archive at the Salisbury Museum and the Welsh Guards.

Entry to the exhibition is free, normal property admission applies. The gallery is located on the second floor of the house. For visitors unable to access the space, we have digital versions of exhibitions on iPads which are available on lower levels.

An extraordinary talent

Rex Whistler perhaps best known for the awe-inspiring murals at Plas Newydd and Tate Britain, as well as here at Mottisfont. But he was also an imaginative set-designer, illustrator and an acclaimed portrait artist.

The exhibition features a number of Whistler's intricately detailed working design drawings
A pencil sketched design by Rex Whistler, picturing a man and woman walking through a glasshouse

He was a precocious talent, drawing with incredible skill from an early age, shown in juvenilia which will be displayed alongside his later works.

As a young man, he was much sought after socially as a witty, elegant character, moving in bohemian circles with other Bright Young Things such as Cecil Beaton. 

His artistic career lasted only until his tragic death in the Second World War, in 1944, but he has left a legacy of extraordinarily varied work.

Drawings, designs and detailed paintings

Our exhibition touches on all aspects of his creative output, demonstrating his artistic development and powerful imagination, with touches of humour.

Sketchbooks reveal intricately detailed drawings and paintings, while letters are adorned with cartoons and elaborate flourishes.

Personal items include the artist’s own paint box, borrowed from Plas Newydd, and a selection of photographs, from the Bright Young Things to a poignant picture with members of Whistler’s tank regiment.

Personal items include Whistler's own paint box, borrowed from Plas Newydd
Rex Whistler's paints and paint box

His keen imagination and eye for detail are abundantly evident in working design drawings for murals and theatre sets.

Whistler designed for opera, ballet and theatre, including Fidelio at the Royal Opera House and Victoria Regina on Broadway. He created illustrations for over a hundred books.    

The artist's final pieces document his time with the Welsh Guards, many created while he was stationed at Salisbury Plain. Compelling oil portraits of his fellow army men will be on display as part of Mottisfont’s exhibition.  

An oil painting of the officers mess tent, 1942
Oil painting of the officers mess tent, by Rex Whistler, 1942

The exhibition also includes a film by Rex’s nephew Daniel Whistler, created for Salisbury Museum, including footage filmed here.

Home of his final piece

The exhibition complements the most celebrated element of Mottisfont's collection, Whistler’s trompe l’oeil murals for Maud Russell’s drawing room.

Mrs Russell collected and supported the work of many artists. Just before war broke out in 1939, she transformed the original entrance hall into a large saloon. Whistler was commissioned to paint this room in a way that would deceive the eye. 

The results were spectacular. Painted in a gothick style, the room light-heartedly reflects the building’s origins as a medieval priory.

All columns, ledges or moulded plasterwork in this room are cunningly painted illusions, which create an extraordinary three-dimensional appearance.

Rex Whistler's detailed, deceptive murals are one of Mottisfont's most fascinating sights
A detail of Rex Whistler's murals in the saloon at Mottisfont, Hampshire

On one of these deceptive ‘ledges’ stands a further, almost hidden trompe l’oeil detail: a paint pot, brush, and box of matches, together with a painted inscription: ‘I was painting this Ermine curtain when Britain declared war on the Nazi tyrants. Sunday September 3rd. R.W.’

This extraordinary room was his last major piece. Whistler left to fight in 1944, but never returned, killed on active service in France.