Rex Whistler Mural

· culture ·

On our way back from Anglesey, we stopped off at a National Trust Property called Plas Newydd. A very beloved Godmother of mine gave Mr. Bsag and I a Lifetime Membership to the National Trust as a wedding present, which was a generous and wonderful gift that we make use of frequently. National Trust properties are often fascinating, but the entrance fees can also be expensive, so you sometimes wonder if the trip will be worth the money or you end up staying longer than you really wanted to, just to get your money’s worth. Having the membership has solved all that for us as we can just pop in on the off-chance that we’ll find something of interest1.

In this case, we had actually planned the trip on the recommendation of a friend who said we had to see the stunning mural by Rex Whistler which is in the dining room of the house. Rex (no relation to the Whistler of ‘Whistler’s Mother’ fame) Whistler was commissioned by the 6th Marquess of Anglesey to paint a mural for a long wall of the dining room in the 1930s. The dining room is rather an awkward shape, being very long and rather thin. The idea was to cover the whole of the long wall facing the windows with a painting, presumably so that those seated facing the wall had a view that was just as interesting as for those facing the windows. Strictly speaking it isn’t a mural, because it was painted on an enormous length of canvas which was stuck to the wall, rather than being painted on the surface of the wall itself. It is, however, stunning.

One of Whistler’s artistic talents was in painting stage scenery (though he was also an excellent fine artist and illustrator too), and he created a beautiful and dramatic sea- and cityscape for the dining room. He painted an imaginary city — which incorporates some of his favourite buildings from the UK and other countries — and peopled it with imaginary figures and also members of the Marquess’ family. As the viewer, you appear to be standing on the quay of a grand harbour, with cities to your left and right and mountain ranges in the background. Rex cleverly wrapped the painting around the corners of the room, so if you look left or right when facing the painting, you seem to be looking down the line of two long colonnades.

The painting itself is almost photo-realistic, and Whistler played incredible tricks with perspective and trompe l’oeil effects. When you are at one side of the painting the mountain ranges on the left appear to reach about the middle of the picture and the city on the right is tiny. As you move to the right, the mountains recede and seem to take up only the first quarter of the painting, and city on the right expands into incredible detail. There are also very odd effects with a rowing boat and an anchor in the foreground which appear to rotate as you move along the picture. It’s impossible to describe the impact that it has. I could have spent hours looking at all the details.

Immensely talented though he was, Whistler’s story is a rather tragic one. When he was working at Plas Newydd on the painting, he fell in love with the Marquess’ daughter, Lady Caroline Paget (you can read more about the story on here). By all accounts, his love wasn’t requited. The guide pointed out that Rex painted himself into the one of the side colonnades, sweeping up red rose petals to symbolise his unrequited love, since he had previously painted a portrait of Lady Caroline holding a red rose. When war broke out, he joined the Welsh Guards. In 1944, he was commanding a tank in Normandy when the tank became entangled in fallen telegraph wires. The crew were fired on by German machine gunners as they tried to free it, and when Whistler ran to another tank to request covering fire, a mortar exploded close by, killing him instantly.

One of the little details pointed out by the guides really got me. On the steps of the right-hand colonnade, Whistler painted a half-smoked cigarette. Rex smoked and painted it in as a visual joke and a token that he had just stepped away and would be back to add more details to the painting. He never came back.

  1. We even sometimes (rather guiltily) use National Trust properties as posh service stations on a journey. We use the toilet facilities, have some tea and lovely cakes in the tea rooms, then wander through a bit of the grounds before getting back in the car. ↩︎