Rex Whistler 1905– 1944
Private View, Royal Academy 1929
Pen & ink 4 ¾ × 7 inches (12 × 17.8 cm)
Shell-Mex (Shell plc); Sotheby’s Olympia, Shell-Mex and BP Advertising Collection, 10 September 2003, lot.2, illustrated on the catalogue cover.
Arts Council, That’s Shell That Is, 1983–4, no.42.
Humour for Shell 1928–1963, p.15, cat. no.3
On leaving the Slade, Professor Tonks predicted a glittering career for Rex Whistler as a decorator, illustrator and designer. He recommended the 22-year-old to Lord Duveen for the mural commission at the Tate Gallery refreshment room. The scheme was well received, and commissions flooded in from the aristocracy (notably the Marquess of Anglesey, at Plas Newydd, and for Lady Mountbatten’s 30-room apartment on Park Lane). Whistler’s commercial work included posters, advertisements, illustrations for books and magazines, ceramic and costume designs. It is tempting to look for some of his uppercrust clients in this small illustration, commissioned by Shell. Opening Day at the Royal Academy was one of the events of the season, and one is looking out for likenesses of – perhaps – Sitwells, Mitfords, Morrells et al. Messrs Upstone & Whiteley have identified Virginia Woolf (bemused far left), Roger Fry (uncomfortable right), Augustus John (far right).
The delicate youth Stephen Tennant is introduced to a seated grande dame, perhaps by a senior Academician: the recently-deceased RA President Frank Dicksee maybe? Diana Cooper might be in conversation with D.S.Macoll, Keeper of the Tate, in the centre of the composition. And surely the two most clearly-drawn figures in the composition (seated front right) must have been known to the artist, but who they are remains a mystery, pending the discovery of Whistler’s own notebooks. His career was cruelly cut short, as he was killed by a shell burst in Normandy on his first day of military action in the Second World War.