The Artist and The Aesthete: Rex Whistler and Sir Philip Sassoon

The Artist and The Aesthete: Rex Whistler and Sir Philip Sassoon
I have long been fascinated by the patronage relationship between the artist Rex Whistler and Sir Philip Sassoon, a client for whom he carried out so many commissions in the inter-war years. My research has led me to become increasingly convinced that this relationship has been rather misunderstood by their biographers.

The young artist first came into Sir Philip’s orbit as one of the candidates competing for the commission to paint a mural around the walls of the Tate Gallery Refreshment Room (now the Rex Whistler Restaurant) in 1926. As a Tate Trustee, and keen advocate of mural decoration, Sir Philip was part of the selection process. He pushed for a more experienced artist, such as Josep Maria Sert (who had completed a resplendent mural scheme in Sir Philip’s house in Park Lane) or candidates from the British School at Rome, where he was also a Trustee. However Rex, barely 21 and still a student at the Slade, won the day. The rapturous reception given to the Tate murals on their unveiling clearly boosted Rex’s standing in Sir Philip’s eyes and in 1929 he engaged the artist to illustrate his book ​‘The Third Route’. This was followed by commissions for an entire room of murals at Port Lympne and several, smaller decorative schemes at Trent Park, both largely completed between 1930 and 1933.

These were important commissions, coming so soon after the Tate Gallery project, and Port Lympne was the first entire painted room he created for a private patron. Rex’s usual approach to these works was to make subtle, often witty references to the client and their family within the mural – sharing a hidden joke with them. He might include their interests and travels, and places that had special significance. Historically murals have always reflected the lives and often the power of the patrons who have commissioned them, and woe betide the artist who didn’t glorify his benefactor. Sir Philip would have none of this; his wish was for nothing personal to be revealed by Rex’s brush and, for the Port Lympne mural, design after design was dismissed. He allowed his monogram to appear in burnished gold, and his house in Park Lane can be found in one of the scenes that unfold around the walls. Rex was frustrated at the interference but did not argue.

At Trent Park the interior style was much more restrained than at Port Lympne. Although the two schemes were painted fairly concurrently, here Rex placed the emphasis on elements of classical decoration, much of it Roman in influence, a period very close to his heart. The largest panel, above the fireplace in the Blue room, is a magnificent martial trophy in reds and golds with Sir Philip’s initials emblazoned on the shield. In the Library, two female figures in Roman armour with plumed helmets recline on either side of a large arched bookcase, whilst further along the enfilade dolphins with gilded spumes adorn the spandrels of an arched Venetian window. Rex discreetly introduced Sir Philip’s gold monogram on various walls throughout the ground floor. These designs were in perfect harmony with the calm, elegant, very English décor that Sir Philip created, both inside and outside the mansion.

The charge of anti-Semitism levelled at Rex in his brother Laurence’s biography has perhaps been overstated. Sir Philip was the subject of veiled taunts about his background throughout his life, often described as ​‘exotic’ and ​‘foreign’, terms that were shorthand for Jewish. But Sir Philip was as discreet about his religion as any other part of his life. The period was one of casual racism and overt prejudice which seems shocking to us in the twenty-first century. Laurence felt that anti-Semitism lurked behind Rex’s nervousness about stating his price for the Port Lympne mural commission to Sir Philip, but this was as much to do with his client’s imperious nature as any reference to his ethnicity. In the event the cost was leaked to the press causing client and artist huge embarrassment. It says much for Sir Philip that Rex’s fulsome apologies were gracefully received and work continued.

It has also been assumed that Rex and Sir Philip’s relationship did not extend beyond a business arrangement. However, the Trent Park and Port Lympne Visitors Books (and Rex’s own diaries) tell a different story. He was a regular visitor throughout the 1930s, those hedonistic years where Sir Philip hosted high profile, celebrity, political and royalty studded events at both of his estates. There are many beautiful illustrations within these Visitors Books, created by Rex purely for his and his host’s entertainment. He was also part of a smaller coterie who would regularly be invited to stay between Christmas and New Year.

Many of Rex’s circle of friends and patrons were also on Sir Philip’s guest lists. The Duke and Duchess of York (the future King and Queen), Duff and Diana Cooper, the Mountbattens, Lady Juliet Duff, Barbie and Euan Wallace, the Angleseys, Sir Malcolm Bullock, Osbert Sitwell and Lord Berners could all be found enjoying Sir Philip’s legendary hospitality, and thus the two men’s social circles overlapped. It can’t be said that Rex and Philip were the closest of friends but deeper research shows that their relationship was a much warmer one than has been assumed.