‘SOLD AS SEEN’. A useful loophole for the vendor if the wheels of the used car you have just bought drop off on the journey home. It should always be a warning that things may not be quite what they seem. However, we are just as likely to fail to look beyond the surface or question our preconceptions in matters which go far beyond unwise purchases.
Rex Whistler was born in 1905. He was a painter, illustrator and designer and after studying at the Slade, provided posters for Shell Petroleum, illustrations for the Radio Times and stage sets for Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Popular in fashionable London, he became successful as a portrait artist in the years between the wars, painting many of the ‘Bright Young Things’ in whose set he moved.
In 1939, Whistler volunteered for the Army and was commissioned into the Armoured Division of the Welsh Guards. It is in the costume of that calling that we see him in a self portrait, seated on the balustrade of a terraced balcony with a glass of wine in his hand, handsome and elegant in in a well-tailored uniform. His officer’s cap, gloves and Sam Browne belt lie on a chair, slightly to one side. At first glance, the picture of a privileged and comfortable young man taking up the role expected of him in a time of war and, perhaps, a little proud of that status.
But there is a small sign of contradiction – even of subversion – in this painting. In the foreground, completely separated from the military accoutrements, there is a bundle of loosely-tied paintbrushes. This symbol of identity, untidy and workaday, tells the observer that all is not quite a simple as it may seem. It is as though the artist has invited us to recognise that the tools of his trade are as significant a part of his being as the tackle of the warrior, however dashing and romantic the latter might appear to some.
On active service, Whistler further confounded the conventions. He attached a bucket to his tank in which he kept his paintbrushes – a potent reminder of human creativity amid the chaos of human destruction. He volunteered to be his regiment’s burial officer, a difficult and often grisly responsibility for which men did not generally queue up, and carried with him at all times a bag of small crosses as part of his duties towards the dignity of the dead. He asked that if he was killed, he should be buried where he fell and not retrieved to a military cemetery. He was killed, in Normandy in 1944, going to the aid of men who had been blown up by a mortar bomb. The men under his command complied with his wishes, though the system later reclaimed him and he lies now in a military cemetery at Banneville-la-Campagne.
If I had been a contemporary of Rex Whistler, there would have been next to no chance of our paths crossing. Had they done so, it seems very unlikely that we would have had anything in common. I would probably have felt a little intimidated by his social standing and elegance of manner. I would almost certainly have been uneasy about his military role and apparent compliance with the requirements of armed force and Empire. It would have been so easy to stereotype from the superficial evidence. But I have learned that this would have been a shortfall on my part. What lay beneath would have passed me by and what seemed accurate might never have been found untrue. The aligning of sources with what we already believe to be real, is the commonest of experiences and a source of much conflict and division.
What you see, is not always what you get. And for that, give thanks to the artists, musicians, poets and storytellers who have the power to jolt us into personal pursuit of what is true. Paintbrushes may be as potent as ploughshares; the thankless task, the greatest service; and the confounding of classification, the beginning of that journey into truth.
* Rex Whistler’s self-portrait in Welsh Guards uniform can be seen here (artuk.org).
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen