Returning from supper in Bayeux to his battalion in the Normandy countryside one July evening in 1944, the artist and Welsh Guards officer Rex Whistler chanced upon a ruined chapel. There, on one of its white walls, he was moved to produce, with only some red and blue pencils and a piece of charcoal at hand, a modest but poignant Madonna and Child.
It was a moving portrait in more ways than one. Europe was aflame; five years of war had laid waste to that civilisation. Christendom, the comity of Christian nations, was itself a casualty of two world wars, put to the sword in the trenches, concentration camps and firebombed cities of Western Europe. Whistler’s own days were numbered too. This mural produced on the eve of battle was, we now know, to be his last.
Whistler was killed in combat, aged 39, on July 18, the first day of Operation Goodwood. In some ways, his death was expected. Whistler had expressed a wish not to be buried in a war cemetery. And one wonders whether his Madonna and Child was prompted by some premonition.
Whistler was not a Catholic, nor was he really even a Christian, believing there was only “a 50-50 chance” of a “future life”. He might best be described as “an impenitent romantic in a generation which had broadly rejected this attitude”, as Laurence Whistler, his brother, once said.
Whistler’s most well-known work, his mural in the Tate Britain restaurant, completed in late 1927, is a clear example of that very sensibility, which came to define most of his artistic output: that of fantastical landscapes harking back to a half-remembered, half-imagined pastoral paradise.
It was really Italy that made Whistler’s imagination come alive. His quarry – “exquisite grief”, as he once termed it – was to be found most of all in the Campagna. Being there, he wrote, he was “suddenly reminded of how we used to live … I feel as though I was an old man full of sad longing for my vanished youth, and worried with a kind of regret for the way in which I must have wasted or not valued properly those wonderful and beautiful, and now irretrievable days!”
Laurence would later claim that his brother never really came to terms with industrial society. That’s true, I think.
Although Whistler was not a Catholic, he did display certain Catholic sympathies. Attending his first Roman service in Milan Cathedral, he was immensely impressed by the sheer spectacle of it, and especially the sound of the choir, whose “voices rose and rose till it seemed to go up to the distant roof in a vast pyramid of deafening sound”. He even remarked to his mother that, had a spare priest been at hand, he would have been a willing convert to the Church. Laurence, however, would comment that had Rex converted, it would only “have been conversion to the Roman Candlestick rite and nothing to do with faith or belief”.
While religion never really entered Whistler’s artistic world, he was prepared to accept the commission, in 1938, to paint a triptych for the altar of English Martyrs at the London Oratory. Flanked by portraits of St Thomas More and St John Fisher, who had been canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935, the centrepiece depicts Catholic martyrs being executed at Tyburn (present-day Marble Arch).
The Catholic Herald praised the triptych in the highest terms, exclaiming that it “was struck anew” by the “extraordinary charm and beautiful composition” of this “general panorama of English martyrdom”. Moreover, the artist evidently had an “understanding, not only of the natures of the two saints, but of the nature of sanctity generally”.
Indeed, it was “the most curious thing” that Whistler was not a Catholic, since “for piety of feeling, combined, of course, with great technical skill, he puts most of our Catholic artists to shame”.
Gerald Noel, a future editor of the Catholic Herald, was one of the first to view the work in the artist’s studio. Noel, who came from a noble Catholic family, was preparing for Confirmation with Fr John Talbot, who sent him over to Whistler. Viewing the work, he thought it “magnificent”. When it was stolen in 1983 (the current triptych is a copy), Noel affirmed that “without scruple I will pray to my ancestors for its recovery”.
Might Whistler have converted to Catholicism had he survived the war? It’s impossible to answer.
Comparisons with the artist Charles Ryder, Evelyn Waugh’s protagonist in Brideshead Revisited, have been made before. Ryder, who paints similar scenes to Whistler, does eventually convert, of course. However, it seems safer to continue to view Whistler as an unrepentant romantic, albeit with Catholic sympathies, as opposed to a likely convert.
The Plas Newydd mural, another of Whistler’s great accomplishments, and perhaps his masterpiece, a 56ft-long epic painted for the Marquess of Anglesey (not the Marquess of Marchmain) testifies to the force of his romantic imagination, but not his religiosity. Being part of the old world, the aristocracy was eager to indulge it. It is fortunate that they did.
When war came in 1939, Whistler, despite his age, was determined to serve in a frontline unit. In a way, he was similar to another of Waugh’s great characters, Guy Crouchback, in the Sword of Honour trilogy. Crouchback’s war experiences are largely based on Waugh’s own involvement, fighting in such places as Crete. Whistler had the “strong feeling that if anyone has to go and fight it is precisely people of my age, and not the young boys”.
What are we to make of Whistler’s scribble on a chapel wall in July 1944, then? What possessed him at that moment to fall back on the iconography of the Madonna and Child? Evidently it was a personal statement, for there was no other obvious audience at hand. If we are to assume some pious motivation, we might say it was some manner of religious entreaty, such as Sir Jacob Astley’s prayer on the eve of the Battle of Edgehill in 1642: “O Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not forget me.” There was also the sight of the broken chapel itself: a romantic commonplace.
To the English mind in particular, ecclesiastical vestiges exerted a lasting grip on those predisposed towards a tantalising bygone Catholic age. And Whistler, we know, was such a romantic. In terms of any sense of religious feeling, however, his brother tells us that, though Rex “sometimes prayed, and liked the solace and beauty of familiar words in church”, his own art was not a “vehicle” for religion. “It spoke only for itself, not reality beyond.”
Nevertheless, with death on his mind, and not only his own, Whistler may have been once again recalling all that had been lost, as well as all that was being ruined, across the breadth of Europe. Perhaps he was holding on to the sacred memory, however romanticised, of a past that once was.
Perhaps that final mural was in fact a final confession, then, an admission that what had really stirred his romantic imagination was exactly those Christian, especially Catholic, centuries that had, in England at least, ended at the Tyburn gallows, as Rex had so vividly displayed at the London Oratory.
Finally, in the blink of an eye, almost without a thought, but on the most profound of all compulsions, Whistler had composed the meekest of all requiems for a fallen world, for Christendom itself. Accordingly, as his brother would later observe, his career was concluded, ending “on a faint minor chord that no audience ever noticed”.
Daniel Frampton is a freelance writer and has recently completed a PhD based around the Catholic literary revival