Nikki Frater


This thesis explores the life and work of Rex Whistler, from his first commissions whilst at the Slade up until the time he enlisted for active service in World War Two. His death in that conflict meant that this was a career that lasted barely twenty years; however it comprised a large range of creative endeavours. Although all these facets of Whistler’s career are touched upon, the main focus is on his work in murals and the fields of advertising and commercial design. The thesis goes beyond the remit of a purely biographical stance and places Whistler’s career in context by looking at the contemporary art world in which he worked, and the private, commercial and public commissions he secured. In doing so, it aims to provide a more comprehensive account of Whistler’s achievement than has been afforded in any of the existing literature or biographies. This deeper examination of the artist’s practice has been made possible by considerable amounts of new factual information derived from the Whistler Archive and other archival sources. Thus the sources of his ideas and influences, the creative stimuli to which Whistler responded have been documented extensively and mapped against the iconography to be found in his works, particularly the murals. Further consideration of the art, artists and culture of the time situates the artist amongst his contemporaries, drawing out the themes and inspirations that he shared with them and in so doing questions the idea of Whistler as an idiosyncratic artist working in a partially private ‘bubble’, cut off from wider currents of art practice. The artist’s diaries and accounts books have provided invaluable fresh information on his working practices, social and professional connections and the remuneration he received for different projects. This monographic concentration on Whistler’s life and art practice is seen as the necessary foundation for further analysis of his career and what his career, in turn, tells us about the inter-war British art world. The thesis argues that Whistler’s success as a muralist needs to be considered against the background of the English mural revival, the emergent enthusiasm for Baroque and Rococo style and the rediscovery of the Regency period. Equally, a case is made for Whistler’s understanding of the new area of advertising and design that developed in the 1920s and 30s, in which he played a substantial part. The thesis also argues that Whistler was complicit in the managing of his image during his lifetime, and was particularly astute in his understanding of the power of the press and media. With Whistler’s work in many areas governed by the commissioning process, an attempt is made to understand and assess the implications of patronage in the twentieth century and the concomitant effects upon an artist’s creative vision, voice and identity.

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