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One of Rex Whistler’s paintings in the museum collection. Edith Olivier in garden of Daye House 1942

The artist Rex Whistler, 1905-1944, is less well known than his contemporary Eric Ravilious, 1903-1942.  One only has to look at the greetings cards in the museum shop to realise that.  Both were killed in World War II, both at the age of 39, and at the height of their powers with so much more to give.  Salisbury Museum is in a unique position to promote Rex Whistler’s work to a wider audience.

There have been retrospective exhibitions of Whistler, notably the Army Museum 1994, Brighton Art Gallery 2006 and Salisbury Museum 2013.  Whistler’s younger brother, Laurence, amassed a huge archive of everything and anything connected with his sibling, and this remained with the family after Laurence’s own death, and was purchased by the museum after the 2013 exhibition.  It is the most appropriate home for it, as a few years before his death Whistler had taken a lease on 69 The Close, a near neighbour of the museum.

As a volunteer steward at the 2013 exhibition, I was invited to an evening’s viewing of part of the archive soon after its arrival.  This was heaped on the tables in the Meetings Room, and it was almost impossible to pick out what to look at first, and the Director assured us it was only a small sample of the whole collection, which had never been fully catalogued.  In the five years since then, and most importantly, almost everything has been stored in protective sleeves where necessary, and proper storage boxes.  Where Laurence had put items into manila envelopes or similar, the contents have been removed, and the envelopes kept and added to the records, as they often provide clues on what they previously held.  The cataloguing continues, and the collection has been photographed.  As the cataloguing records are completed in longhand in pencil, the details are then transferred to Modes.

The cost of holding the archive did not stop with its purchase.  The materials for its protection are expensive, and some of the original works of art are in need of conservation, having been kept in unsuitable conditions or folded when they should have been stored flat.

The archive is, of course, available to bona fide researchers, and the Talking Objects scheme adopted by the museum during summer months, has given a wider public a taste of Whistler’s enormous talent in portraiture, mural painting, book illustration, film and theatre design, advertising, etc., etc.  This small selection also includes photographs and some of his correspondence, he being a reluctant but skilled letter writer, even though his spelling was always wobbly.

Initially I was asked to give an illustrated talk to fellow volunteers, which I did.  Subsequently I took this talk to an outside group, and a generous cheque was sent by them to the museum, and further bookings are in the pipeline with the possibility of more fees for the museum.

This gave me the idea of using the archive as performance matter, rather than lecture material, and early in 2018 it was agreed that something along those lines could be programmed into the museum’s events calendar.  I was given the date of 7th December to work towards, and I decided to base the evening on the correspondence tracing Whistler’s life from a 12 year old boy just starting at boarding school, through his work and the high society life of the 20s and 30s to his army service with the Welsh Guards from 1940 until his death in 1944.

This fascinating account of a Volunteer’s interest becoming a public performance is continued next week… Thank you Christine!