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Last week we heard from Liam Story and Maddie Harris of Exeter University after their working visit to us recently. This week we hear from them again, this time telling us about exhibits which they particularly enjoyed.

Maddie writes…

In the week I spent at the museum my love of art only grew, and I became fascinated with the Rex Whistler Archive. Salisbury Museum is fortunate enough to have a vast collection of Rex’s work, correspondence and sketches, from when he was a small child to the last letter that was sent from his Officer in the Second World War, declaring his death. Regrettably, Rex died at the age of 39 and his true genius as an artist is still not as appreciated as it should be; his art work ranges from satirical to extreme detail and precise imagery. Some of Rex’s commercial work can be seen in the Creative Wiltshire Exhibit, and just outside of this exhibition hang five of Rex’s oil paintings, the first one dating from 1940, to the one of Edith Olivier on a day-bed painting in 1942. These paintings perfectly show the evolution of Whistlers work, from a more classical oil painting style with blurred brush lines and limited smaller details, to the day-bed which has overwhelming amounts of detail. On such a small canvas this seems almost impossible to comprehend with this type of media.

The Entrance Gates to the Daye House, Wilton Park. 1940 .
Unsigned, but believed painted 19 May 1940. It shows Edith Olivier seated.

Unsigned, but inscribed on the back ‘Edith O/Sept: 12 1942’. Edith Olivier recorded in her journal that she frequently had to move during its painting to escape the dazzling sun and hence the wide-brimmed muslin hat

When I first heard that I would be working with Rex Whistler’s material I was ecstatic, and the volume of the collection that Salisbury Museum has is incredible and I would have never imaged it to be so big. The collection includes sketch-books, photographs of murals, letters and correspondence as well as stage designs and plans. Looking through some of these archives only made me appreciate his artwork more. His personality is expressed through his sketches and only looking through one of his many books you can see his humorous personality shining through. Many of Rex’s works are in watercolour and ink, these are exquisite and are said to have only been quick off-hand doodles, the precision and detail in each and every one of his works is remarkable and leaves you speechless. Looking at the sketchbooks gives an insight into how Rex responded with each and every media. His skills were endless from architectural sketches, dream houses he created, murals and beautiful canvas paintings. The paintings on display are only the tip of the iceberg to the genius of Rex Whistler. What is even more extraordinary is that the majority of Rex’s work is from memory, the observational skill is phenomenal and I have never seen anything so extraordinary. Every artist I have ever studied spends months staring at a photograph or they spend hours observing the real thing, but Rex exceeds all expectations.

I would highly recommend visiting the permanent Rex Whistler paintings displayed and to observe the transition so expertly arranged, in chronological order, highlighting the developments he made. Rex Whistler never truly believed he was extraordinary and I believe this is one of the reasons he is not more well known today, but in my eyes he is beyond extraordinary and I have gladly had the privilege to be up close and personal with some of his work. 

And from Liam….

During my placement at the Salisbury Museum, I became particularly interested in the Drainage Collection. It is one of the most fascinating exhibits in the museum. It consists of numerous objects, from the most ordinary, such as keys (how someone lost some of the huge keys found I am unsure) to unusual items such as walrus ivory chess pieces (which will be later discussed). The collection lays the foundations on which the museum first started in 1860, and even today is one of the main centrepieces of the museum.

The Drainage Collection comprises around 1,300 items in total (not all are on show, of course) and the items were found in the drainage channels that were part of Salisbury during the medieval period, from the 1300s up until the mid-1800s. As such, the Drainage Collection represents 500 years of local history. It is remarkable that such wondrous items were found in drains after being lost, or purposely thrown away, by citizens of Salisbury up to 700 years ago! However, I think the most fascinating items found has to be the Walrus Ivory Chessman which was found by the superintendent of the drainage works on Ivy Street in 1846. Due to the Walrus Ivory material it is made from, the cost of the chessman in its full set would have been considerable, and to have lost such an item in a drain must have been so unfortunate. Despite the value though, the chessman can easily be missed due to its small size, which is such a shame as it really is an intriguing little item.

Upon close look, the chessman portrays a king on horseback, with rows of supporters in the form of foot soldiers looking upon the king. The design of the chessman suggests a Germanic or Scandinavian origin, and
around 700 years old, it is believed it dates back to the 1300s (Murray, 1913). The date links to the design of the chessman. The king has lentoid eyes, a broad face, a flattened nose and an open crown, all synonymous with designs from the time it was made. A further indication of the date, are the costume and armour designs of the foot soldiers, especially the shields which have flattened upper edges and sharply angled corners (MacGregor in Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum: Medieval Catalogue part 3, 2001).

I would highly recommend taking a look at the Drainage Collection. It is great to think that 500 years of history was found in the medieval drainage channels that were in Salisbury. The chessman, in particular, is fascinating, and even more so once looking at its origin. I am sure some of the other items have a fascinating story too, such as how did someone manage to lose some of those huge keys. It just goes to show, that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.