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The Whistler Room of Mottisfont Abbey

Published by on 19 February 2023

London, Thursday November 17, 1938... At 4 o'clock I went to see Rex and stayed two hours discussing the big room. I enjoy seeing him scribble his ideas on paper, holding his pencil so strangely and clutched half way down between his second and third fingers. His pencil drips ideas.’ Maud Russell [Ed. E. Russell, A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938-1945 (Stanbridge, 2017) pp. 40-41

Maud Russell’s 1938 diary entry, which followed her engagement of the painter and designer, Rex Whistler, to decorate the drawing room fondly nicknamed the ‘big room’ of Mottisfont Abbey, seemingly anticipated Whistler’s ingenious reimagining of the space through his dramatic trompe l’oeil murals. Whilst Russell initially requested a ‘modern gothic’ design scheme for the room, distinct from the neo-Georgian aesthetic of the building’s other twentieth-century rooms, Whistler’s conception layers elements of Mottisfont’s long design history with revival styles popular in the period. Known for fantastical manifestations inspired by a love for eighteenth-century art and architecture, Whistler drew upon strains of the baroque, the rococo, and a taste for whimsy that prevailed throughout his work, to form the room’s striking design.

Detail of painted ermine curtains, etc.

Figure 1. Detail of the painted ermine curtains, window bays, and trompe l’eoil plasterwork by Rex Whistler, 1938-39

Created just before the onset of the Second World War, the room’s design and furnishing plan are illustrative of the taste of Britain’s upper classes during the interwar years. This project, generously supported by the British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (BIFMO), aims to understand the design of the room and the collaboration between its patron, artist, and contributors that made it possible.

Born in London on the 24th of June 1905, Reginald (Rex) John Whistler studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art where his notoriously critical tutor, Henry Tonks, noted that he was one of the ‘few truly talented natural draughtsmen that he had ever met.’ [H. & M. Cecil, In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and His Work (London, 2012) p. 21]. At the Slade, Whistler formed friendships with the preeminent stage designer, Oliver Messel, and the notorious socialite, Stephen Tennant. Tennant, the ‘brightest of the bright young things’, introduced Whistler to an aristocratic world foreign to his own more modest upbringing. This included taking him on his first overseas trip, as well as introducing him to a social circle that included Cecil Beaton and Edith Oliver, the writer and hostess with whom Whistler developed a close friendship of his own.

Whistler’s 1927 completion of The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats  for the refreshment room of the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) pre-empted the commissions he would undertake in the succeeding years. Initially considered a triumph by twentieth-century art critics, the mural includes racist depictions of people of colour. The space was closed as a restaurant in 2020, with the intention for it to host installations by contemporary artists that will respond to the mural’s content and history.

For much of Whistler’s work, the commissioners appear to have given suggestions for their preferred decorative scheme, with Whistler supplying designs they accepted unquestioningly based on the success of his previous work and unquestionable talent. In contrast, the creative process behind Mottisfont’s Whistler Room speaks to the more proactive role undertaken by Maud Russell.

Smoking Brazier

Figure 2. Whistler's Smoking Brazier

Russell was a significant patron and admirer of the arts. In 1937, she commissioned Henri Matisse to draw her portrait, and throughout her life, she assembled a large collection of modernist works by Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, André Derain, and Georges Braque, among others. Alongside Whistler’s murals at Mottisfont, mosaics by Russian artist Boris Anrep decorate the Red Bedroom  and exterior of the house, bearing testament to Russell’s enthusiasm for contemporary art. This interest is expressed in her committed involvement with the decoration of the ‘Big Room,’ now the Whistler Room, and her self-assured engagement with elements of Whistler’s initial design proposals. These early sketches reveal a far more elaborate decorative scheme, with parallels to the sweeping vistas of his work at Plas Newydd (1938) and Port Lympne (1930). As Maud remarked in 1939, ‘Rex had chalked in some delicious scenes - ruins, stages, bowed trees to tempt me and I was tempted. But I returned again to trophies’ [Ed. E. Russell, A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938- 1945 (Stanbridge, 2017) p. 53].

Design for east wall of Whistler Room

Figure 3. Preliminary design for the east wall of the Whistler Room, 1938, NT 769745

Ultimately, it would be Maud’s dismissal of these landscape scenes, alongside further design suggestions by Whistler, that delayed the completion of the room and resulted in the false characterisation of their relationship as being marked by contempt for one another. The publication of Maud’s diaries in 2017 reveals a more nuanced and affectionate rapport between the two, Maud commenting that she ‘felt as if a loved person had gone for ever, or as if part of the house I was living in had been suddenly pulled down,’ following Whistler’s departure from Mottisfont at the project’s completion [Ed. E. Russell, A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938-1945 (Stanbridge, 2017) p. 76].

Gothic motifs incorporated into sconce

Figure 4. Gothic motifs incorporated into the wall sconces, NT 769622

‘Mottisfont, with its extraordinary amalgamation of medieval and Renaissance was a building after Rex’s own heart and he represented something of the synthesis in this Rococo-Gothick decoration.’ [C. Hussey, Country Life, 1954, p. 1399].

As noted by Country Life, once complete, the Whistler Room exhibited a blend of different styles intertwined with one another. The walls of the room are painted with numerous trophies, which possess a sensibility in line with the grand baroque grisailles of Sir James Thornhill in the Painted Hall at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich (1707-1727); and the window bays, dado, radiator vents, and  entablature reference motifs from the building’s original Gothic architecture. Elsewhere at Mottisfont, in rooms like the White Bedroom and basement kitchens, elements from earlier phases of the building’s history have been left visible.

The trompe l’oeil qualities of the Whistler Room also have parallels with Whistler’s work on set designs and costumes for theatrical productions such as Pride and Prejudice at St. James’s Theatre in 1936 and The Rake’s Progress at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1942. This is particularly noticeable when considering the painted ermine curtains, elaborately detailed from the front, whilst plain and unembellished when viewed from the back. The deceptive quality of Whistler’s design is further evidenced through his meticulously marbled fireplace, its ‘stone’ appearance defensible until viewed up-close and revealed to be mere paint.

While illustrating a hybrid of different styles, Whistler’s design epitomises a taste for 'reviving' the past that was also embraced by many of his and Russell’s social circle. Historian Jane Stevenson has argued that in an era marked by a generalised anxiety about the potential for another global conflict, the escapism provided by historical styles appealed to British consumers [J. Stevenson, Baroque Between the Wars: Alternative Style in the Arts, 1918-1939 (Oxford, 2018) p. 15]. Indeed, Russell’s diaries reveal her continual investment in the room’s completion, while also highlighting how the prospect of war was ‘never out of one's mind… these thoughts are too dreadful to put into words… horror invades one…’ [Ed. E. Russell, A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938- 1945 (Stanbridge, 2017), pp. 113-114].

Painted plasterwork trophy

Figure 5. Painted ‘plasterwork’ trophy to the right-hand side of the fireplace in the Whistler Room, 1938-39

Russell furnished the room with a large number of Chippendale-style pieces, including armchairs, a sofa, and a gilded mirror in a Rococo-Chinoiserie style. The mirror was purchased in 1952 at the Arundell sale at New Wardour Castle in Tisbury, Wiltshire, where Chippendale is believed to have worked. Although archival evidence does not establish a firm connection between the room’s furniture and Thomas Chippendale, the pieces’ enduring association with the famed cabinetmaker speak to Russell’s intention to recover an ‘authentic’ eighteenth-century appearance that would complement the theatre created by Whistler’s designs. Further, while the provenances for many objects that once furnished the Whistler Room are unknown, several additional pieces of furniture from the house sold at Sotheby’s in 1983 are described as ‘Regency’ in the sales catalogue. Additionally, photographs staged by Country Life depict a room resplendent with Regency and Regency-style furniture.

Details of Chippendale Mirror

Figure 6. Details of the Chippendale style mirror, NT 769324

Chippendale style chair

Figure 7. The Chippendale style armchair, NT 769326

The prominent positioning of eighteenth-century English furniture (authentic to the period or inspired by it) in the room speaks to its ‘escapist’ quality, but also illustrates the vogue for Regency revival that gained popularity in the first half of the twentieth century among collectors, designers,  manufacturers, and scholars [L. Wood, “Lever’s Objectives in Collecting Old Furniture,” 1992, p. 211-226; F. Collard, “The Regency Revival,” 1984, p. 7-18]. Championed by the likes of playwright and novelist Edward Knoblock, who had himself purchased furniture by Regency designer Thomas Hope at the infamous Deepdene sale of 1917, the taste would be referred to as ‘Vogue Regency’ by architectural historian Osbert Lancaster in Homes Sweet Homes (1939). This phrase connoted a style that was considered chic and of the moment. Indeed, it has been suggested that Russell herself, through the auction of Knoblock’s belongings at Sotheby’s in 1946, purchased a monopodium table for £100 that had once come from the Deepdene. [Ed. D. Watkin & P. Hewat Jaboor, Thomas Hope: Regency Designer (London, 2008), p. 262].

This Regency-inspired design scheme may, however, have been viewed as a temporary arrangement. In one of his final letters to Russell, Whistler agrees to return to Mottisfont and design furniture specifically for ‘his’ room. Tokens of his intention include the inconspicuously painted pot, brush, box of matches and a small note barely visible upon the upper section of the room’s south wall, confirming he was painting the room when Britain declared war ‘on the Nazi tyrants.’ These images are symbolic of his promise to return to Mottisfont once the war was won, having enlisted in 1940. Regrettably, Whistler fell victim to a mortar-bomb in 1944 and would not return to make good on his word.

The Whistler Room’s design is clearly reflective of interwar taste, however, it irrefutably owes much of its decorative scheme to styles championed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The furniture gifted to the National Trust by Russell – the ‘Chippendale’ mirror, Chippendale-style chairs, and button back settees – all reference the decadence of a romanticised past. Despite Whistler’s intentions for the room never being realized, the clear influence of Baroque, Rococo, and Regency styles on Russell in her choice of furnishings for the room, reveal a vision in tandem with his desire to revive the aesthetics of the past. This interest was best surmised by Osbert Sitwell, who commented that Whistler viewed the world ‘with the eyes of another age’ [Stephen Calloway, Rex Whistler: The Triumph of Fancy (Brighton, 2006) p. 25].

Whistler's Pot, Paintbrush and Matchbox on the south wall of the Whistler Room.

Figure 8. Whistler's Pot, Paintbrush and Matchbox on the south wall of the Whistler Room.

Click on the following link to see an interactive map of the Whistler Room

About the authors

James Kiernan

MA student at University of Buckingham

Katrina Reynolds

MA student at Winterthur Program in American Material Culture