06 June 2015

Rex Whistler and the Bright Young Things: curious friendships

Reginald Whistler (1905-44) was born in Kent and soon nicknamed Rex. As a teenager he was sent to boarding school at Haileybury where he quickly learned his skills in art. After high school, the young Whistler was accepted at the Royal Acad­emy, but did not fit within the conditions set for students.

Going instead to the Slade School of Art, Whistler met Stephen Tennant (1906–1987), soon to become one of his best friends. Through Tennant, Whistler later met the poet Siegfried Sassoon and, as we shall see, Edith Olivier. Except for being a peer of the realm and a cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde's lover), I cannot find what Stephen Tennant actually did with his time.

Whistler, on the other hand, was very busy. His oeuvre covered art projects of very different types, including book illustration, paintings on canvas, theatrical and ballet sets, murals and posters. Most Whistler fans were probably not aware that he also created designs for Wedgwood china.

Whistler might have been born into a modest middle class family but was regularly invited into the homes of the noble and the fashionable to paint portraits, especially for the Marquess of Anglesey and Countess Edwina Mountbatten. And his friendship with Stephen Tennant introduced Whistler into the glamorous world of the Bright Young Things. These members of London Society included poet Edith Sitwell and photographer Cecil Beaton.

From left: Rex Whistler, Edith Olivier, Zita Jungman, Hon Stephen Tennant, Cecil Beaton 
South of  France, March 1927.
Photo credit: Pin It 

Stephen Tenant was gay, and had a wonderful sexual affair with Siegfried Sassoon from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. Stephen Tennant also inspired and assisted Cecil Beaton for many years and was the lover on whom Beaton modelled himself on in many ways. In the summer of 1930 Beaton met art collector Peter Watson, who Truman Capote described as the only great love of Beaton’s life. Cecil became obsessed with Watson for the next four years. Later Greta Garbo declared her love and sexual passion for Cecil and they discussed marriage.

Poet Edith Sitwell (1887– 1964) was never married and shared a flat with her the governess she had had since adolescence. In 1927 she was emotionally committed to a gay Russian painter and stayed with him for a few years. Then in 1932, she went with her governess to Paris, where they lived with the governess’s sister. Edith’s easily identified portrait (below) was painted by Roger Fry, and was photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Rex Whistler’s sexual preferences were not clear. He wavered on the subject of having an affair with Stephen Tennant, but was glad that they had never had sex, as it would have complicated their friendship. He indulged a brief, doomed infatuation for young Penelope Dudley-Ward, whose portrait he had been commissioned to paint. He developed a more enduring passion for the beautiful Lady Caroline Paget. Too poor, as he thought, to propose marriage, he seems to have specialised in hopeless relationships. He did manage to consummate a liaison with Tallulah Bankhead, and carried on affairs of some sort with a succession of unhappily married Society women.

Why did Whistler join the army when war broke out in 1939? He was too old to see active duty and could have worked as an Official War Artist. Yet he chose to work as a burial officer. In 1944 he was sent to France following the D-Day landings and was killed during his first day of action.


So who was Edith Olivier and why was she important to Whistler? Read the Martin Williams review of the book A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing written by Anna Thomasson (Macmillan 2015). Curious is the word for the friendship that flourished between the middle-aged spinster Edith Olivier (1872–1948) and the talented young painter Rex Whistler during the mid 1920s. To understand what made their meetings of minds so unique, a degree of context is required.

Edith Olivier
Mayor of Wilton (1939-1940)
painted by Rex Whistler
67 x 49 cm.
Wilton Town Council

Olivier’s background could not have been more typically Victorian. The 8th of 10 children of a rector, she was educated at home in a secluded and sedate life. Although she succeeded in winning a schol­arship to Oxford, she ultimately returned to act as a companion to her elderly mother and then to her adored sister Mildred. When Mil­dred died of cancer in 1924, Edith appeared to have lost the interest that had animated her life.

On holiday in Italy, to which she want as chaperone to that brightest of the Bright Young Things, Stephen Tennant, Edith was introduced to Rex Whistler, 30 years her junior and soon to make a name for himself as an artist enjoying immense popularity with the fashionable set of the day. For both him and Edith, the acquaintance was to prove transformational.

Through Rex, Edith was embraced as an intimate by the likes of Cecil Beaton, Siegfried Sassoon and the Sitwells. A late-blooming novelist of note (her most famous work The Love Child appeared in 1927), she was photographed for Vogue and became much sought after for her wit and warm hospitality. The clergyman’s daughter from rural Wiltshire could not have expected this glamour and excitement to follow her friendship with Whistler and the others.

portrait of Edith Sitwell
by Roger Fry, during WW1
Sheffield Galleries

Was she jealous of Whistler's other relationships? In one of his letters, Rex reassured her that despite his desire for the Dudley Ward girl, everything would ‘be the same as before between you and me … only lovelier’.

But it was always to Rex, her Gift From God, that Edith remained closest. When he was killed on active service in France in 1944, she was hearbroken. The book A Curious Friendship is a tale of colour and creativity, but also of hope and redemption.


Andrew said...

Tennant and Beaton were really trying to make a point in the photo. Such intrigues.

elegancemaison said...

Yet again your post connects so closely with an artist, author (book), place or exhibition that I have recently encountered in some way. I haven't usually commented but am now finding it quite 'spooky'.

I live in Salisbury, close to Wilton in Wiltshire, England. Rex Whistler and Edith Olivier are/were local personalities but not celebrities though they mixed with the more celebrated Bright Young Things. I own a couple of early editions of Edith's books with their wonderful dust-jackets designed by Rex. In 2013 our local museum held an exhibition of Rex Whistler's work entitled, "Rex Whistler - A Talent Cut Short".

I found it not only eye-opening about his talent from an early age, but quite wistful in retrospect. From the juvenalia and the designs for book covers to romantic and fantasy interior decoration. Then his portraits of the young women he knew and loved and possibly desired, were contrasted with the amusing sketches of how to improve an officer's mess to the more serious paintings of his time encamped with his regiment. And after that all the paintings he made of other vistas and friends, loaned from local families. Indeed a talent cut short.

Thank you for this book recommendation, I shall look out for it.

Student of History said...

Wealthy parents and lots of talent are not enough, it seems. Sacheverell Sitwell, along with sister Edith and brother Osbert published regularly. But one always gets the feeling that they could have achieved so much more.

Hels said...


yes... intrigues all over the place. Because the Bright Young Things' favourite parties were fancy dress events or treasure hunts across the City, the photos from those parties are even more intriguing. Presumably they didn't have to be in the office bright eyed and bushy tailed every morning at 8.30 AM

Hels said...


As an undergraduate and postgrad student, my passion in history was the 17th century, particularly in Britain and Netherlands. But once I started lecturing, it was a question of bums on seats. Thus I am given almost entirely Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and WW1 topics these days, in Europe and across the British Empire. The advantage is that I am much more likely to find like-minded historians in blogs, documentaries and journal articles.

Thank you for the reference to the Salisbury Museum Exhibition. If a catalogue was published I will get hold of it. I knew about the paintings at Wilton House and from Edith Olivier’s family but the Whistler Archive was unknown to me. Many thanks to you.

Hels said...


Sacheverell in particular was respected as a proper writer on architecture, an art critic, a music critic and poet. He was also the only Sitwell sibling who was married with children - thus he had responsibilities to people other than himself.

at least two things occur to me, in connection to the productivity of all the Bright Young Things in the Inter-War years. They were a very privileged generation, mostly born to wealthy parents and some of them to titled families as well. [For the Sitwells, they were titled on both their maternal and paternal family trees]. There was no pressure on such children to hold down full time, serious careers, once they left University.

Secondly the 1920s were a very brittle, unstable time for people who lived through the horrors of WW1. And the 1930s were even worse, with worldwide depression, re-armament in Europe etc.

Lord Cowell said...

What an interesting post. I did not know about Whistler and the Wedgwood.

It was a very curious time in which the BYTs lived, especially those who were gay. Although there love was illegal, they seem to have been a part of many fashionable sets and were always on the end of a glamorous invitation to a city doo or a scandalous country house party.

A strange paradox that whilst the law and propriety shunned the practicalities of their lifestyle, it embraced their flamboyance, art, and campness e.g. Coward, Beaton, et al which was to persist in British public life with characters like Dick Emery and Kenneth Williams.

I wonder whether it was this idea of an acceptable face of homosexuality (humorous and therefore less threatening) that led to strengthening unhelpful stereotypes of gay people?

Mandy Southgate said...

So lovely to be visiting your blog after such a long while and sorry that it's been so long Hels! I can see that I need to research more on Rex Whistler seeing as he is from Kent. It is intriguing as you say that he enlisted to fight but I sometimes think I would do the same if our country was being invaded. Then again, maybe not.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

my first feeling was that although many people suffered, those young people with titled and/or moneyed parents probably suffered less. They were in the unique position of being exclusively gay, bi-sexual with a preference for gay partners, bi-sexual but legally married only to a heterosexual spouse, straight people in love with gay partners who would never consummate the relationship as they may have wanted, totally celibate.... or anything else.

My second and more considered opinion is that their flamboyance, artiness and creativity was where they could shine best, regardless of how their personal relationships were successful or not. But that didn't guarantee personal happiness. These young people _knew_ they earned notoriety from their licentious lifestyles but I am sure they wanted to be remembered in the long tern for cleverness and creativity, not for licentiousness.

Hels said...


I wouldn't have taken much notice of the impact of WW2 on The Bright Young Things because they were all born in the late 19th century or very early 20th century. I had assumed they would have Done Their Bit, if they wanted to, through supporting the war effort at home eg visiting the war wounded in hospital, entertaining the soldiers, painting camouflage screens etc.

Rex Whistler was at least 35 when he joined up and he refused all the soft options available for older men. I want to know what he hoped to achieve by going to the battle grounds, by putting his life in immediate danger, by devastating Edith Olivier. He could have served his nation so much more valuably.

Ann ODyne said...

Thank Hels for another informative and enjoyable post, as always, leading me on elsewhere it seems that Edith Olivier [as women often are] ma be the real story.

must just say though this vegetarian who is made ill by the meat part of supermarkets is very upset about having to tick and RECOGNISE FFS cooked meats to verify I am not a robot. I know it isn't your doing but I needed a Viewer Warning, really.

however, I am with Andrew re Stephen Tennant in that fab photo.
Whistler should be known for more than 'Arrangement in grey and black'. Doing some family history research led me to studying Cheyne Walk on the Chelsea embankment when it was The Natural Habitat of London's hip art community. They were all there, JMW, Rossetti, Sargent etc and in houses still the same and now with underground garages bulldozed by rich Russians.

Please do be enjoyed by following this link to a wonderful film I saw in the one week it ran in melbourne, The Bright Young Things screenplay by Stephen Fry adapting Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies - 'Peter O'Toole steals the film with barely five minutes of total screen time, but that's the kind of talent he was gifted with. Watch it if you enjoy witty dialogue, period pieces and don't you dare miss it if you're a Stephen Fry fan. He is a very funny man and his direction which remains always affectionate towards the characters he's portraying in his movie, was impressive given he's better known as an actor and writer.'

Ann ODyne said...

pushing back in may I offer my suspicion that many gay men were heroic in war simply because of their personal turmoil re society and the law etc. I am a big reader of James Lees-Milne invalided out, in love with very handsome fellow officer, and his Ancestral Voices is one of my all time fave books - on is post war austerity era traipsing across England pleading with Dukes for their rockpiles to be given National Trust protection. These Dukes huddled below stairs for kitchen warmth, the butler having been KIA, and excited to have come into the possession of say, some eggs. a great read.

As for Cec (and just look for his many pics of Mick Jagger as if we can't see the besottedness) "managed to consumate with Tallulah" oh do shreik, Miss Bankhead would brook no resistance. *goes off laughing like a drain*

mem said...

Some of his life sounds like the plotline for Brideshead Revisited. Is that my imagination or could there be some truth in that ?

Hels said...


thanks for the reference to The Bright Young Things by Stephen Fry. I knew Evelyn Waugh's 1930 book about this special group of people but I had forgotten Fry's 2003 British drama. It is easy to see why Waugh was so attracted to those contemporaries of his, and I imagine that Fry still found them exciting 73 years later.

Hels said...


ok ok... more reading that I will want to do: Ancestral Voices: Diaries 1942-1943 by James Lees-Milne. If I have to give up work, family time and sleep to read all these extra books, you will be to blame :)

The collapse of country houses and the growth of the National Trust are still hot topics for me. But if Lees Milne socialised with an elite (in the arts, literature and moneyed classes) back then, his diary should add a new perspective to the dominant views.

Hels said...


spot on!

Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966) was the same age as the Bright Young Things he met at Oxford. But Brideshead was not written and published till the end of WW2. So maybe the Flyte family represented all the English noble families Waugh had met since his university days.

The Telegraph suggests it was the time Waugh "spent at Madresfield Court that exposed him fully to the conscientious hedonism of the aristocracy and which provided him with the inspiration for his best-known novel".