Whistler Mural: A Hidden Treasure

A university summer can be 3 months of traveling and care-free bliss, or a period of little productivity and perpetual feelings of purposeless. For the first half of this past summer I found myself in the latter category, and decided to do something about it. In my experience, volunteering of any kind is the perfect means to achieve many things: contribute to a cause, meet new people, and develop your skills. What better way to get me out of my slump?

I found an opportunity to assist the welcome team at Plas Newydd country house in Anglesey; a property with over five hundred years of history, the traditional seat of the Marquess of Anglesey, and presently under the ownership of the National Trust.

While volunteering, I noticed the main draw for visitors to Plas Newydd is a mural by Rex Whistler in the dining room of the house. At the welcome desk each morning I would sing the praises of this 56ft long canvas mural which portrays the lives of the Paget family and confesses the unrequited love between its painter and his contractor. A ‘must see’ work of art that I didn’t actually know much about. After some fascinating exploration and much help from the guides at Plas Newydd, I discovered that the Whistler Mural really is a hidden gem.

The ‘Whistler mural’ (its namesake taken from its creator as he left it nameless and unfinished) is arguably the most impressive, certainly the largest, work of art produced by Rex Whistler, second only perhaps to his mural in the café of Tate Britain, completed in 1927 when he was just 22. An illustrator, portraitist and stage designer, Whistler was a creatively clever and witty artist whose talent, combined with a charming personality, gave him immediate popularity among the social elite. The mural in Plas Newydd provides an intimate insight into Whistler’s often interwoven relationship between his professional and personal lives.

Commissioned by the the 6th Marquess of Anglesey, the mural was painted between 1936-7 during a long and laborious process. The mural is the largest canvas painting in the UK, totalling 56ft long. The huge canvas was made in France and later moved to London where Whistler had hired out a theatre studio to complete the prime composition of the mural before installing it in the dining room of Plas Newydd. Whistler had a particularly close working association with the Paget family of Plas Newydd and this quickly developed into a relationship of personal intimacy, as symbolised throughout the mural.

The Whistler mural is best understood when reading the painting as a compilation of individual scenes which work together to achieve a whole representation. For example, the mural initially appears to be set around the banks of the Menai Strait, yet upon a closer look there are buildings in the harbour which have distinct renaissance Italian architecture. Whistler has even incorporated the Pope’s summer palace, Castel Gandolfo, set high upon the mountains in the background. On the bottom left-hand corner we witness the 7th Marquess, George Paget as a young boy fishing from a bridge. Whistler’s vibrant personality and fond relationship with George is suggested by his deliberate exclusion of the boy’s fishing line attached to his rod, humorously referencing George’s inability to ever catch anything.

The mural is so large a viewer is forced to move through the room to observe the detail of the painting. Whistler’s talent for creating optical illusions (tromp l’oeil) is demonstrated as we progress through the room as the mountains of the Snowdonia mountain range become smaller and appear further away. The Martello Tower also changes shape in a mesmerising illusion that encourages you to move back and forth along the room, transfixed to the tower as it expands and retracts. Whistler’s use of optical illusion greatly compliments his composition of the coastal scene because we, the viewer, are able not only to imagine ourselves into the scene with the life-size scale of the mural, but to interact with the mural in a three-dimensional manner.

At the centre of the coastal scene, Whistler portrays Caroline Paget, eldest daughter of the 6th Marquess, and her sister Elizabeth in a rowing boat. The women are given only one oar, forcing their boat to spin in circles; another playful gesture by Whistler which is brought to life once again through the use of optical illusion. It appears the missing oar has been left on the dock, discarded on the ground next to some suspicious footprints climbing out of the sea. The magnificent trident close by conjures a fantastical image of the magical King Trident emerging from the Menai. Above the dock, set upon a small, isolated island is Windsor Castle. Whistler has incorporated a devastating, gaping crack in the castle walls, leaving it broken and vulnerable, much like the British monarchy during this period of uncertainty after King Edward VIII’s abdication.

Lady Caroline is portrayed again in the mural; she sails a boat with a vibrant red sail into the harbour of the Menai. Many rumours surround Whistler’s relationship with Lady Caroline, it is believed it was a relationship of unrequited love from Whistler and that he even worked on the mural for as long as possible so he could stay close to her. Certainly, letters between Whistler and Lady Caroline unveil an emotional friendship, and one particular letter written by Whistler and George Paget protesting Lady Caroline’s decision to spend more time in London, reveals an association with the Paget family that extended far beyond the purely professional. The red sailing boat exposes Whistler’s desire for Lady Caroline’s return. Another boat, a gondola-styled rowing boat, manifests Whistler’s close connection to the Paget family as he depicts himself at both ends of the boat, flanking the family who sits inside.

On either side of the canvas are wall paintings which extend the coastal scene to encompass a viewer’s vision and enhance the viewing experience. A self portrait of Whistler on the left side of the mural functions to visually concretise his connection to the Paget family. On the right side, three dogs play in a porch underneath a ceiling resembling that by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The black dog is Cheeky, the dog owned by Lady Caroline and buried in the garden of Plas Newydd. Behind Cheeky is the Marquess’ cello, propped up in a witty suggestion of how the Marquess never used it.

At the bottom of the right side wall painting, is perhaps the most evocative image of the mural. It is a small cigarette resting on the edge of a tile, still smoking as if it had just been used. This cigarette symbolises a promise made by Whistler to the Pagent family, that he would return to Plas Newydd and finish the mural, and after doing so he would extinguish the cigarette. Rex Whistler unfortunately never fulfilled his promise. He left Plas Newydd and served his country in World War Two where he tragically died in France, aged just thirty nine.

Whistler’s mural immortalises the story of an intimate relationship between contractor and artist and gives a viewer insight into the lives of those who lived in the house they will explore. Through the use of visual illusions and creative ingenuity, Whistler brings to life the scenes on the canvas and invites us to immerse ourselves in the storyline. The mural can be appreciated as a whole, yet the details of each image allow a deeper understanding of the lives of those portrayed, tragic as they may be.

'Plas Newydd House and Gardens' is a National Trust site alongside the Menai straight on the Isle of Anglesey. More information about opening times and admission fees can be found here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/plas-newydd-country-house-and-gardens

Georgina Mark

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