Rex Whistler — this book’s ‘bright young thing’ — was an artist of the 1920s and 1930s, and Edith Olivier, the ‘bluestocking’, was a novelist. They both deserve to be more famous than they are, and Anna Thomasson’s absorbing joint biography will doubtless make them so. They met through Stephen Tennant in 1924, when Olivier was 51 and Whistler was a 19-year-old student at what he called ‘the darling Slade’. She was snobbish and he was talented; liking one another from the start, they bonded over hair. Once Rex persuaded Edith to exchange her spinsterish bun for a ‘bingle’ — a daring combination of a shingle and a bob — she never looked back.
Suitably attired, Olivier invited Whistler to her home, the Daye House in the grounds of Wilton. Here, in Arcadian surroundings, they became the central features of one another’s lives. While Edith morphed from a stern Victorian into what Thomasson calls ‘an honorary bright, if not young’, person, Whistler was happily out of step with the times. Uninterested in modernist abstraction and unable, as Edith put it, to ‘paint the impressionist way’, he found his own direction and then never stopped moving.
Rex could have designed, as his brother Laurence Whistler put it, almost anything, and had he been less talented he might have won more acclaim. He painted murals and portraits, drew book illustrations and Christmas cards, designed theatre sets, dust jackets and advertisements for Guinness and Shell. Whimsical, innocent and shamelessly figurative, his style is described by Thomasson as ‘polished and controlled’, his perspective ‘accurate’ and his palette ‘restrained and elegant’. His mural on the walls of the Tate café, commissioned when he was 21, made the room, it was said, ‘the most amusing… in Europe’. Being amusing in rooms was one of Whistler’s great talents.
While Edith encouraged his work, Rex inspired hers. Her first novel, The Love Child, written in the early days of their friendship and published in 1927, is about a neurotic spinster haunted by an imaginary child. Fashionably fantastical, The Love Child is now regarded as a minor classic, and might also be seen as a work of unconscious autobiography.
So what was the nature of this curious friendship, beautifully reconstructed here from their mountains of letters and Edith’s voluminous diaries? On the practical side, Whistler needed a patron and Olivier needed a project; she gave him class and he gave her glamour. Psychologically, things were less straightforward. Unlike Edith’s other young men, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Cecil Beaton and Brian Howard, Whistler was not openly homosexual, although one of his lovers, Ursula, Viscountess Ridley, described him as having been in bed like ‘a child or another woman’. Rex would never, Ursula believed, ‘find nor give the love he longed for in his imagination’. Except, that is, with Edith Olivier.
As a girl, Edith had posed as a gypsy for one of Lewis Carroll’s photographs, and the world she constructed with Rex was a form of wonderland where nothing ever changed. In one of his letters, Whistler reassures her that despite his desire for Freda Dudley Ward, everything will ‘be the same as before between you and me … only lovelier’. What Rex and Edith shared was an interior world (‘anything more amorous’, observed his younger brother Laurence, ‘would have been grotesque’.) ‘We are entirely in sympathy,’ Edith wrote in her diary. During their weekends together they slipped into what Whistler called a ‘dream condition’.
Part of their mutual fantasy involved erasing his suburban origins. While Rex’s parents found Edith ‘decidedly eccentric’, Edith was horrified to discover her ‘wild swan’ had hatched from ‘these two barn door fowls’. Whistler senior, she recorded in her diary, was ‘a man really of the lower classes… Rex cannot be his son’. Laurence Whistler noted how, for his father’s benefit, Edith put on ‘the special joviality she kept for bluff farmers’.
Thus Rex and Edith dreamed on until 1944, when he was killed by a mortar in Normandy. ‘I must die soon,’ wrote Edith when she heard the news. She died four years later, having become a celebrity.
Her final years were spent planning a book about Rex and writing one about Wiltshire, where she is, Thomasson reminds us, as embedded in the landscape as John Aubrey himself.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17.50 Tel: 08430 600033. Frances Wilson’s How to Survive the Titanic won the Elizabeth Longford Prize in 2012.