Hugh Thomson

The curious cancellation of the Rex Whistler restaurant

The curious cancellation of the Rex Whistler restaurant
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We laugh at how the Victorians put plaster fig leaves on nude statues; but when the annals of the strange new puritanism that has been sweeping the British Isles come to be written, then the latest debacle over Rex Whistler's mural at the Tate must surely comprise a central chapter. As Macaulay once wrote, 'We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.'

In 1926, Rex Whistler was commissioned to paint a mural around the Tate’s basement restaurant. He was only 20 and still a student at the Slade, so a bold choice but one he amply justified. The resulting mural, In Pursuit of Rare Meats, shows a party of epicures travelling across a fantasy rococo landscape dotted with architectural capriccios. Just as with Evelyn Waugh’s first novels written at much the same time, along with the brio of Bright Young Things, Whistler gives us a tart reminder of the horrors of the First World War – we see a gravestone for Whistler’s brother – and of slavery: a young black child is led by a length of string. As with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, there is a deliberate dissonance in the mural to create asperity.

For the best part of a century, artists and art lovers alike have dined happily in the Tate under his Elysian images; the restaurant has always been renowned for its wine list although in recent years the food menu has caught up. In 2013, the whole mural was lovingly restored as part of the Tate’s 45 million pound revamp. The BBC still has a reverential report about this on its website although expect that to be taken down soon when it realises that it may be ‘vice signalling’.

Rex Whistler's mural at the Tate (photo: Getty)

For the mural has now been outed as culturally insensitive. A guerrilla art group calling themselves White Pube – a name Evelyn Waugh would have enjoyed – launched a Twitter attack pointing out the presence of a young black slave in the mural, as if Whistler was somehow approving the concept of slavery, rather than adding a tart reminder that there were thorns to the roses even in paradise.

As a result, the restaurant has been closed and its future is being reviewed. In the heavily redacted minutes the Tate chose to release of its discussions, ‘The Chair of the Ethics Committee [Moya Greene] noted that members were unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work is offensive. She informed Trustees of the view that the offence is compounded by the use of the room as a restaurant.’

It would be interesting to know exactly how Rex Whistler’s supposed offence is compounded by the fact that people might eat near the painting. But one suspects the arguments would not involve much logic. Nor do the museum seem conscious of the irony that the artist they are so publicly cancelling later died as a hero on active service fighting fascism at the age of 39; rather more of a stand against unacceptable attitudes than that shown by Ethics Committee members in the salons of Pimlico and Islington.

It’s worth noting too that the then Chair of the Ethics Committee, Moya Greene, a recent CEO of Royal Mail, is best known for having to repay a whopping £250,000 in expenses she had claimed towards buying a house, after Business Secretary Vince Cable objected to the payment.

The Tate’s website went on to put up a notice that ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats remains one of Whistler’s most important works, but it is important to acknowledge the presence of offensive and unacceptable content and its relationship to racist and imperialist attitudes in the 1920s and today.’ They added that they were ‘working to become a space that is more relevant, welcoming and inclusive for everyone’, and that ‘Whistler’s treatment of non-white figures reduces them to stereotypes.’ That tricoteuse of the woke, Diane Abbott, followed through with a tweet that she now found the mural offensive – even though admitting she had often happily eaten there before.

As the murals are part of the museum’s status as a listed building, the Tate cannot actually, thank goodness, destroy them, much as its more extreme trustees might want to do so. Instead the basement restaurant will probably be walled up, to be discovered like some catacomb in Rome by a future generation puzzled as to why it should ever have been abandoned in the first place. If in luck, they might even find some of that fine vintage wine as well.

An external committee has been appointed by the Tate to consider the issue. But the well-informed Art Newspaper, who first broke the story, thinks that this is already pretty much a done deal and that, in their words, ‘it seems almost certain that the restaurant will never reopen.’

What is so scary and sad about this is that all it takes is a whisper of social media suspicion for the branding fork to come out and a scarlet letter to be applied. We truly are back in the days of the Puritans. No consideration seems to have been given to the idea – hardly a complicated aesthetic one – that an artist might include an image to criticise rather than necessarily condone. Did Goya approve the execution of hundreds of Spanish patriots by Napoleon’s troops simply because he painted the scene? The Ethics Committee of the Tate would certainly think so.

It’s only a surprise that they haven’t as yet banned Caravaggio as a murderer, Delacroix as an Orientalist or Rubens for painting naked women, although that may only be because most of those painters are represented in the National Gallery not the Tate.

But watch this space. We are rapidly moving into territory beyond satire, where it will be easier to send a piece of art to the tumbrils than to argue in its defence.