Introduction to A Curious Friendship

I first encountered the name Rex Whistler some years ago when I visited Plas Newydd on Anglesey, home to the Marquess of Anglesey and now run by the National Trust. There I had seen the mural painted by Rex, begun in 1936 and now considered his masterpiece. The windows of the dining room look out across the grey waters of the Menai Strait to the mountains of Snowdonia. Rex’s mural, on the facing wall, is a fantastical reflection of the view from the windows, the brooding Welsh landscape transformed into an Arcadian panorama. Later I learnt that it was typical of Rex to turn his back on reality and reinvent it. Rex’s paintings are playful, fanciful, romantic, like the relics of an earlier age. It seemed that Rex sprang from an earlier age too. He was not my idea of a 1930s artist. And I was intrigued.

The joy of writing biography is in seeking out the traces of a life. And as I researched Rex someone else came sharply into view. She sprang from the footnotes of biographies, from the edge of other lives, a woman, much older than Rex and his friends, but often at the centre of photographs, holding court with a cigarette in her hand. Edith Olivier, thirty years older than Rex, an Oxford-educated spinster and the daughter of a Wiltshire rector, was his greatest friend, and perhaps, in a way, the love of his life.

Edith had already lived a fascinating life. She was born in 1872, her father was the rector of Wilton in Wiltshire and chaplain to the Earl of Pembroke who lived nearby at Wilton House. Though she had dedicated much of her life to her controlling father, to the local community and countless local causes and committees, I discovered that there was nothing meek or humdrum about Edith. Fiercely intelligent, she had studied History at Oxford, where she befriended Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland.

She was twelve when she had begun to write a diary. For an observant and opinionated but altogether dutiful girl like the young Miss Olivier, with a disapproving and autocratic father such as hers had been, it was a discreet act of rebellion. For the young girl with an instinct for storytelling and an inclination to fantasy, who wanted nothing more than to become an actress, writing her diary gave her life a plot, made it a drama in which she played the central character.

And as I explored Edith’s archive in Wiltshire, this fascinating woman moved from the fringes to the centre of the story. The narrative of her life, and her later friendship with Rex, came tumbling out of the many volumes of her diary and the boxes of letters between Edith and her friends. It felt to me rather like we were having an intimate discussion, or that I was eavesdropping into her conversations with friends. As I tried to decipher her impossible handwriting, I felt as though I got to know her.

A highly practical and rather eccentric spinster, Edith was terrifying to the provincial world that knew her. She had supernatural visions and a profound sensitivity to place, particularly the Wiltshire landscape whose elemental energies she claimed to feel. In the First World War she established the Women’s Land Army and was later given an MBE for her work.  After her father’s death in 1919 she moved with her beloved sister Mildred to a house in a quiet corner of the Wilton estate surrounded by rivers and woods. There, at the Daye House, they lived happily together, independent for the first time in their lives, adored by their nephews and nieces and the children of friends for whom they would dress up as witches or make wigwams in the woods. And so Edith’s life could have continued, amongst county families, rural and relatively peaceful. But then her sister died of breast cancer, along with the future that Edith had planned.

One of the children that the sisters had entertained was Stephen Tennant, the son of Edith’s great friend Pamela Grey. By the time of Mildred’s death Stephen a student at the Slade School of Art in London. Aristocratic, mercurial and golden-haired, Stephen was obsessed by his own loveliness and by the loveliness of things around him. As a boy, when his father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Stephen answered “I want to be a great beauty sir”. Stephen was rather different to the Bohemian students around him. But he had found a kindred spirit.

Rex Whistler was from a different world to Stephen. Born in 1905, he was a builder’s son from Eltham in London. Rex had an extraordinary talent for drawing and was happier drawing from his imagination than from reality. He had left school, which he hated, at the age of 16 and gone to art school. Soon he was the star pupil at the Slade.

Stephen swept Rex into a rarefied world of luxury and beauty and exquisite houses in the country. But Rex was rather different to Stephen. He always remained on the fringes of high society. He was diffident, enigmatic; a romantic figure. His art, which was to make him famous, was more inspired by the romance of the past than by the avant garde of the 1920s. He is often likened to Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s lament for a lost world of country house splendour.

Stephen had TB and had been advised by his doctors to travel to warmer climes. He planned to go to Italy, taking his new friend with him. For 19-year-old Rex it would be his first trip abroad. Soon letters were flying back and forth as the two young men planned their wardrobes in minute detail. They departed in October, three days after their trip had been announced in the social column of the Daily Mirror.

But the story doesn’t really begin here with Rex whose life, thanks to Stephen Tennant, was just beginning, but with Edith, in an upstairs bedroom in her cottage in Wiltshire. It was the winter of 1924. Edith was 51, mourning the death of her sister and alone for the first time in her life. Although she had written in her diary every night for the past forty years, Edith allowed six days to pass following Mildred’s death before she could bear to open the small leather-bound book. Sitting in bed that night in late November, a small, solitary figure against a bank of pillows, a pen in her hand and a writing desk on her knee, she wrote: ‘I feel very weary . . .  I cannot realize that I am going to be lonely always’.

Though her friends rallied round her, that Christmas she fled her house and its resounding silence for the sanctuary of a convent. Edith thought she might renounce the world and stay there indefinitely. But she was, the Mother Superior told her, ‘too rebellious in mind’ for a quiet life of prayer and contemplation. With the New Year came an alternative, one that she willingly accepted: an invitation from Stephen Tennant to join him at a villa on the Italian Riviera. On board a Channel ferry she had begun the twenty-fifth volume of her diary. It was the 21st March 1925, the last day of winter.