Don’t believe anything you see.
This is what the curator says as I enter the Whistler Room at Mottisfont Abbey – a line he repeats as more people come and go. I can hear the pleasure in his voice as he points out the room’s hidden secrets.
Slender columns run down the walls at regular intervals. Gothic-style moulding extends around the top of the room. A rounded urn sits in a deep recess, smoke rolling upwards. I wonder how the smell of incense hasn’t yet reached me.
But, none of it is real.
Shadow and light have been artfully reproduced. Even the pelmets are painted, preserving perfect folds of rich green, lined with ermine.
The room at Mottisfont is far bigger than any Rex Whistler has worked on. He wants the space to be colourful, diverse; suggestively mysterious.
Perhaps four separate romantic distances, he tells Maud Russell as they move through the space. We can have gilded statues in niches. And here, in the corner, a spiral staircase, descending to – he thinks for a moment before announcing – the dungeons!
Maud appears to have sucked on a lemon.
No archways to beyond! Her words are slow and clear. She draws on a cigarette and taps the ebony holder against a nearby ashtray before adding: the look is to be of shallow plaster relief. No emphasis, nothing personal.
Rex is silent. It seems Maud has in mind a rather superior kind of wallpaper.
Back in Oxford, I am installed in the Bodleian Library, but it is difficult to find much information about Gilbert and Maud Russell.
Cecil Beaton was to stay at Mottisfont one weekend shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. Of Gilbert he says: only a poet could say dash in such a way.
When Maud first met Gilbert, she thought him such a shit that she wanted to hit him in the face.
‘The idea of his wife saying such a thing is extremely comical,’ Cecil writes in his diary – ‘as, of course, Maud is very elegant.’
During a break in painting, Rex takes a walk in the garden. Norah Lindsay has come to design a small parterre garden – the ornamental arrangement of flowers and bushes have been inspired by the window above the front door. For the last two days she has been gardening in pelting rain.
I’ve been very sorry for you, Rex calls to her.
I was in mud up to my knees! Norah says. I nearly caught cold.
She joins Rex as he heads towards the river. They come into the shade of an enormous plane tree and Rex groans.
Oh dear, Norah says.
Maud isn’t simply cramping my imagination, Rex says. She’s bent on frustrating it! And she seems to feel the need to adopt every minor suggestion of her weekend guests.
Maud is too anxious for approval, Norah tells him, touching his arm.
They have reached the river. Both of them step forward to see their reflections in the water.
Have you tried speaking to her? Norah’s asks, her face scattering as a leaf floats down and breaks the surface.
I have a weak character, Rex says. I try to be nice to everyone, even when I dislike them.
Perhaps rebellion is the only solution, Norah says.
For once, the house is eerily silent – Maud and Gilbert have gone to London for the weekend. Rex cannot sleep. He slips out of bed and comes to stand in the drawing room where he walks in circles for over an hour. Finally, he stops in front of the newly painted urn, shown in light relief, according to Maud’s instructions. A feeble little woman, he thinks. Afraid of her own taste!
He reaches for his brushes and, as he paints, the urn begins to swell further and further from the shadowed niche. Rex adds a lute, a forgotten glove, books, a packet of letters – all will be tangible objects when viewed from across the room. But what for the final touch? He recalls how Maud’s voice can often be heard, shrieking from the windows, whenever she spots smoke on the estate, calling to the groundsman to put it out!
Everything had been carefully preserved at Mottisfont. With a book of Cole Porter’s music open on the piano, a half-played game of cards laid out, shoes kicked underneath the chaise longue, I felt as though I was in 1930s Britain.
Even though it was morning, the curtains were drawn, saving the room from the aging effect of the light so that Rex Whistler’s Trompe d’oeil can endure. It was his last of any size. He was still engaged in the final stage of painting when the Second World War broke out. We know exactly where he was when Churchill’s announcement came on the radio – up a scaffold by the bay window with his portable radio beside him.
At the outbreak of war, Rex’s brother Laurance wasted no time in getting married. Rex was left to mourn the loss of his companion. He felt very ill. His own amour had begun to carry a photograph of her dead fiancé – the one man Rex couldn’t warn to lay off. Since war began he has dreamt of the front.
He writes to his friend Kenneth Rae: I have been in great misery and perturbation since this horror began…while at the same time being tied hand and foot to this wretched job at Mottisfont, which drags on and on.
Rex was sure he would be bankrupted by the Russells. Maud was in no hurry to pay by instalments and he had been unable to license his car for the next quarter.
After seeing his brother and sister in law, he asked Kenneth if they could share a flat together after the war.
Of course, Kenneth says. But I hope by then you’ll be married.
I shall never marry, Rex tells him.
Because now I’ve seen real happiness I know for certain I could never find it.
They set sail on June 29th 1944. The convoy encounters rough seas and many of the crew are sick. Rex comes on deck in the morning and sees the French coast. The entire sea is covered with ships, stretching to the horizon in every direction; nothing but the sound of shellfire in the distance.
They wait for low tide before unloading and immediately make for different sectors in the southern vicinity of Bayeux. Rex and his squadron set up camp in an orchard, with a farmhouse nearby. They are surrounded by flowering countryside, which is surprisingly undamaged.
On the 5th July, Rex writes to his mother: ‘I am writing in the evening glow, the light failing rapidly, so that I am not sure that I will have enough time to finish…Everything looks the picture of peace in the twilight and only the almost ceaseless gunfire contradicts.’
The day is hot. The tank crews are cramped and stuffy in their machines.
They advance across the flat, open country, twelve abreast. During the afternoon, they halt just across a railway line running out of Caen, waiting to hear if the Canadians need armoured support. Some of the tanks lie in the shelter of woodland, but Rex’s troop are in the open. As they begin to move again, the wheels of the tank become enmeshed in trailing telegraph wires and the tank is unable to climb out.
Mindful of his crew’s discomfort, Rex orders them all to dismount from the tank, while the wire is cut away. Suddenly, they come under small-arms fire from a nearby German position, which prevents them from climbing back into the tank. There is no means of radioing for help and so Rex decides to run the distance himself – a dash of 60 yards. He manages to get to Sergeant Sherlock in the nearby tank to instruct him to deal with the attackers, but as he jumps down to run back to his own stranded tank, a mortar blast throws him into the air.
After the fighting, the men lay out their commander’s body. Rex’s neck has been broken, but there is not a mark on his body.
Even in death, he was capable of illusions.
Gilbert and Maud Russell are entertaining. Earlier that day, Gilbert had taken Cecil Beaton through the house, showing him a slab of stone on which he had a Latin testament inscribed, telling the Mottisfont has come back into his family after 26 generations.
I like that sort of thing, he says. It’s romantic.
Gilbert pours drinks in the drawing room.
Dash! he says, as a slice of lemon slips onto the carpet.
Everyone is admiring the room.
Oh! one of the women squeals, grasping a section of curtain in her hand. I wasn’t sure if it was real or not. She giggles, but stops when she sees the look on Maud’s face.
What is it, darling?
Maud says nothing – she simply raises her arm and points above the pelmet. All the guests gather round to read the tiny handwritten inscription: ‘I was painting this ermine curtain when Britain declared was on the Nazi tyrants. Sunday, September 3rd, 1939 R.W.’
On a stroll one evening with Mickey Renshaw, Rex is glad to get away from all the metal in the orchard. They have had streaming rain every day – sometimes all day and night. Pink clouds glow on the horizon, promising a better day tomorrow. He can dimly see the grey stone walls of an ancient farm. A gold moon shines.
Now, they pass the grave of an airman recently shot down and Rex stops.
Mickey, he says. I’d like to be left just so. I can’t stand the thought of lying an enormous cemetery.
Rex hears the soft breathing of his friend beside him. He supposes that one would feel lonely in the process of dying.
If it is to happen – make it quick, for god’s sake, he wishes.
Don’t believe anything you see.
Each section of wall at Mottisfont displays painted trophies, armour, flags. But one section is slightly different from the rest: here a pair of hands hang. They are tied, firmly at the wrists.
To the left of the bay windows, on top of the cornice, may be seen an illusory small pot with a brush in it, carelessly left there by the artist – as if he had hoped to return one day.