18 August 2014

Rex Whistler and Laura Knight at Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall, near Bakewell in Derbyshire, is described in Pevsner’s Buildings of England for the county as:
… the English castle par excellence, not the forbidding fortress on an unassailable crag, but the large, rambling, safe, grey, lovable house of knights and their ladies, the unreasonable dream-castle of those who think of the Middle Ages as a time of chivalry and valour and noble feelings. None other in England is so complete and convincing.
Simon Jenkins, in his England's Thousand Best Houses, puts it in the top 20 with 5* (out of 5):
Haddon is the most perfect English house to survive from the Middle Ages. …. It has not changed because it never needed to change. … Those aristocratic curses of extravagance and infertility have not visted Haddon. The place is still owned by the Manners family, the Dukes of Rutland. To wander up the slope to the worn gatehouse steps and enter the ancient courtyard is as agreeable an experience as England can offer.
And he explains:
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, the Rutlands neglected Haddon in favour of the seat of Belvoir (Leics). This saved it from the drastic alterations that occurred to most houses over that period. Haddon’s restoration by the 9th Duke after 1912 and recently by his grandson have been deferential.
So it was a surprise during a recent visit to Haddon Hall to encounter work by two twentieth-century British artists, Rex Whistler and Laura Knight, and a reminder of the extent of aristocratic patronage, even in the 1930s.

The 70th anniversary last month of Rex Whistler’s death in combat during the Normandy campaign seemed to have passed without note. He was 39 and had had early success. Henry Tonks, his Professor at the Slade, remarked that he had only ever known three or four people with a natural gift for drawing, and Rex Whistler was one of them. Thanks to Tonks’ sponsorship, Whistler was able to produce one of his best known works, the mural The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, for the restaurant at Tate Britain when he was only 23. Various commissions followed from the wealthy and fashionable, so when in 1933 the 9th Duke of Rutland wanted to celebrate the end of his restoration work at Haddon he secured Whistler’s services to paint a landscape featuring the Hall to go over the fireplace in the Long Gallery. It shows the Duke and his son looking over their Arcadia:

Whistler completed his longest mural in 1937 for the Dining Room at Plas Newydd, A Capriccio (short title), commissioned by Charles, 6th Marquess of Anglesey. The Marquess’s wife was one of the daughters of Henry Manners, 8th Duke of Rutland. In 2013 a biography, In Search of Rex Whistler: His life and work by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil was reviewed admiringly and at length for The Times Literary Supplement by Matthew Sturgis. He points out:
The suggestion that Rex Whistler was the model for Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is properly dismissed here by the Guinnesses. Nevertheless, that sense – so well delineated in the novel – of a modest, conventional middle-class young man of talent and charm being drawn into an enchanted and perhaps emotionally dangerous aristocratic world does have strong echoes in the story of Whistler’s life.
Just after the Long Gallery, in the Great Chamber, is this ‘sketch’ by Laura Knight, seen a year ago at the National Portrait Gallery:

It was drawn in 1934 in preparation for an oil painting of Kathleen Manners, the 9th Duchess of Rutland. The painting is at Belvoir Castle, presumably on view to visitors. Although the NPG show made do with the sketch, perhaps the painting will be made available to the Dulwich Picture Gallery for the Laura Knight exhibition planned for the winter of 2015-16 and marking the 50th anniversary of her Royal Academy retrospective.


This Penguin Guide to Derbyshire and the Peak District, “Revised and Reprinted, 1949”, says about Haddon Hall that it “is considered by some to be the most lovely medieval house in England. The house is now open to the public daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, admission 2s”. For current opening times please consult the Haddon Hall website and also note that the basic admission price is now £10 (“2s” or Two Shillings is the pre-decimalisation equivalent of £0.10, so a 100-fold increase in 65 years ). Actually, £10 is good value, given the quality of the house and its contents and the gardens. On the other hand, the equivalent of £10 for a paperback of 169 pages, with maps but no illustrations, certainly was not!

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