Image by Tate Britain

Food for Thought

The saga of the Rex Whistler restaurant and Tate Britain

Artillery Row

Until a few days ago, the flagship restaurant at Tate Britain was probably best known for two things. It has long since had one of London’s finest and most interesting wine lists, originally put together by sommelier Hamish Anderson and offering the kind of value that very few other establishments can match. This wine is drunk in an ornately decorated room within the Tate, which is entirely taken up with a mural by the British artist Rex Whistler, called ‘The Expedition In Pursuit of Rare Meats’. It was commissioned when Whistler was only 22, and a student at Slade School of Fine Art. It established his reputation: one that would last until he died fighting in WWII, at the age of 39. 

The Whistler mural has traditionally been regarded as one of the most distinctive and interesting examples of pre-war British public art. It depicts a series of imaginary and allegorical events, revolving around a hunting trip by the fictional Duke of Epicuriania and his courtiers, and was intended to be a playful and colourful celebration of all things culinary. Whistler even wrote a tongue-in-cheek guidebook to the subjects depicted, A Guide to the Duchy of Epicuriana: In Pursuit of Rare Meats, in which he, along with the novelist Edith Olivier, constructed an elaborate narrative around the town of Epicuriana and its ruler’s desire to obtain rare and exotic foodstuffs to replace the mundane diet of ‘hard flat cakes called ‘Rye Faces’. The journey, as depicted, is not without adversity and cruelty; a small child is seen drowning, there are depictions of what appear to be the enslavement of black children, and a visit to what seems to be China relies on caricatured drawings of the Orient. These events are depicted alongside fantastical representations of great beauty and elegance, in this dreamlike and deliberately unrealistic world. 

When it was finished, it was unveiled at the Tate on 30 November 1927 to a crowd of industrialists, writers and others, including George Bernard Shaw, to enormous approval and interest. The Chairman of the Tate Trustees, Lord D’Abernon, said of the artist that ‘The young Mr Whistler wants to paint walls like these here. He is an artist, and therefore not a gentleman. I soon found that out in my young days, and behaved or misbehaved myself accordingly.’ The journalists were ecstatic at the colourful and vibrant mural, and called it ‘World Tour in a Refectory’, ‘A Dream of a Tea Room’ and, in a phrase that has now become notorious, ‘The Most Amusing Room in Europe’. 

For the best part of the next century, the Rex Whistler restaurant, as it eventually became known, has delighted visitors. The Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin reviewed it in 2013, and, although she was dismissive of the food – ‘it’s ages since I’ve stared at [a menu] for so long without finding something I want to eat’ – praised both the wine list (‘long a whispered, greedy little secret among the capital’s bibulous – [it] should be preserved for the nation in the galleries above. This is the most seductive of the extraordinary things’) and Whistler’s mural, calling it ‘an immersive fairground ride, one designed for flappers and fops…It really is quite something.’ She also noted how ‘Painstaking restoration has peeled off years’ worth of MPs’ cigar smoke to reveal their full sylvan beauty’ and concluded ‘We’re transfixed’.

  O’Loughlin is a restaurant critic, not an art historian, but her reaction was typical of the many who have visited the restaurant over the decades. The Tate spent a considerable sum restoring the mural in 2013, fixing several of the issues that had existed with its stability; the gallery flooded shortly after the mural was completed, and the walls had contained the residue of that water, to say nothing of the paint that had originally decorated the room and was now flaking. A fascinating short film shows the painstaking efforts that went into the mural’s rehabilitation, and the many thousands of visitors to the room since have appreciated both their hard work, and, of course, the comprehensive wine list. 

Yet in the world that we now inhabit, there is always the likelihood that someone, somewhere will be offended by a work of art. Step forward the punningly named duo The White Pube, who Vogue described as ‘self-styled cowboy critics shaking up the arts establishment.’ Their attitude towards issues of diversity and race could best be described as combative, and they have taken particular aim at what they see as a white-dominated, middle class arts establishment, saying ‘in the institutions I know best, the only people of colour are in the kitchen or the cleaning team.’ They have long had it in for the Tate in particular – a typical Instagram post of theirs reads ‘Fuck the Police, Fuck the State, Fuck the Tate: Riots and Reform’ – and so it was inevitable that their attention would soon turn to the Rex Whistler restaurant. 

In an angry Instagram post, the White Pube wrote:

‘In the basement of Tate Britain, there is a fancy restaurant for rich people with a ‘specially commissioned mural’ titled ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ and the painting, by Rex Whistler, that goes right around the walls of said restaurant features unicorns and different animals alongside black children in chains being pulled along by white people on the hunt. The screenshot above is the only text on the Rex Whistler restaurant page and … i’m sorry what. How does this restaurant still exist? What interior decoration is THIS? How do these rich white people still choose to go there to drink from ‘the capital’s finest wine cellars’ with some choice slavery in the background? @Tate you are all deranged. I have no words.’ The comments were both supportive and outraged – ‘Never knew there was a basement restaurant, let alone a white supremacist basement restaurant’ – and, as one commenter wrote, ‘Looking forward to seeing what the Tate social media team come up with for this one.’ 

What then ensued was a masterclass in hand-wringing evasion and a refusal either to take responsibility or action, or to defend the work. The Tate undeniably have form in this regard but it still takes a certain kind of cravenness to delete the original text on the restaurant’s website and to write instead ‘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.’ The Tate went on to say that they were ‘working to become a space that is more relevant, welcoming and inclusive for everyone’, and claimed that ‘Whistler’s treatment of non-white figures reduces them to stereotypes.’ They did not advance the opinion that Whistler might have been criticising, rather than celebrating, the subjects that he depicted. 

Under normal circumstances, the story might have quietly disappeared, but it has chimed with the current desire to tear down offensive statues and works of art, and so it is gaining traction. Diane Abbott, taking a break from Labour’s internal politics, tweeted that ‘I have eaten in Rex Whistler restaurant at Tate Britain. Had no idea famous mural had repellent images of black slaves. Museum management need to move the restaurant. Nobody should be eating surrounded by imagery of black slaves.’ A petition demands that the ‘truly grotesque’ room used mainly by ‘the older white demographic can go to enjoying their expensive gluttony whilst they view with amusement a room purposefully painted with chained up black children, dragged along by white people, for a hunt’ should either have the mural removed (a tricky endeavour, given that it is literally part of the room itself) or the restaurant itself moved elsewhere in the building. The petition concludes ‘there simply should not be a dining experience open in this modern and multicultural Britain, where all races are not respected.’ At the time of writing, it has 850 signatures, a relatively small amount for a subject that has received attention in the national press, but it will undoubtedly grow. 

There is not a lot of point in anyone attempting to defend Whistler’s artistic intentions or the allegorical and historical point of the mural. After all, if the Tate’s own attitude is to shrug in embarrassment, then it hardly seems worth anyone’s effort to perish on this particular hill. Yet the gallery’s language is distinctly problematic in its own right. It all but implies that Whistler was himself a racist (he died fighting fascism, but never mind), and the loaded use of the term ‘relevant, welcoming and inclusive’ suggests either that the restaurant will be closed down or turned into something much blander. No doubt Tate Britain are fearful of angry protesters turning up, cans of spray paint in hand, anxious to perform their very own act of mob justice on this particular display of racism and imperialism. 

That we have arrived at this stage is notable. Attempting to defend the right of people – even older white people – to visit one of London’s most unusual and interesting dining rooms is not a battle that many have the stomach for fighting. Before too long, the Rex Whistler restaurant will probably close, and then those who have won this round, only temporarily glutted with victory, will go looking for another target. And the Tate, embarrassed by their complicity in the act of racism but grateful not to have been physically attacked, will no doubt issue a grovelling press release about it. Even as the likes of the White Pube complain that they have been excluded from a white and middle-class art establishment, they should rejoice in the fact that their anger and their commitment to action is what will drive change, not the mealy-mouthed forces of tradition and conservatism. This is the new world when it comes to art. For better or worse, we are a very long way from the days of celebrating, not condemning, ‘the most amusing room in Europe’.

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