Whistler’s mural in the restaurant of Tate Britain: slave boy detail below

A question of taste

Clive Aslet says Rex Whistler’s Tate mural should be seen more as an ironic Rococo fantasy than the work of a racist

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When it was opened in 1927 the restaurant at Tate Britain was located in what was fatefully called the “most amusing room in Britain”. I was taken there as an undergraduate by a Yale professor of liberal views who loved wine. It had in those days an exceptional wine list, with excellent vintages offered at tempting prices, which could be sipped in agreeable surroundings.

In truth I did not terribly care for the Tate mural, which I found gloomy and baffling

The walls were and remain decorated with a continuous mural painted by Rex Whistler, an extraordinary production of the Slade who was 21 when he began. Whistler became famous for a style that ignored Cubism and Surrealism to evoke an imagined past, part Rococo, part Regency, very English, whose nostalgia seems doubly poignant because of his death on his first day of active service with the Welsh Guards on the beaches of Normandy, aged 39. 

In truth I did not terribly care for the Tate mural, which I found gloomy and baffling — but that was before it was cleaned in 2013. Like most diners, including the politically correct Diane Abbott, I was oblivious of the cause of the brouhaha that now threatens to close it.

The theme of the mural, [as readers of The Critic will know,] is an Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats. This takes the form of a capriccio, in which a group of young people are shown journeying through the Duchy of Epicuriana on the hunt for good things to eat. They were a little like the Bright Young Things, including Whistler, who would be photographed by Cecil Beaton as shepherds and shepherdesses at Stephen Tennant’s Wilsford House. Here is on the face of it a land of enchantment, combining English pastoral, Italy and the China of Willow Pattern plates. 

A group punningly called White Pube has recently drawn attention to a black child being pulled on behind a skipping Arcadian young woman and supposedly disrespectful portrayals of the Chinese. How shocked Professor Gould would have been if he’d known. White Pube, which describes itself as the “collaborative identity” of two women who left art school in 2015 and “write about art, video games and food”, have labelled the mural as racist and their Twitter following “audibly gasped”, according to one post.

The trustees are prepared to suffer to be pure

Following a review, the Tate appears to have decided that the restaurant will no longer operate in the basement designed for it, and since there is nowhere else for it to move into, it must presumably close. At a time when all arts organisations are struggling to plug the hole in their finances made by Covid, the loss of this income stream will be unwelcome; unlike most museum restaurants, this one is run directly by the gallery which therefore takes all the profit. However, the trustees are prepared to suffer to be pure. The gallery’s ethics committee are “unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work is offensive”. 

How could the tiny and — dare one say it? — insignificant White Pube have provoked this striking reaction? Because it was already in an agony of self-hatred about its collections. Visitors to last year’s William Blake exhibition were advised, by a notice at the entrance, not to enter if they were likely to be distressed by scenes of violence. The caption to the recently acquired group portrait of the Whig Junto, painted by John James Baker in 1710, mentions only Lord Oxford among the six Whig grandees represented, although they ruled the country for a time; they are shown with books, papers, collections and against a landscape background, all of which might have been interpreted. 

Instead, half the text is concerned with a black servant who is lifting a curtain on the far left hand side of the picture. ”We do not know the identity of the servant,” it comments less than helpfully, “or even if a Black servant worked in Oxford’s household.” Everyone knows about slavery — who cares about politics in the reign of Queen Anne? White Pube were pushing at an open door.

Despite his great charm, both as a man and a painter, Whistler was not as frivolous as he appears

In the case of the Tate’s Whistler Room, it’s possible that White Pube has simply got it wrong. True, it breathes a mood of escapism — fairylike, entrancing and playful were adjectives used at the time — seen in the work of other artists, who were doing their best not to remember the First World War, such as Eric Ravilious, who also died in the Second World War. But the whimsy is at various points undermined by, for example, a small figure of a drowning boy, his arms seen waving above the surface of a stream, and a cross marked by the initials D.A.W.: they are those of Whistler’s elder brother Denny who died in 1915. Despite his great charm, both as a man and a painter, Whistler was not as frivolous as he appears. 

From childhood, his sketchbooks were filled with exquisitely drawn but alarmingly violent images, such as a decapitated head being impaled on a pole. At the Tate, his nostalgia was laced with mockery, according to his brother Sir Laurence Whistler, in the spirit of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians or Edith Sitwell’s Façade. While the mural was being painted, Britain was in a state of conflict over the General Strike. Unease, even horror, seep into Whistler’s arcadia. That is the point of the image of the black child on a string. In juxtaposition to the winsome girl who is leading him, it was doubly shocking.

A black child being pulled on a string

Whistler was an ironist, whose imagery should no more be taken at face value than that of Grayson Perry. There’s a hint of the black humour of Evelyn Waugh – except that whereas Waugh was rude and snobbish, Whistler was adored for his warmth, wit and kindness to children, whom he would entertain with his sketches, being, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “one of the most sensitively cultured and intelligent of men”.

If the restaurant does close, the Tate will be left with a problem on its hands. As one of the fixtures and fittings of a Grade 1 listed building, the mural cannot simply be dismantled or painted over. A room so unequivocally offensive could hardly be given over to gallery space. 

The Tate should beware. Wokery is now so pervasive and deeply entrenched that a group of Conservative peers and MPs have formed a Common Sense Group to redress the balance. Launched in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, it may seem that they are a collection of Sir Bufton Tuftons, but they appear to have the ear of Number 10.

The Whig Junto, 1710 by John James Baker

Just as the National Trust’s support for faddish causes has attracted the attention of the Charity Commission, so there are reports that the Cabinet Office is monitoring the social media feeds of museum directors who will soon be up for reappointment. Ultimately government holds the purse strings and when the Tate applies for help to get over the shortfall in income caused by Covid, the closure of the Whistler restaurant may not be forgotten. Baker’s Whig Junto arrived because the Treasury agreed to accept it in lieu of inheritance tax. Who knows whether the Tate will be regarded as a fit object of such public generosity in future? 

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