I recently visited Wales for the first time, and on our first full day we visited Plas Newydd which is run by the National Trust. They are currently undertaking some works on the property that were sadly put on pause due to Covid-19, so not all the house was available to view. However, the staff have done a fantastic job of putting on a temporary exhibition ‘Rex Unfinished’ about the painter Reginald John ‘Rex’ Whistler (1905-1944).
Rex had strong ties with Plas Newydd, he visited for the first time in April 1936 after being commissioned to create a mural in the Dining Room that would be a “conservation piece”. The commissioner was the Marquess of Anglesey Charles Paget who lived at Plas Newydd with his family. Painting a large mural is no easy task (as Michelangelo found when doing the Sistine Chapel!) and Rex ensured his 58ft canvas was on a frame that could be lifted and lowered so he didn’t have to bend into difficult positions. This mural, although unfinished, is considered by many to be Whistler’s masterpiece. It certainly was breathtaking to view and I struggled to get decent photograph of it due to its sheer scale! A conversation piece it certainly was.
Rex’s talent became apparent at a young age he went on to regularly win prizes at the Royal Drawing Society (an organisation created to encourage children’s artistic pursuits). By his early 20s his career was off to a great start, alongside murals he was known for creating book illustrations and theatrical scenery. During his time as Plas Newydd he built a strong relationship with the family, particularly Charles’ daughter Caroline. When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Rex joined the Welsh Guards. Tragically Rex died in action in Le Mesnil 1944 aged 39. A life cut short is always heartbreaking, and who knows what other beautiful work Rex would have produced had he lived.
Walking through the different rooms on the ground floor where Rex’s works are on display, it becomes apparent many are unfinished, including his mural. Perhaps he didn’t have time to complete them or maybe he was so brimming with ideas he moved onto his next work before completing the one before? Other works on display include a portrait of Caroline and a painting of the family in the music room. When a heritage house is undergoing works it is difficult to showcase its history to visitors, but the staff at Plas Newydd have done a fantastic job of bringing this early 20th century artist’s story and works to the larger public consciousness.
As you’d probably expect from a heritage house the gardens were stunning! We went on a red squirrel walk, where our very knowledgeable guide Liz gave us the lowdown on red squirrels and took us through a woodland to try and spot some (although alas we were not very lucky in that regard!). Red squirrels have been facing issues for years which we learnt more about, and it was great to hear how their numbers are improving in Anglesey thanks to conservation efforts.
Plas Newydd was a great way to start to our Welsh adventure, to find out more about how to visit this wonderful heritage site yourself please visit their website here.
Have you been to Plas Newydd? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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ODNB: Whistler, Reginald John by H. B. Grimsditch
Wikipedia: Plas Newydd, The Royal Drawing Society, Rex Whistler
‘Rex Unfinished – in detail’ exhibition leaflet
Commonwealth War Graves Commission: https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/2324106/REX%20JOHN%20WHISTLER/
National Trust Plas Newydd: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/plas-newydd-house-and-garden
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