When Rex Whistler’s mural was unveiled, the restaurant at Tate Britain was described as ‘The Most Amusing Room in Europe’. It was completed in 1927 by the 23-year-old student from the Slade School of Art. Whistler had been recommended by Professor Henry Tonks, and after submitting sketches for the design in 1926 began work in the restaurant.
The idea for a mural painting had come from Joseph Duveen, whose intention was ‘to induce big caterers such as Lyons etc, to give similar commissions to young artists.’ He donated £500 towards the scheme, which supported Whistler at a rate of £5 a day over a period of eighteen months. An impressive array of guests, including artists, dealers and business managers, was invited to the reception held to mark the re-opening of the restaurant on 30 November 1927.
Whistler devised the subject of the mural in collaboration with the novelist Edith Olivier (1872–1948). She had met Whistler in 1925 and, although a generation older, was to become a close friend. The story was ideally suited to a restaurant, recounting the expedition of a group of seven people who set out in search of exotic meats. They leave on bicycles, carts and horses from the ‘Duchy of Epicurania’, and travel through strange and wonderful lands encountering unicorns, truffle dogs and two giant gluttons guarding the entrance to a cave. The story ends with the travellers returning to a joyful homecoming, and the diet of the people, which had previously consisted of dry biscuits, is transformed.
Clare Willsdon has drawn similarities between Whistler’s mural and a scheme being painted at the same time by a group of Rome Scholarship artists at St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster. For example, the shipwreck in Whistler’s mural might be a deliberate link to ‘Colin Gill’s storm-beaten Danish invaders at St Stephen’s Hall’. In addition Whistler has chosen the Crown Prince Etienne as the name for one member of Whistler’s expedition. This is the French translation of Stephen. (Willsdon, p.370).
Within a year the Tate mural was under two feet of water as a result of the notorious River Thames flood of 1928. However, the materials used in the mural – a combination of oil colours mixed with wax and turpentine – were to ensure its survival. Whistler’s reputation remained unchallenged as the head of ‘the new English School of Decorators’ (Willsdon, p.336).
Edith Olivier, In Pursuit of Rare Meats – A Guide to the Duchy of Epicurania with some Account of the Famous Expedition: being the story of the Mural Paintings by Rex Whistler in the Restaurant of the Tate Gallery, London, 1954 Laurence Whistler and Ronald Fuller, The Work of Rex Whistler, London 1960, pp.1–2, reproduced pl.3 Clare Willsdon, Mural Painting in Britain 1840–1940, Oxford 2000, pp.368–70, reproduced p.372, pl.215 and pl.216