by Jack Wakefield
Tuesday, 8
December 2020

Must the Tate really cancel Rex Whistler?

The gallery should not close the restaurant containing the artist's offensive mural
by Jack Wakefield
The Rex Whistler Restaurant featuring the ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ mural. Credit: Getty

Rex Whistler was the brightest of the Bright Young Things. A prodigiously talented draughtsmen he was also blessed with what Cecil Beaton called a “superabundance of charm and coziness” that made him the toast of Britain in the 20s and 30s.  He died before he was 40, killed by a German bomb on service in Normandy and was greatly lamented.  

Now his work has been thrust into the limelight by a decision of the Tate ethics committee that has pronounced his famous mural, ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’, commissioned by the Tate in 1927 and decorating the restaurant in Tate Britain, irredeemably racist on the grounds of its offensive depiction of black slaves and some caricatures of Chinese people. 

A detail of ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ features a black slave apparently being led on a leash

The offensive details are a tiny part of a vast mural, almost universally missed unless pointed out. Now that attention has been drawn to them, the Tate trustees, according to the much redacted minutes of the meeting where they discussed the issue, feel the need to acknowledge the harm that the images have caused. 

It is irrelevant to point out that the artist is satirising rococo tropes, that he is drawing attention to the oddity of 17th and 18th century art that guilelessly includes black slave children in portraits of the rich, such as those prominently displayed in Tate Britain’s recent exhibition of British baroque. Instead the whole work, and indeed the room and the buzzy restaurant that contains it, must be mothballed.

Couldn’t the tiny bits that cause offence simply be obscured? No. The mural is a work of art in the care of the Tate and therefore cannot be altered or removed. 

This pedantry serves no one: not the Tate which will lose the revenue, not the fans of Whistler who will lose easy access to one of his greatest works, and certainly not the members who lose their restaurant. Everyone can see what ought to happen and the Tate director, Maria Balshaw, needs to find a way to get it done or find another less challenging job.

Join the discussion

  • Thanks for this Jack. I love this exceptional mural and, in order to admire it, have twice dined in its charmed and charming environs. If only it were extraordinary to hear this verdict from the left wing extremists appointed as guardians of our cultural heritage, alas it is commonplace. No contemporary British artist could produce a work as complex in scope, technique or vision, or as delightful as this. It is clearly not offensive. Those who regard it as such would presumably seek to outdo the British Library’s insanity and also ban all imaginative novels, poetry and children’s books which create well realised fantastic scenarios which can be narrowly interpreted to give offense by the virtue signalling proponents of critical race theory. Those trustees, the great and the good who appointed such people have a lot to answer for.

  • It isn’t so long since we lampooned the Victorians for covering up the naughty bits of Greek and Roman statues. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book and deploy some foliage which can be removed if reason ever returns.

  • Given that one of the main purposes of institutions such as the Tate is to educate, the proposed action by the Trustees goes against that purpose. Putting art in the basement obfuscates the issue; hiding it in the dark when we should be shining a light on some of these issues.

    Shame on the trustees for abandoning an important principle for the sake of avoiding potential offence. Should we accept that important aspects of our culture are to be consigned to the darkness by virtue signalling ignoramuses who appear to be unaccountable to the general public whilst benefiting from our obligatory and voluntary contributions?

    Given the actions of similar institutions, e.g. British Library, National Trust to name two, isn’t it about time the Culture Secretary got on his hind legs and reminded said institutions of their responsibilities to the wider public and not just the virtue signalling minority who probably live within the M25?

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