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.
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.