Love made manifest

I had crossed the water meadows to West Harnham in beautiful sunlight the day before, but the rain set in early on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, and I returned to Salisbury Cathedral Close by taxi. My driver told me that, although he and his wife moved to the city several years ago, they had only recently, for the first time, walked around the outside of the Cathedral after dark, and been amazed by the effect of the lights shining from its interior.

I went to the basement of the Sarum College Bookshop, and having seen the Rex Whistler Prism in the Morning Chapel the day before, was pleased to find a booklet on the glass engravings of Laurence Whistler. He himself wrote: “After an evening concert you may see an audience streaming across a dark Close, and hardly one in fifty turns about for an experience as thrilling and exalted as Mozart.”

Laurence was born in 1912, the youngest of the four children of his parents, Henry and Helen Whistler, who according to the Census of 1911 were at that time living in Court Road, Eltham, with their children, Jessie, Denis Amor (who would live only another four years), and Reginald (Rex).

Evelyn Waugh is said to have borrowed features of Rex for his character of Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited”, and of Rex’s artistic contemporary Stephen Tennant, “the brightest of the Bright Young People”, for the character of Lord Sebastian Flyte. Rex and Laurence became distinguished in their respective fields of art, design and illustration, and of poetry and glass engraving.

In 1944, Laurence suffered two grievous losses: in July, Rex was killed on his first day of active service in Normandy; and in November, not long after the birth of their second child, his actress wife Jill Furse died of a blood infection. They had married in Salisbury Cathedral in 1939, before the outbreak of war.

In the 1980s, Laurence Whistler was given the opportunity to create a memorial to his brother in the Cathedral, and in response he created a revolving, illuminated prism which reveals a series of images of the Cathedral. In a book he wrote in 1985, he commented: “the light needs the dark to become articulate “. As another poet, Emily Dickinson, expressed it:

“I see thee better in the dark,

I do not need a light.

The love of thee a prism be

Excelling violet.”

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