The Riding on the Wall
Tate Britain is the quieter relative of the extended family. Tate Modern has Herzog + de Meuron’s sexy ziggurat with its brilliant incidental installation (Watch Rich People In Their Apartments). Tate Britain has James Stirling’s paean to contextual irony. Lost on most, the less said the better. Thankfully, the Rex Whistler Restaurant is located in the basement of the original sturdily neoclassical gallery. Or is it? Entrances at varying degrees above ordnance data dictate an enjoyable disorientation. Lower ground floor? Garden level? Sub piano nobile?
Rex. The name conjures up a dilettantish dandyish raffish character. Definitely a Bright Young Thing. Julia Flyte’s American beau in Brideshead Revisited. Rex Bart Beaumont, chum of Charles Howard Bury, last owner of Belvedere House in Mullingar. Known to all and sundry as “Sexy Rexy”. The pair enjoyed jaunts to Tibet accompanied by a pet bear. No aggressive normalcy there, then.
Paintings are best seen from a seat. The Garrick Club gets that with its dining room wallpapered by in Zoffany. Before Carl Laubin (who completed a capriccio of Castle Howard estate buildings in 1996) and even before Felix Kelly (who painted the Garden Hall murals at Castle Howard in 1988) there was Rex Whistler. His 1937 murals can be admired traipsing through the National Trust dining room of Plas Newydd on the Isle of Anglesey but how much more relaxing to soak in his 1927 murals at the Tate lounging over lunch. At least that was the plan.
Gloriously out of sync with the modernist spirit of the age (more country house than Bauhaus), The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats is a whimsical adventure chronicling a party in search of epicurean delights. Follies and fortresses, temples and turrets… it’s an escapist setting, an ageless fantasy, Chinese wallpaper without the paper. Trompe l’œil gargoyle headed grotesques support the pedimented entrance doorcase. Half moon windows are treated as grottos. All the more remarkable given that Rex undertook this feat as a 23 year old Slade student. Tragically just 17 years later, the artist was killed on his first day of action in World War II. Rex Whistler’s legacy continues to inspire and enthral. His portraits of Lady Caroline Paget and her brother, later 7th Marquess of Anglesey, both recently sold for twice their estimates.
Lunch is served in the leafy garden along the Thames Embankment. Fresco to alfresco. A moveable feast. Fête champêtre. The meal is bookended by bubbly. Isn’t all hydration good for you? That’s a fair enough excuse for flutes of Coates + Seely Brut (£11.50). “Complex citrus infused fizz from one of the UK’s most impressive estates,” reassures the wine list. Hampshire’s finest fizz followed by Hampshire’s finest fish. Arriba! L’Abrunet 2015 (£27.00), “Made from organic white Grenache grapes grown in Catalonia,” adds to the bibulous nature of this indulgent Saturday afternoon. In honour of the founder of the gallery (Henry Tate was a sugar merchant) it would be rude not to have pudding. And it does result in a three course deal (£35.95). “Moderation is overrated,” agree the couple at the next table. The food’s wonderful – aptly British with a nod to the Continent. No buyers’ remorse.
- British Asparagus: green asparagus spears, crisp polenta, duck egg, herb sauce, charred onion
- Chalk Stream Trout: roast Hampshire trout fillet, Jersey Royals, white onion, cress lemon butter
- Epicurania: Tate chocolate, Tate coffee tiramisù, chocolate ice cream
The jazz ensemble strikes up. Maybe Tate Britain isn’t so quiet, after all.