In the early 1940s the artist Rex Whistler completed the illustrations for a book in his breaks from training with the Welsh Guards, working on the drawings in the army huts where he was stationed. The book was The Last of Uptake by Simon Harcourt-Smith, and the reviews agreed that here was ‘the perfect blend of artist and writer’.
Harcourt-Smith (1906-1982) was a former diplomat who wrote on a wide range of subjects, but The Last of Uptake is not typical of his work, as it started life as a lighthearted tale to entertain his wife who was in plaster after a car accident. Rosamund Harcourt-Smith (née Miller) was a society beauty, photographed by Beaton when her engagement was announced. She was known for her stylish outfits, so when Whistler (1905-1944) arrived to stay during this period he was offended by the standard crutches she was using to get about, and immediately set to work to design her a ‘princely pair, in a somewhat rococo taste’.
Simon Harcourt-Smith’s book tells the story of Uptake, a decaying stately home where the Ladies Tryphena and Deborah muddle by with a handful of ancient retainers. Their Palladian mansion is surrounded by a pleasure ground designed by perhaps William Kent, or Capability Brown, and dotted with follies and curiosities. These include a stepped pyramidal ice-house, a Chinese pavilion, a shell grotto, a hermit’s cave, sham Roman ruins, and automata such as a woodman who swings his axe at the turn of a key. When the sisters discover that their favoured heir has died, they decide upon drastic action and burn down the mansion.
The book jacket blurb makes clear that the story is a ‘fantastic confection’, dreamt up by Harcourt-Smith’, but he does write that parts are based on ‘legends’ told by his family and friends. One who might have sowed the seed of an idea is Edward Arthur Donald St George Hamilton Chichester, 6th Marquess of Donegall (1903-1975). Donegall sat in the House of Lords as Baron Fisherwick, a title taken from Fisherwick Hall, a former family seat in Staffordshire. Lord Donegall told his friend Harcourt-Smith the tale of how Fisherwick Hall was ‘inhabited by two maiden sisters who fell out and burned the house down’. It is true that the Marquess’s ancestors were forced to sell the Capability Brown designed Fisherwick house and park in around 1800 to settle debts, and it was demolished soon after, but there were no sisters, and no fire – and in fact no-one other than Donegal (who admitted his tale was ‘probably fictitious’) seems ever to have heard this myth.
Rex Whistler was in his element drawing such fantasy buildings. He loved follies and garden ornament, and favourites such as the Boycott Pavilions at Stowe, and the Palladian Bridge at Wilton, made regular appearances in his work. Part of the fun of the book is trying to figure out the British houses and gardens which might have influenced the text and pictures (track down a copy and try it for yourself). One may even have been fictional: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca had been a huge success when published only a couple of years earlier, with its haunting description of Manderley in flames.
The Last of Uptake was published by Batsford, and as well as the standard copy there was a deluxe version in a limited edition of 100. This was printed on handmade paper, and signed by the author and illustrator. The book was well-received in the press, but the ‘delightful piece of literary embroidery’ was overshadowed by war. In 1967 Solstice Productions of London reissued the book with a foreword by Rebecca West. She wrote that The Last of Uptake ‘has long been a treasure of mine, and I have always thought it a great misfortune that it failed to be recognised as a classic because it was published during the war’.
Of course the greatest tragedy was that Whistler himself never knew how much pleasure his illustrations gave to readers. He was killed in action in Normandy in 1944, and as Harcourt-Smith wrote in July 1945, it was not easy to think of ‘resuming the round of peace without him’.
Rex Whistler’s original drawings for The Last of Uptake are in the collection of the National Trust at Plas Newydd on Anglesey, where the dining room features an enchanting Rex Whistler mural https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/plas-newydd-house-and-garden
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