Simon Laurence Whistler, engraver and musician: born Barnstaple, Devon 10 September 1940; married 1971 Jennifer Helsham (marriage dissolved 1994), 1997 Maggie Faultless; died Alton Barnes, Wiltshire 18 April 2005.
Simon Whistler had two careers in a life that ended too soon. He was a professional viola player for 30 years, and a glass engraver, the result of encouragement from his father, Laurence Whistler, the glass engraver, poet and architectural historian.
In The Initials in the Heart (1964), Laurence Whistler told the story of his marriage to the actress Jill Furse, and her sudden death during the Second World War, when Simon was only four years old. Laurence's brother, the artist Rex Whistler, whose centenary falls this June, died in the Normandy invasion in the same year.
Simon spent childhood holidays with his Furse grandparents in north Devon, as a teenager hurtling head first down the lanes in a home-made go-kart. His sister Robin describes him as "in a small way, a thrill seeker", who liked fast cars and took flying lessons. Not particularly academic or bookish, he enjoyed clowning and making people laugh.
Simon Whistler was educated as a chorister at Magdalen College School, Oxford, where he lived with his aunt (and later stepmother) Theresa Furse, and later at his father's school, Stowe. Sibyl Eaton, a relation and a professional string player, gave him his own violin and some teaching, and at Stowe, Angus Watson encouraged him. After turning to the viola at the Royal Academy of Music, Whistler went to Amsterdam for four years with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra (learning to speak Dutch) and studied in Italy with Bruno Giurana.
He belonged to some of the most distinguished string ensembles of the time, including the English Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St John's, Smith Square (whose Baroque architecture and surrounding Georgian streetscapes seem appropriately Whistlerian), and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He recorded the Mozart Quintets with Hausmusik. Music was present throughout his life, in his marriage first to another player, Jennifer Helsham, and, in 1997, to Maggie Faultless, the Baroque violinist, in whom he found a complete soul mate.
When engraving, Whistler enjoyed listening to Wagner and Strauss operas, and attended many performances of them. At Alton Priors, near his home in Wiltshire, he and Maggie organised the festival Music for Awhile for two days every July, inviting their friends to perform.
In a book published last year, On a Glass Lightly, Whistler told the story of his career in glass, accompanied by many fine reproductions of his work. He began engraving in his teens, and could not have had a more experienced teacher. Laurence Whistler was a reserved and sometimes demanding man, but this link between them was valued by both, and Simon received commissions and exposure in exhibitions even when mostly preoccupied with music.
His glass may look superficially similar to his father's, in technique and subject matter, but there are differences. Laurence considered his son to be the better stipple engraver, and Simon took immense trouble to design for the curving shape of the glass. Musical staves often feature in his work, represented with a player's understanding. Romantic landscape figured strongly on his goblets made for exhibition, including a series of 10 Welsh scenes inspired by Turner, in 1989. The landscape photography of Simon's brother-in-law, James Ravilious, in north Devon, was a source of inspiration.
In 1994, Simon Whistler decided to retire from music, move out of London and concentrate on glass. He was thus able to help his father, then over 80, to complete some large commissions such as the memorial window to Jacqueline du Pré at St Hilda's, Oxford, 1995. Windows, mostly in churches, became a major part of his work. He took much care to relate these to the way they would be seen from inside. Many of them were memorial windows, and he wrote,
We stand inside, looking at the design which is apparently made of light, hanging as though in thin air, the glass itself being invisible. And yet we can also look beyond the engraving and glimpse the world outside, but the glass prevents us from reaching it. Passing through the glass symbolises, for me, the experience of death. Only by doing so, therefore, can we attain to the world beyond.
These words were written when Simon knew that his own death was approaching, by the cruel degeneration of motor neurone disease, which made his last engravings a struggle. His book, beautifully designed and published by Michael Mitchell at Libanus Press, contains a moving reflection on his condition, which came so soon after he had found himself new freedoms in life and art.
"It is worth remembering that darkness is not an energy in itself," he wrote. "It is only the absence of light. Allow the light in, and understanding and healing can come in with it, so that good may be created out of the darkness."
Alan PowersReuse content