It’s wartime in Pickering, the year is 1943, and sweets and treats are still to be rationed for years to come. 300 local children find themselves lucky enough to be invited to a party at The Memorial Hall on Christmas Eve. As well as a Christmas tree, the Hall has been decorated with murals of Father Christmas on his sleigh and children enjoying ice-skating and eating cakes. To greet the young party-goers, two caricatures of Welsh Guardsmen had been painted on wooden panels standing 10 feet high.
The idea of a children’s Christmas party came at the suggestion of tank commander, Reginald John Whistler, billeted up at Castle Camp near Pickering Castle. Better known as the famous artist, Rex Whistler, he was indeed still painting the murals as the festivities commenced with a Punch and Judy show. In a letter to a friend, he described the rush and the excitement of ‘decorating the hall, engaging the conjurors and generally making preparations to entertain about 250-300 little troglodytes on Christmas Eve.’
Whistler was renowned for his work across many different platforms, including murals at the cafe at the Tate Gallery and producing posters and illustrations for Shell Petroleum and the Radio Times. He was also a notable portrait artist capturing many members of London society of the era. Rex Whistler left Pickering for Normandy following the D-Day landings. Tragically, he was killed in action whilst going to the aid of other men in his unit in July 1944 in France. He was only 39.
Fortunately, however, three examples of Whistler’s art remain in the town as a testament to his talent. A mural of children gorging themselves on cakes is still in situ at the party venue in The Memorial Hall (link to directory) whilst the two Welsh Guards, rescued from a rubbish skip, stand proud in The Beck Isle Museum. A third piece, a mural of an imp cheekily peeping out of a panel on the wall of a bathroom in the Black Swan is in the process of being restored to hang in the public bar.
One thing is for certain, the local children of 1943, were thrown a Christmas party that the town will never forget.