Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell others

My third pre-Christmas review this year is about a book that chronicles the history of a great English house, Renishaw Hall, through the stories of its various owners. They’re the members of the Sitwell family, an interesting bunch, in many different ways…
Desmond Seward, Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells
Published by Elliott & Thompson

A few decades ago someone with my interests couldn’t avoid coming across traces of the Sitwell family, the literary siblings who shot like a comet over England’s literary and social life in the mid-20th century, and then sank noisily behind the horizon. There was Edith with her outré poetry (she influenced Dylan Thomas a lot), Sacheverell with his books about architecture (the baroque was a  particular passion), and Osbert with his extended memoirs, which said how great he and his siblings were but how appalling their father, Sir George Sitwell, was. None of them is so well known now – a few of Edith’s poems have survived, and the ‘entertainment’ called Façade, her collaboration with the composer William Walton, but otherwise, not a great deal else. Except for the family house, Renishaw.

Desmond Seward starts with the house and its early inhabitants. The first chunk of the book consists of entertaining brief lives of all the owners of Renishaw from the first George Sitwell in the 17th century to Sir Reresby Sitwell (died 1862), followed by more extended accounts of Sir George, his famous three children, and their descendants. The opening ‘brief life’ chapters are a joy. They portray a varied and interesting cast of characters – a Cavalier, an ancestor who got involved in an almost-ruinous legal case, a noted gentleman scholar, a merchant who restored the family finances, a Regency buck avant la lettre, a formidable Victorian woman who saved Renishaw through her financial nous, a watercolorist and friend of Ruskin, and others. Each is a rounded portrait, vivid and full of incident, and in each case the owner’s contribution to the house, the lasting legacy, is described. I found myself wanting more, but also keen to get on to the next character in the saga.

Then there’s Sir George, portrayed by Osbert in his multi-volume memoirs as a repressive unimaginative dull dud and upper-class buffoon. This is a picture (upheld by Edith but not so much by the other son, Sacheverell) that has been generally accepted by readers and biographers until now. On the contrary, Seward shows him to have been a kind and astute man, who improved the house, developed its garden and spearheaded the revival of baroque art that his son Sacheverell also championed in his books. Sir George also seems to have been good at making money (on the Stock Exchange), ensuring that he could keep the hose and buy and restore another home, Montegufoni in Italy, which provided him with a refuge.

Sir George, then, not his three children, is the hero of this book. Osbert made his mark on the house - not least in commissioning John Piper to paint it many times: there’s a magnificent collection of Pipers at Renishaw as a result. But both Edith and Osbert come over as the difficult and pesky characters they were: they made enemies easily and were undoubtedly damaged in different ways by difficult relationships with their father; these problems were not all one way. Sacheverell is portrayed as more genial and more likeable. Osbert being gay (Sir George clearly had a big problem with this: he did have his flaws), the house passed to the descendants of Sacheverell, who seem to have inherited his geniality. So the book ends on a happy note. The house survives in all its eclectic glory, the garden flourishes. We can be thankful to Desmond Seward for writing about Renishaw and its inhabitants so eloquently. And the John Pipers glow: for those, at least, we can be thankful to Osbert.


Hels said...

I came across Edith Sitwell (1887–1964) via Rex Whistler, Roger Fry, Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tenant, Siegfried Sassoon and all the Bright Young Things in the Inter-War years. Edith was never married and shared a flat with the governess she had had for decades. In 1927 she was emotionally committed to a gay Russian painter and stayed with him for a few years. Then in 1932, she went with her governess to Paris, where they lived with the governess’ sister. Brother Osbert also seemed to have an unusual life.

I will have to read Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells now. Many thanks for the link.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, Hels, that's very much the picture this book paints of Edith. It also notices her cruel streak, her and her brothers' skill in publicity and public relations, and their prominence in the literary scene of the time - they were indeed Bright Young Things, but their influence went wider than this set.

Stephen Barker said...

I have visited Renishaw to go round the gardens a few years ago, which are very attractive. I will be visiting again in 2016 with the Leicestershire and Rutland Garden Trust. The book sounds an excellent read before the visit. If nothing else Edith took a striking photo and Osbert's books had good dust jackets.

The fate of many of the Bright Young Things was to grow old when they became neither young or so bright. Stephen Tenant in particular never really came to terms with becoming older. There was quite a good documentary on the Bright Young Things that is occasionally repeated on BBC4.

Christopher Bellew said...

Two legacies of the Sitwell siblings that I think of are, first, Sargent's portrait of them with their father and, secondly and less flatteringly, the quantities of Osbert's memoirs that I used to see in second-hand bookshops. Apparently this is what Osbert put in his Who's Who entry:
"For the past 30 years has conducted, in conjunction with his brother and sister, a series of skirmishes and hand-to-hand battles against the Philistine. Though outnumbered, has occasionally succeeded in denting the line, though not without damage to himself."
Thank you for such an interesting review.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you both for your comments. I too remember seeing many copies of Osbert's memoirs (with, yes, those striking dust jackets) in secondhand bookshops. The various volumes must have sold quite well, then got turned out in large numbers.

The trio (especially Osbert and Edith) did indeed often think of their lives as battles against the Philistine(s). Some in the arts (especially John Piper and William Walton) benefitted greatly from this activity. Anyone who likes Piper's and Walton's work, as I do, is in their debt for this at least.