When I first began to explore the Sitwells—Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell—in the mid-1970s, the youngest of the trio, Sacheverell, Sachie to his friends, was the only one still alive. Endearingly gregarious by nature and happy to chat with admirers, he was accessible and spoke in the same flowing way that he wrote, sharing nuggets of knowledge, anecdotes, favorite pieces of music, or even his preferred barber. Always, he took it for granted that others knew as much as he did. Never did he dwell too long on any subject, instead flitting from one to another in the way of the hummingbird moth, “serious and diligent . . . the creature of night as well as day,” to whom he compared himself. For Want of the Golden City, a fascinating summary of his life and his various interests, appeared in 1973. Throughout that decade he went on producing booklets of his poetry as well as reviewing occasionally for Apollo, the distinguished art magazine whose then-editor, Denys Sutton, was something of a disciple of Sachie’s. Sutton’s The World of Sacheverell Sitwell appeared in three issues of Apollo, September, October, and November 1980, and later as a special one-off volume. Sutton’s book-in-magazine-form, which sadly coincided with the death in October 1980 of Sachie’s beloved wife, Georgia, was well overdue in exploring, for almost the first time, a remarkable author who was for many years in the shadows of his siblings.
Sutton expressed confidence that Sitwell’s writings, especially his poetry and the “imaginative books,” which Sutton called Sitwell’s “spiritual autobiography,” would soon be “carefully studied.” The prediction has yet to come true. Unless I have missed something, all of Sitwell’s work—including books famous and influential in their day like Southern Baroque Art and British Architects and Craftsmen—is out of print and waiting to be rediscovered or indeed discovered at all.
Unless I have missed something, all of Sitwell’s work—including books famous and influential in their day like Southern Baroque Art and British Architects and Craftsmen—is out of print and waiting to be rediscovered or indeed discovered at all.
Sitwell wrote in For Want of the Golden City that his series of “imaginative books” that began with Dance of the Quick and the Dead (1936), subtitled “an entertainment of the imagination,” and continued with Sacred and Profane Love (1940), Primitive Scenes and Festivals (1942), Splendours and Miseries (1943), The Hunters and the Hunted (1947), and Cupid and the Jacaranda (1952), were “the best things I have written,” something that, elsewhere, he also said of a later and similar book, Journey to the Ends of Time (1959). He was distressed that, by 1973, the books in the series were “unknown to the present generation,” except for a few eccentrics such as myself who searched them out. He had been similarly distressed about the fate of Journey to the Ends of Time, the most ambitious of his books. He had planned to follow this with a second volume, but failed to find a publisher for it.
The “imaginative books,” together with Journey to the Ends of Time and For Want of the Golden City, would be ideal for an inquisitive beachcomber marooned on a desert island. The books flow from one subject to another, covering disparate topics: the “False Messiah” of the seventeenth-century, Sabbatai Zevi; the forgotten nineteenth-century Jewish hurdy-gurdy musician Michael Joseph Gusikow; Bach’s fugues; Brueghel’s Dulle Griet; Madeleine Smith, accused of poisoning her lover with arsenic kisses; Picasso, “with the most astonishingly natural equipment of any painter of these last three centuries,” who opened “one path after another that he has no inclination to follow”; Watteau’s Pierrot; one of Madame Du Barry’s last balls; an imagined dinner in Soho with Swinburne, Rossetti, and Rossetti’s wife and muse, Elizabeth Siddal, on the same evening when the last of these died; and the “shoals of pearls” and shells in Tiepolo’s Venice. The books are unique in their wide-ranging knowledge, enough to send readers on all kinds of journeys. “Isn’t Sacred and Profane Love a curiosity?,” Nancy Mitford wrote to the Mitford family friend Violet Hammersley in December 1940, though she added she was enjoying the book. “Curiosity” may be the key word for these books, which have no equivalents in recent writing and no peers. They remind me of the “cabinets of curiosities,” those ancestors of museums that decorated the palaces or houses (country or town) of enlightened princes, noble lords, or gentlemen of antiquarian bent in the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries.
Sitwell looked a spiritual descendent of an eighteenth-century searcher of “curiosities” in a picture taken by Cecil Beaton that appeared in John Lehmann’s A Nest of Tigers (1968), a book about the Sitwells’ literary career and much disliked by Sachie and Georgia, the latter a tigress when it came to her husband’s interests. There we see him in his library at Weston Hall, the country house in Northamptonshire which his father, the brilliant and redoubtable Sir George, gave to him soon after his marriage to the vivacious Georgia, a Canadian banker’s daughter. He is elegantly dressed in a dazzling waistcoat, with eyes abstracted and alert at the same time, and holding a burning cigarette, perhaps Egyptian, his father’s preference.
When writing about the Sitwells, it is difficult to avoid mentioning their father. Sachie praised his father “for his intelligence and interesting mind.”
When writing about the Sitwells, it is difficult to avoid mentioning their father. Sachie praised his father “for his intelligence and interesting mind” and expressed anger with the way Sir George was mocked and derided, most brilliantly by Osbert in his five-volume memoir, but also by Edith. It was a matter Sachie raised with Osbert in private at the time Osbert’s autobiography appeared and later more openly in For Want of the Golden City, its title deriving from Sachie’s disappointment over Osbert’s secretly changing his will shortly before his death to refuse the family castle in Tuscany to Sachie. “And so the legend dies,” Sachie sadly wrote. For Sachie, his father’s “posthumous fame as an eccentric has obscured his true stature.” It was Sir George who appreciated the Italian Baroque and Rococo in a way few people did in his period. He told his sons of the wonders he had seen in southern Italy and paved the way for Sachie to write his pioneering Southern Baroque Art.
Published in 1924 at the author’s expense, this dazzling book made an immediate splash and was soon to be on the shelves of every Oxford aesthete throughout the twenties. Painters like Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano, and Guercino, much appreciated during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, had been relegated to attics and basements after Ruskin dismissed the Baroque and Rococo. Unlike more conventional academic studies, Southern Baroque Art is itself a specimen of the style: full of flamboyant people and false perspectival shifts across scenes, media, and periods. It was nothing like a catalogue or guide book, and Sitwell only mentions in passing artists like the Carraccis while discussing in detail Giambattista Tiepolo, a Venetian not properly “southern” at all. El Greco, generally considered as anything but Baroque and only intermittently understood even in his lifetime, was only beginning to be appreciated at the start of the twentieth century. Sacheverell’s discussion of El Greco’s work in “Les Indes Galantes,” the second essay in Southern Baroque Art, makes it clear that whether the painter was Baroque or not hardly mattered. He had brought to Spain a “fervour and hysteria” that was to mark the style: “The voyage that Greco made to Spain should have resulted in a victory more sensational and more deserved than those which accompanied Caravaggio on his travels.” In the book, Farinelli’s singing is described at such length because the castrato’s virtuoso qualities of rapidity and brilliance were parallel to “the only virtuoso architecture to be found in Europe.” Sitwell’s essay “The King and the Nightingale” was a highlight. It told of how Farinelli forsook his public career to sing in the chamber next to Philip V every night in the hope of relieving the King’s chronic melancholy. This story was to be echoed more than a decade later when Sachie wrote in Dance of the Quick and the Dead of how the insomniac Count Kayserling commissioned Bach to write pieces for the famed harpsichordist Goldberg to play every night in the chamber next to Kayserling’s so as to ease him to sleep. Sitwell was a master of these theatrical set pieces based on historical figures.
Sitwell returned to Tiepolo and his son, Domenico, whose Punchinellos he loved, often throughout his career. Another favorite was Watteau, who prized actresses much as Sitwell adored dancers such as Moira Shearer and Pearl Argyle. Of Watteau’s work, Sitwell wrote most frequently of Pierrot (formerly known as Gilles), which he described in For Want of the Golden City as “the most poetical of all paintings.” For Sitwell, the image of Gilles, “the white pierrot of the hustings” was “Watteau’s masterpiece . . . a portrait of a pierrot many years, perhaps a hundred years, before his time.” “He has stood there for two hundred years and more, and is not a day older. He is no dolt or zany, but poet and acrobat,” Sitwell wrote in Cupid and the Jacaranda.
Pierrot was a favorite figure of the first years of the twentieth century, appearing in Picasso’s paintings and on Vogue covers. Bertie Wooster dressed up as a Pierrot for a party. In his early memoir, All Summer in a Day (1926), Sitwell wrote that his baptism “into the magic and mystery of the theatre” had been through seeing at Scarborough, the coastal town where the Sitwells then had a house (the one in which Sachie was born), the “seaside Pierrots,” a troupe managed by his tutor, Major Viburne, portrayed in Edith’s autobiographical poem “Colonel Fantcock.”
He had a way, found in some poets, of making observations that impress a reader as something he or she has always known, or ought to have known.
In America in particular, the Sitwells have been inaccurately conflated with the Bloomsbury group. The Sitwells, while friendly with some of the Bloomsberries (notably Arthur Waley, the great translator from Oriental languages), were far more dashing and stylish, Cavaliers to Bloomsbury’s Roundheads. Sachie had a particular dislike of the “freakish and anything but kind-tongued” Lytton Strachey, who was rather a friend of Osbert’s. Sachie made an interesting comparison of Strachey to a more recent group of counter-culture icons: “the whole of life and of intellectual experience were for Strachey one long and high-pitched ‘giggle.’ It was in this spirit that John Lennon and his fellow Beatles swarmed into Buckingham Palace to collect the decorations they had been . . . awarded.” In condemning the long-haired idols—the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et al.—of the Sixties, Sachie wrote that they “had nothing to do with great songwriters like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and others who were phenomenal in their especial line.” He had predicted in Sacred and Profane Love that “long-haired man must come again. He must be apart from other men, able to live in a modern flat or a hotel bedroom as though it was a tent or medicine lodge.” When the prediction came true, Sachie was less than pleased at the result. He who had long been fascinated by “fanaticism and . . . virtuosity” censured the hirsute: it was now “not enough to make an artist or musician of someone . . . because he has long and untidy hair.”
He was the eternal “baby” of the family who survived considerably longer than his siblings and was least marked by illness. His perpetual innocence and youthfulness made others want to look after him. This he needed, for he learned neither how to drive a car (despite living in a part of England where there was no public transport) nor how to promote himself in the way his siblings did. Nevertheless, he has been praised by not a few as the most accomplished of the Sitwell trio. Reviewing Sarah Bradford’s biography of Sachie in 1993, John Gross observed that while the youngest Sitwell was unlikely ever to become popular to the general public, he would always find readers happy to discover him. He had a way, found in some poets, of making observations that impress a reader as something he or she has always known, or ought to have known. It is indeed time for Sacheverell Sitwell to be reconsidered.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 2, on page 41
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