Updated: Sep 8, 2022
A personal journey by Marysia Zipser
I felt a real welcome at the 17th century English manor house of Weston Hall, near Towcester, Northamptonshire, on a sunny November day in 2012. Owned by the Sitwell family’s ancestors since 1714 until 2020, I was accompanied by food & travel writer, MasterChef critic, broadcaster and supper club host, William Sitwell. We were greeted by his sister, Henrietta. Altogether, it was a lovely introduction to the home once lived in by Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, their grandfather.
Henrietta was beaming when she said, “You’ll never believe what’s just happened? A small box just suddenly fell to the floor before me, opening up to reveal the golden childhood locks of Sachie!” Grateful for the warm reception I said with genuine pleasure: “Thank you Sir Sacheverell for the welcome, I’m very pleased to meet you and your family.”
It was a perfect tour by William as he guided me around the rooms, occasionally bursting into Sitwellian verse to give me more of an aura of the place. I was fascinated by the pastel drawings of Edith, which hung in The Lobby by Pavel Tchelitchew and Wyndham Lewis and caricatures of Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell himself by Max Beerbohm. Next, we proceeded up the stairs to the Attic rooms, once the Nursery, where a mass collection of antique toys, a superior rocking horse, and a majestic doll’s house appeared before me. Its adjoining room was full of rails with Edith’s extraordinary robes and boxes of her legendary hats. Downstairs William led me into Sachie’s study. I immediately felt at home here and sat down at his writing desk, which overlooked a vast lawn with a singular oak tree dominating the horizon. It was simply adorned, (a former Dressing Room) including an array of paintings and prints, over an empty carpeted space, where Sachie would scatter all his references, research papers and books while in full flow writing mode. Over 56 years, he would produce 50 volumes of poems and at least 40 other books on travel, music, art and architecture. I wondered then what Sir Osbert’s study looked like at Renishaw Hall.
Weston Hall, photo credit Ben Nicholson/Knight Frank 2020
William’s grandparents Georgia (left) and Sacheverell Sitwell with their son Reresby and Edith Sitwell (Sacheverell’s sister) CREDIT: Getty Images
Weston Hall, photo credit Ben Nicholson/Knight Frank 2020
Next, William introduced me to his brother Sir George, who was in his study. I was immediately taken back to Sebastian Flyte’s study at Christ Church as depicted by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited. This time, George’s greyhound and pug rushed to greet me, and I became aware of the similarly placed window as his grandfather’s overlooking Weston’s lawn. Beside it hung Cecil Beaton’s glowing portrait of Sachie: the perfect ending to a most generous visit.
I design events and heritage trails, and before Weston Hall, I had visited the Sitwell childhood home of Wood End in Scarborough, and had twice been to Castello di Montegufoni near Florence several years earlier. So Renishaw Hall was the fourth Sitwell residence I was to explore, this time, in more detail a few weeks later.
Extract page from the brochure written by Sir Reresby Sitwell, produced and published by Heritage House Group 2009. A detail from John Piper’s paintings of Renishaw Hall.
Back in 2004, I had the delight to receive a phone call from Sir Reresby Sitwell after he had received a letter from me promoting my marketing and event services to historic house owners. He had me smiling and laughing within minutes. Realising I was of Polish descent, he went on to explain the importance of the Polish lancers and their characteristic four-sided hats they wore which led to them resembling mortar-boards of academic dress. My grandfather was a Sokol (Scout) in the Polish cavalry. He asked if I could come to Renishaw because he had a job that might suit me, so I happily accepted. Our first introductory meeting evolved into my ten-year personal study of the Sitwellian legacy. What a lively raconteur he was and, of course, he had me totally hooked.
View of Woodend from Valley Gardens, Scarborough
The Library/meeting room, Woodend, Scarborough
I first entered Woodend, the childhood home of the Sitwells in Scarborough, in 2012. It is also the home of the Sitwell Society, and since 2006, adapted into creative studios and exhibition space managed and directed by Andrew Clay. I love the positioning of this fine Georgian villa overlooking Valley Gardens below and onwards to the sea. The Sitwell Library, one of the most historic rooms in the town, is warm and welcoming; it retains original bookcases and moulded ceiling. It was built by Sir George Sitwell shortly after moving there in 1870, and is a copy of the library at Renishaw. Edith was born here in 1887 and the house and gardens held a strong influence on her isolated childhood. Her brothers, governess, and servants always held her with deep affection and respect, but her parents’ loveless Victorian attitude would drive her into the garden’s comforting beauty. Here her imagination flowered and ran riot into her poetry and verse. Her “Colonel Fantock”, 1924, reminds readers of the gardener at Renishaw, but to me he could well be the gardener at Woodend...
“...All day within the sweet and ancient gardens
He had my childish self for audience –
Whose body flat and strange, whose pale straight hair
Made me appear as though I had been drowned...”
John Singer Sargent, The Sitwell Family, 1900. Private collection at Renishaw Hall. From left: Edith Sitwell (1887–1964), Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida, Sacheverell Sitwell (1897–1988), and Osbert Sitwell (1892–1969).
I recall Lady Natasha Spender’s affectionate portrayal of Edith in The Telegraph (2008). “...Too often, Edith is seen as an isolated, regal figure - grand, eccentric, assured and quick to rebuke impertinence. To some in those days, her Plantagenet features could strike a chill. But her soul was fired by devotion to friends and to unfortunates: her famous solitude was less that of a queen than of an abbess, even, at times, a hermit....” Sir Reresby remembered his “strawberry aunt” as having a “...great heart, she was loyal and generous to the end; nobody could deny she had a great personality; to me, her nephew, she was a wonderful person.”
Edith Sitwell by Roger Fry 1915, Museums Sheffield
Photo 1956 by Baron/Hulton Archive
Edith Sitwell by Wyndham Lewis 1923-35 / Tate Modern
Edith’s accentuated features and avant-garde fashion sense were immortalised in many drawings, paintings and Cecil Beaton photographs. I saw and ‘read’ so many of these and they always brought her beautiful qualities and personality closer to me. Her poetry has remained a constant source of inspiration reaching out to touch thousands of readers. Note her opening lines of “Still Falls the Rain” - 1940 Raids, Night and Dawn.
“Still falls the Rain –
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss –
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the cross.
Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet
On the Tomb...”
Of her “Facade” verse, spoken by Edith through a sengerphone and premiered on the London stage in 1923, the literary scholar Jack Lindsay wrote, “The associations are often glancing and rapid in the extreme, but the total effect comes from a highly organised basis of sense.” Edith could now be described as our first Queen of Rap. Her poem “Belshazzar's Feast”, composed in the stables at Weston Hall, prompted Sachie to relate, “He (William Walton) made such a frightful din on the piano we had to banish him from the house.”
Photos by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis
Osbert’s memories of Scarborough were revived in the 1926 publication of his first novel, and his personal favourite, “Before the Bombardment”, set in an out-of-season hotel. It was reviewed by Ralph Straus for Bystander magazine as “a nearly flawless piece of satirical writing. It studies social and psychological change when a world of obsolete values comes under the bombardment of a new and harsher era.”
The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915 by William Roberts. Copyright: The Estate of William Roberts. Photo: The Tate
An imaginative reconstruction of the Vorticist artists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, 1 Percy Street, London. It features, from left to right, seated: Cuthbert Hamilton, Ezra Pound, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, Frederick Etchells and Edward Wadsworth. Standing in the doorway are Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders. Joe, the waiter, and Rudolph Stulik, the proprietor of the restaurant from 1908-1937, are on the right. Etchells is holding volume I of the Vorticist publication 'Blast'. In the late 1950s, Roberts commented on the evenings at the restaurant in 'The Listener' (21 March 1957): 'In my memory la cuisine française [French cooking] and Vorticism are indissolubly linked.'
I have visited a few times in London what was once the famous Tour Eiffel restaurant at 1 Percy Street, off Tottenham Court Road, ‘the epicentre of London artistic Bohemian life’. On many nights from 1919 onwards, while off duty from his regiment encampment, Osbert would bring Sachie there to dine, introducing him to High Bohemia, where they would sit next to the intelligentsia, for example, of Nancy Cunard, Dora Carrington, Walter Sickert, Wyndham Lewis, Nina Hamnett, and Augustus John. The restaurant was run by its Austrian proprietor Stulik, with a Vorticist Room on an upper floor, which Lewis and his assistant William Roberts created. I last visited this property last year, still a restaurant, now renamed “House of Ho” with two of my Toronto friends, to experience some Sitwellian sense of place. It is a three-floor Georgian building with a basement kitchen, with windows having fine views over Fitzrovia. Every time I visit, I can feel its artistic flavours oozing from the walls, imagining the steamy windows, smoke-filled rooms, and deep close-knit philistine conversations. I highly recommend the House of Ho for fine Asian food, hospitality and ’sense of place’.
1. & 2. Views of Montefugoni. 3. The Tower and Great Court, Montefugoni, by John Piper 1947
Besides England, Italy enchanted the Sitwells. On the old Volterra road, in the heart of Tuscany 20 kilometres from Florence, lies the beautiful medieval castle of Montegufoni, the former villa of the distinguished 13th century Acciaioli family. In 1909, Sir George Sitwell happened to pass this romantic-looking property when his car broke down nearby, fell in love with it, and purchased it. He lived in his medieval dream world, planning and designing endless improvements to this 100-room property over the next 30 years. In 1923 Sir George and Lady Ida decided to make Montegufoni their permanent home, leaving Renishaw. Also in that same year (1909), Sir George’s “On the Making of Gardens” was first published, a little gem of a book, in which he intellectually analysed, in a musical and magical way, what he considered ‘the timeless principles of garden design’ inspired by his visits to Tuscany, Rome, and the Italian Lakes.
Eventually, this endearing Italian property has been tastefully and slowly restored into holiday apartments since the early 1970s when Sir Reresby had to make the decision to sell the family residence after his uncle Osbert died in 1969.
Osbert was an excellent publicist of his day, and I can quite understand the horror of his father on viewing the bills received from suppliers for numerous parties held by his sons to promote their literary and artist protégés. Today, these events are a matter of course for art exhibition premieres and book launches. They certainly knew how to throw a blast of a party because their guest lists were the ultimate of who’s who.
I last visited and stayed at this Italian castle in 2011 while on a venue-seeking tour around Florence with my friend Jan Curd-Pelling. Montegufoni was one of three properties I recommended to Jan for a musical weekend event she was planning. She duly fell in love with it too. The Severini frescoed room is a magical discovery on any visit. And to think that Sir George’s two sons tried to persuade him to commission a young artist called Picasso instead of Gino Severini.
The garden perfumes linger in my memory and were re-ignited when I visited both Renishaw and Weston Hall. Sense of place and sense of smell were intrinsically intertwined. Memories of the lemon groves and herb gardens of Montegufoni now spring into my mind. I can well imagine Sir George, Lady Ida, and Osbert welcoming their distinguished guests and being shown about the Castle and grounds with pride.
Returning to Renishaw Hall for my last visit, I was warmly welcomed by its present chatelaine, Alexandra Hayward, Sir Reresby and Lady Sitwell’s daughter, who allowed me a fascinating tour. Alexandra officially took over the helm in 2010 and has sensitively renovated and redecorated its many rooms, lobbies and halls. Along the corridors and rooms I passed through, I gasped in awe peering at the immense collection of art and books lining practically every wall space. It was such a joy to actually see these much-valued works of art for the first time, many of which were collected by Sir Osbert.
A few pages from the Osbert Sitwell’s 20th Century Collection exhibition brochure
The collection of art at Renishaw includes pictures bought by Osbert from other artists who were his friends or protégés, such as Paul Nash, Rex Whistler, Max Beerbohm, John Piper, Edward Wadsworth, William Roberts, CRW Nevinson, Percy Wyndham-Lewis, Gino Severini, Pavel Tchelitchew, Cecil Beaton, Roger Fry, Nina Hamnett, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
It was interesting to discover Osbert’s study and compare it to Sachie’s at Weston Hall. Here his desk was centred in the room and not facing outwards to the gardens. Overall it was a larger room and writing desk on which he could spread his papers, with surrounding china cabinets, paintings, book-filled shelves, prints, objets d’art and personal knick knacks. He obviously liked to be safely cocooned during his writing process, whereas Sachie needed more light and direct closer views of his beloved garden to work.
It has taken several years for Alexandra and her team of archivists to catalogue nearly 30,000 books and the 300 or more boxes of documents of the very large and fascinating collection of letters relating to the Sitwell families spanning the 17th-21st centuries. As Renishaw Hall archivist Christine Beevers said, “We are very lucky to have book inventories from the 18th and 19th centuries which give an insight into the Renishaw libraries of the past before the contents were sold in the great sale of 1849.”
Osbert’s five autobiographical volumes ‘Left Hand Right Hand’ were published from 1943 through to 1950. I love these books to dip into because they allow me to understand the period and locations, similarly depicted in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited “Prologue and Epilogue”, especially when re-reading Chapter One ‘The Dominion of the Senses’ of ‘Great Morning’ (1948).
Renishaw Hall Gardens
Venturing into the award winning Renishaw gardens, it doesn’t take long to be joyfully uplifted by their magnificence. They were designed and created by Sir George over fifty years between 1886 and 1936, and each time a renaissance of enhancements by Sir Osbert, Sir Reresby, Lady Sitwell and now Alexandra, aided by talented head gardeners, it continues to become one of the most exciting places and works of art in Britain.
It’s important to note that an exhibition of Modern French Art at the Mansard Gallery at Heal's, Tottenham Court Road, organised by the brothers in August 1919 brought to London for the first time works by Picasso, Matisse, Dufy, Modigliani, Utrillo and others. This groundbreaking show was widely praised by modernist critics.
I could now understand how the Sitwells had such a major influence on the arts throughout their lives, and especially during the 1920s when they rebelled against what they saw as the Philistine establishment.
Perhaps some bright young writers will research and help adapt some of the many biographies and correspondence of these siblings, together with Osbert’s autobiographical ‘Left Hand Right Hand’, into a fairly long TV film screenplay, akin to the successful adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, being one small book in comparison.
Cyril Connelly, journalist and critic, said shortly before his death, that “...the Sitwells were a dazzling monument to the English scene. They absolutely enhanced life for us during the twenties, and had they not been there a whole area of art and life would have been missing.”
Although this taster piece has only briefly touched upon the Sitwells’ sense of place, I do hope that readers will want to find out more about this accomplished family as their legacy continues and deserves to be revived, appreciated and sustained internationally. If you have any comments please leave them below (only takes up to 10 incoming comments, not replies) or email me directly at email@example.com Thank you. I will further produce a YouTube channel video of this article with my narration very shortly in order to extend the audience.
Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe by George Silk, 1953. Published in LIFE magazine. National Portrait Gallery London