Sitwell family
Friday, 05 September 2014

The Greatest Folly

They were at the heart of a celebrated artistic clique. So how did the Sitwell family’s fortunes become so bound to a neglected and crumbling Italian palace filled with squatters?

Written by Sir Christopher Ondaatje
The odd and flamboyant Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell were the children of perhaps the most selfish and mismatched couple in the English aristocracy. DH Lawrence claimed he had never seen such a strange family complex. It was as if they were marooned on a desert island; nobody else in the world existed except their lost selves.

I knew about the Sitwells of course, but it wasn’t until I searched out Montegufoni, the vast, decaying 13th century castle near Florence, Italy, where Sir Osbert spent his last reclusive years, that I became fascinated by the legend that Dame Edith, Sir Osbert and Sacheverell had created in their lifetimes.

In 1862, when only two years old, Sir George Sitwell had become the youngest baronet in England, inheriting Renishaw Hall, a virtually empty manor house with many acres of land in Derbyshire. Though his family had owned Renishaw Hall for more than 300 years, latterly their fortunes had dwindled to penury.

However, he was lucky in having a devout and frugal mother who had a remarkable head for business. When coal was discovered on the Renishaw land she negotiated profitable mining rights and added both land and money to the flagging Sitwell fortunes. By the time George went up to Oxford he was an extremely wealthy young man.

Sitwell-Sept05-01-5901. Renishaw Hall, the seat of the Sitwells. 2. Sir Osbert, the Baronet of Renishaw (1956). 3. In 1900 John Singer Sargent painted the Sitwell family. 4. Dame Edith (1956)

When he was 26 he married the 17-year-old Lady Ida Denison, second daughter of Lord Londesborough who could claim Plantagenet descent. The Londesboroughs were grander and wealthier than the Sitwells but in every other respect their daughter was hopelessly ill-suited to be George’s wife. She certainly was tall and ravishingly beautiful, but also poorly educated, extravagant and uncontrolled. She had a fiery temper.

Lady Ida immediately detested her husband, escaping the horror of her wifely duties after only a few days of marriage and retreating home. She was returned immediately. Nine months later her first child was born – Edith Louisa – a daughter and a colossal disappointment. Sir George had clearly expected his bride to deliver him a male heir. Edith was unloved and unwanted from the start, the product of a hopeless union.

Five years later, in 1892, Osbert, the longed-for son, was born. He was welcomed and loved where his sister had been spurned and made to feel physically repulsive. She had to wear what she described as a ‘Bastille’ to correct her spine, and a facial brace to straighten her hawk-like Sitwell nose – a trauma that blighted her life.

After another five years, in 1897, a second son, Sacheverell, was born and soon became Sir George’s favourite. In 1900 John Singer Sargent painted the Sitwells as they wished to be portrayed – as a fashionable, prosperous Victorian country family. However, he made Edith, now aged 13, a standout presence, in her bright scarlet dress. The tormented Edith appears as a powerful young woman, glowering at the artist. The painting still hangs at Renishaw.

The pale, eccentric and inventive Sir George, a one-time Tory MP for Scarborough, achieved a considerable amount. His income from his now very large estates was regular and plentiful, allowing him scope to restore and extend Renishaw Hall and establish its lavish gardens. But how did this strangely singular man come to possess an ancient, derelict castle in Tuscany?

Sir George lived in terror of losing the regained family fortune, but his real misery lay in his loveless marriage. His wife’s extravagance was ruining him: it was as if she was deliberately wreaking a terrible revenge on a hated husband. The apparent nervous breakdown that Sir George suffered resulted in a dramatic decision. When his doctor recommended ‘change’, he simply ran away. He chose Italy. His recovery was immediate as he travelled and earnestly studied Renaissance gardens.

It was on one of these excursions, in the autumn of 1909, that the car in which Sir George was travelling broke down in the beautiful Tuscan countryside between Florence and Volterra, where two ancient stone lions guarded an overgrown path.

This led to an abandoned castle – Montegufoni – which was for sale. Had the car really failed or had the stop been planned by a commissioned agent? Either way, Sir George gazed on the ruin that had once been the seat of the great Acciaiuoli family, steel merchants, bankers and allies of the early Medici, and Dukes of Athens, and in an act of madness immediately decided that he must have it.

Montegufoni was truly immense, twice the size of Renishaw. Its scores of devastated rooms, neglected for 20 years, had been taken over by hundreds of peasant squatters, whose cattle, goats and children roamed freely. Excited by the challenge, the undaunted Sir George longed to restore its great towers, secret passages, courtyards and turrets, which so appealed to his love of grandeur and the medieval. Its splendid ancestry would enhance the Sitwell legend.

So it was that the Sitwell family became masters of a monstrous ancient folly in the Tuscan hills. Sir George’s extravagant dream took flight as the Sitwells were already being crippled by Lady Ida’s debts. Although the property cost only £4,000 to buy, to restore it would cost many thousands more. As three decades of building work progressed, Sir George began to spend more and more time away from England, which he found depressing, while his indolent wife spent more and more on gambling and entertaining.

Sitwell-Sept05-02-590Renishaw Hall, the Derbyshire seat of the Sitwells

During one of his sojourns in Italy, away from the gloom of impending financial ruin, Ida was sent to prison for three months in 1913 for non-payment of debts. In 1925 Sir George took up permanent residence at Montegufoni, claiming taxation had forced him to live in Italy. It was a fitting backdrop to his family’s crumbling fortunes.

The fate of the Sitwells in the years following 1909 is now part of English literary history. Sir George did not die as expected in his beloved Tuscan castle; he left it for Switzerland in 1942 and died in Locarno the next year, aged 83.

Sir Osbert, now the Baronet of Renishaw Hall, took over the running of Montegufoni. Despite hard times, the Sitwells clung to their gabled mansion in Derbyshire. The three siblings, their closeness cemented by family traumas and a devotion to poetry, became the nucleus of an important literary and artistic clique in London. This generated some wellpublished events, notably Edith Sitwell’s reading of Façade in 1923 to music by William Walton.

All three wrote and their circle was said to rival Bloomsbury, though some thought them brilliant selfpromoters rather than serious artists. Nevertheless, they all devoted their lives to literature.

Edith remained a spinster all her life and died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1964. Osbert, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and abandoned writing, died as he had wished at Montegufoni in 1969, having earlier bequeathed Renishaw to Sacheverell’s son Reresby. Reresby also inherited Montegufoni, but promptly sold it to a rich Italian builder.

And like that, Sir George’s Italian dream was over.

The Last Colonial, by Christopher Ondaatje, is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £19.95.

Pictures: Getty Images; Renishaw Hall


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