Never a dull moment in historic hall’s literary intrigue

Edith Sitwell with brothers Osbert and Sacheverell
Edith Sitwell with brothers Osbert and Sacheverell
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The Sitwell family of writers who called Renishaw Hall near Sheffield their home railed against the literary establishment in their heyday of the 1920s and 30s.

However, the disdain felt by Edith Sitwell and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell towards the cultural gatekeepers of the era was not without consequence – it put them out of the running for any of the literary prizes of the time.

But, as the hall’s curator Christine Beevers explains, the siblings refused to be defeated.

From an unprepossessing brown box in the hall’s formal dining room she produces a small, stuffed owl – all piercing eyes, sharp talons and ruffled feathers.

The taxidermied specimen – recently discovered – was the Sitwells’ own literary prize, which they would send to the person who had written, in their view, the dullest literature of the year.

“It shows two things, really,” says Christine.

“One is that life is never dull at Renishaw, you never know what’s going to come round the corner.

“But secondly, it says everything about the trio, how they perceived themselves and how they functioned at the height of their fame.

“It demonstrates the Sitwell sense of humour, their eccentricity – if that’s what you want to call it – and their crusade against the philistines, that they weren’t going to kowtow to anybody.”

The startling bird is the finale of a new series of special literary tours of Renishaw that Christine is leading, painting a detailed picture of the Sitwells’ lives, the circles they moved in, the ways the hall influenced their work and how the house was ‘built on books’.

The tours were arranged after the Historic Houses Association launched a national literary trail which features the 17th century hall and its well-appointed Italianate gardens, tended to by the Sitwells for nearly 400 years.

Alexandra Sitwell – Sacheverell’s granddaughter – is the present owner, and the place has kept a sense of a proper family home; grand, yet still comfortable and lived-in.

The Sitwell trio found fame through being at the forefront of avant-garde poetry following the First World War.

All three wrote prodigiously, and the library’s shelves at Renishaw are testament to their efforts, lined with hundreds of volumes of verse and prose penned by them.

“Anything that was modern they were pushing to the forefront – it was such a contrast to anything which had been written before,” says Christine.

Pictures of the three by society photographer Cecil Beaton will be a hallmark of the tour. His shots – particularly those of Dame Edith, who favoured wearing extravagant gowns, jewellery and headdresses – helped to cement their image.

“All three of them were maybe about six feet tall, so they were imposing figures,” says Christine.

“Cecil Beaton probably played as much a role in bringing the trio to the fore in the public’s attention as they did for him. He once asked somebody ‘How do I get on?’ and they said ‘Just meet the Sitwells and you’re on your way’.”

One photograph from 1926 depicts Edith in a performance of Facade, a piece which involved the recital of poetry through a megaphone. It divided opinion, but the Sitwells did not set out to please, Christine explains.

“Their work was a reaction to the First World War – my belief is that time was absolutely right for them.

“They had harrowing times as 20-year-olds, and the world couldn’t go back to being as it was. It was a clean slate and they were so resentful of what the older generation had put their generation through, that things had to be different.

“Art and literature was going to be their way of promoting that.”

While Sacheverell was too young to fight, Osbert was ‘pushed’ into the Army by his father, Sir George Sitwell.

He hadn’t intended to become a writer, but faced with the horrors of the trenches outside Ypres in 1916 felt moved to write his first poem in a letter home which is included in the tour.

The Sitwells also supported the war poet Wilfred Owen, one of several writers they championed.

Osbert loaned money to Dylan Thomas, and a letter of thanks from the Welsh poet – “It’s a work of art in itself,” says Christine – will be on show.

A section of the tour is also dedicated to literary feuds. Edith, who died in 1964, nursed a particularly bitter grievance against DH Lawrence, believing his Lady Chatterley’s Lover was based on the Sitwells and Renishaw.

Osbert and Sacheverell, who were both knighted, died in 1969 and 1988 respectively.

Effort has also been put into reflecting the guests who came to the hall while the trio were in residence. Writer Evelyn Waugh, and painters Rex Whistler and John Piper – whose work remains on display at Renishaw – were known visitors, and on the mantelpiece there’s a bust cast in brass of Osbert, made in the 1920s by portrait sculptor Frank Dobson.

“Alexandra’s father always liked us to tell people that his uncle’s nose is polished every Monday morning,” laughs Christine, who joined Renishaw in 2007 as a volunteer, and began working with the archives in 2011.

A former primary school teacher, Christine taught in Rotherham, Wakefield and as a headteacher in Barnsley, before working in an ‘education action zone’ in the North East, and now lives in Upperthorpe. She’s an affable character, intent on sharing Renishaw’s history in an accessible, lively way.

“History is my passion, and I’d always wanted to be a National Trust volunteer or tour guide.

“Then when my last job finished I thought right, this is my opportunity.

“In a way it’s been an icing on the cake of a latter career. It’s combining the craft and skills that you learn as a teacher with your love of history.”

She adds: “Somebody asked me the other day what it would have been like living with the Sitwells – it might have been exhausting, and unpredictable, but it would never have been dull.

“You’ve only got one life, and I’d rather have an interesting one. I don’t want to have an owl!”

The tours are this Sunday, May 28, at 2pm; June 25, 2pm; August 13, 11.30am and September 3, 2pm. Places are limited. Call 01246 432310 to book.

Renishaw ‘not a fortress’

A stately home ‘needs a good narrative’ to offer a satisfying visit, Christine Beevers believes.

“To me, a house is nothing without the people in it and the stories.

“I can admire lovely objects, but I need a story, and I think we provide a very interesting narrative here,” she says.

The tours will be successful if visitors ‘go away re-thinking the Sitwells.’

“There’s lots of material written about them out there and maybe it might spark a bit of a revival. As people, and as writers, I can’t see why not, because they are interesting.”

The Sitwell trio were ‘accessible and approachable’, and the family continues to engage with local life, Christine adds.

“Renishaw’s not a fortress that nobody’s allowed in.

“The fact Alexandra opens her home to the public, and wants to share her family’s history, is all credit to her.”