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  • Peter Byrne

Derbyshire Baroque

A pity that the wayward little book Southern Baroque Art can’t be read with detachment. That’s because the author’s name is Sitwell, a surname that flutters like a butterfly. If you add his first or given name (one doesn’t want to say Christian name) Sacheverell, you can’t avoid a giggle. The curse of the Sitwell family has been the English patrician tomfoolery of eccentricity. If you go down the class ladder to the middle rung, it’s called lovable oddness. At the bottom, it’s simply nuts or crackers.


There’s fear that these categories are changing as the times level the world’s peaks and depths. Maybe a Brexit 2 will have to be engineered to stop the clocks altogether. The former Prince of Wales used to whisper to flowers and trees, evoking admiration for his posh sensitivity. Now as Charles III he has resolved to limit pillow talk to his public relations team. What next? Will climate change put an end to warm beer, milk in tea and draughty bedrooms?


Southern Baroque Art once disentangled from the Sitwell curse is a restless tribute to poetry and high culture. The literary Sitwells, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, owed their aristocratic origins to Sir Sitwell Sitwell who was made a baronet in 1808. The stutter in his name was an omen. There would be word salads to come. The trio’s father, Sir George Reresby Sitwell was rooted in Renishaw Hall, the family’s Derbyshire home, or seat, as propriety would have it. He had studied landscape gardening in Italy and in 1909 bought the Tuscan Castello di Montegufoni. It was a ruin inhabited by three hundred contadini and he spent thirty years restoring it to its original design. The Futurist artist Gino Severini was called on to decorate an entire room with frescos.


Sir George made the Castello his permanent home in 1925. He claimed that British taxes were too high. One wisenheimer said it was the seven sitting-rooms of Renishaw Hall full of the papers and books from his antiquarian studies that sent him to exile. Sir George’s son Osbert, who inherited his baronetcy, tells us about his father’s eccentricities in his own quirky autobiography in four volumes. They ranged from an exclusive diet of roast chicken to his refusal to install electricity at home, insisting that candles be used. More cruelly, in 1915 he would not pay off his wife’s creditors and she, the daughter of the 1st Earl of Londesborough, had to go to jail for three months. The Second World War drove Sir George out of Italy and he died in 1943 at 83 in Locarno.


His children were no easier to pigeonhole. Between the two wars, the threesome offered an anaemic alternative to both the Bloomsbury clique and the London modernists around Wyndham Lewis. Edith, an accomplished poet and writer, welcomed young hopefuls to her London salon. Her unhappy childhood left her with a grievance swollen to the size of her self-regard. Not that she refused a share of her hated father’s loot. Her love affairs were fraught. She stood six feet tall and had a dizzying, not dazzling, effect when topped with one of her swirling turbans. Sympathisers thought the sharp angles of her features “bony elegance”.


Edith’s style may have made her a poseur, but didn’t qualify her for high eccentricity. Her poetry took no more liberties with language than Lewis Carroll’s. Yet the author of Jabberwocky is deemed a genius and Edith an idiosyncratic show-off. She bluntly refused the curse of the Sitwells:


“I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish.”


Her most memorable swim came in a collaboration with the composer William Walton who set her Façade poems to music. The premiere performance in 1923 was a succès de scandale roughly treated by the press. Edith, pleading shyness, stood hidden, and recited her poems into a megaphone poked through a hole in a screen while young Walton—he was 21— conducted an ensemble of six players. Dame Edith Sitwell died in 1964, aged 77.


Osbert Sitwell, a friend of the future King George VI, published a promising novel and wrote on for a lifetime always retreating further from what had been promised. He summed up his career:

"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.”


When Osbert died in 1969 at 76, the baronetcy came to Sacheverell. He himself died still afflicted by the family label, that curse of the Sitwells. The New York Times of 3 October 1988 reported:

"Sir Sacheverell Sitwell Dies at 90, Last of Trio of Literary Eccentrics".

Yet his defining trait was prolificacy. His hundred works either of poetry or on art, music, architecture, botany and travel can’t be explained away as an oddity. His Southern Baroque Art appeared in 1924 with the subtitle A Study of Painting, Architecture and Music in Italy and Spain of the 17th & 18th Centuries. A version called Southern Baroque Revisited came out in 1967. Sacheverell’s introduction to the original makes clear that the vast ensemble he calls Baroque had fallen into disrepute and had to be reinstated. He was, it seems, successful though the way he went about it was his own and Sitwellian:


“My aim has been so thoroughly to soak myself in the emanation of the period, that I can produce, so far as my pen can aid me, the spirit and atmosphere of the time and place, without exposing too much the creaking joints of the machinery, the iron screws and pins of which are the birth dates and death dates of the figures discussed.”


What this amounts to is a feverish romp past Sacheverell’s favoured places and art with the occasional flash of insight. It might be anywhere. He will leave his motor—1920s Brit for automobile—to lose himself in a history lesson or launch into an adventure that quickly turns from fact to fantasy. Sitwellian means doing it their way, like it or lump it.


Sacheverell begins with an incursion into early morning Naples, wanders into the painting of Francesco Solimena, references Venice in passing, and makes an interesting point that takes us to the Orient:


“Why is it that this volcano [Vesuvius], the indomitable point of every view, occurs to so small an extent in Neapolitan art? Fujiyama is not iconified as it is in Japan. […] The artists of Naples and Tokyo, alike in many terrible facilities of their art, differ in this. Those of Naples are less willing to help themselves to the inevitable. They avoid, in this way, taking the lazzaroni and the grotesque and revolting freaks of slum life as background for their improvisations. Only in wax-work do the Neapolitans reveal the worst intensities of realism.”


Here Sacheverell, with his horror of dirt, links Sitwell arms with Edith. She called Lady Chatterley’s Lover an insignificant, dirty little book” and said “she preferred Chanel Number 5 to having her nose nailed to other people's lavatories”. The literary trio had only one foot in modernism.


So it will go. After a quick bow to William Beckford on 18th-century Portugal we are off to Prince Palagonia’s Villa of monsters in Bagheria passing through a couple of Sicilian hamlets that “might be villages in Central Africa”. Before getting back in his motor, Sacheverell will dip into the spirit of time and place to involve himself in a drama that, as so often, we don’t know if in fact happened.


Back abruptly to the Kingdom of Naples and Sacheverell’s cherished Caserta, he flaunts his skill in portraying space and architecture. We follow King Bomba’s ceremonial summer arrival from Naples and then the evening celebration or serenade. Here again we begin in sober travel writing to end, under cover of night, in a fantasy world of acrobatic puncinellos and fireworks that echo on forever.


Midway in our reading, we settle down to enjoy what we can and stop asking why. How does a detailed visit to a remote Hungarian spa enlighten us about Baroque times? Or a map-like inventory of of the Old Seraglio Palace of the Sultans in Istanbul where Counter-Reform architects never strayed? Sacheverell goes his own way, the Sitwell way. He holds the pen and writes for himself. It’s the Derbyshire dynasty’s version of Louis XIV’s, “I am the state/L’état c’est moi.” Readers are not even a necessary evil if you have an independent income. The compass of Southern Baroque Art whirls in all four directions, a confusion of crosswinds. Think of the hopeful Lecce citizen who reads on page 53:


“In subsequent pages I shall investigate the town of Lecce in order to see our subject from as many different points of view as possible.”


He won’t hear of his fair city again, not a word. except a mention in the giddy bibliography of Martin Shaw Briggs’s In the Heel of Italy, 1910.


You can’t say Sacheverell didn’t warn us. He promised not hard fact but “spirit and atmosphere.” He can be said to deliver that as he sits down with an account of historical events and inevitably ends on his feet with a lively dream that leads hither and yon. Sometimes we are reasonably informed, sometimes served a Boy’s Own epic with erudite trimmings.


The King and the Nightingale, the final part of the book, is typical. We begin with a picture of Philip V of Spain who misses the refinement of his upbringing in France to the point of depression. At 47, thirty years of ruling rough-cut Spain has left him a suicidal insomniac. His Queen, second wife, Elizabeth Farnese, wrestles with his melancholy and wonders if last-ditch help might come from the famous male soprano Carlo Broschi, alias Farinelli the Castrato. After a quick spin in the royal gardens we are whisk off to Vienna and pages of the history of music and stage design. Then we dawdle a time with Charles II, the last Spanish Hapsburg, an irresistible curiosity because of his misshapen Hapsburg jaw that made it well nigh impossible for him to chew. Finally we find Farinelli in our sights. Is he going to be Sacheverell’s subject? We are treated to some sharp descriptions of the great Castrato performing:



“It was not like human singing at all, but like that of some strange and foreign variety of insect keeping up an incessant praise of its easy life under the help of the summer sun […] It was a world of skill and not of art, of sexless, insect-like accomplishment rather than of natural and true flowering.”


But hold your hats. We are off to have a multi-page look at the Polish nobility and the oriental clothes they decked themselves in:


“They sit watching the tournaments, or stand together in groups, and in every instance they have been obliging enough to turn their seal-like faces—with shaved heads and fierce-brandished moustachios—toward the spectators….”


And then on to an admiring inspection of the Mafra ensemble, the Portuguese rival to Versailles and the Escurial:


“The building was purposely designed to rely upon gloom and austerity as the chief ingredient of its grandeur.”


Beyond Sacheverell’s diffuseness, we can characterise his method. He stares at old-master paintings moving in and out of them until he can manipulate their figures like puppets. He then fabricates history as well as reporting it. Sometimes it works. He did us a favour by dusting off the Baroque era when it was disdained. However, he had his own blindspots. He attributes too much to his favourite artist El Greco. The Greek would have absorbed Italy’s greatness in the arts sojourning there. Using what he had learnt, he would have imposed it on Spain, ending the Flemish influence and, in his spare time, reorganising the Escuriel. Sacheverell also failed to see the greatness of Antonio da Correggio whose painting was reevaluated in the 20th-century. When he called the great precursor of the Baroque, “melodramatic”, he was voicing the Sitwell fear of sweaty realism as heard in Edith’s remark about holding her nose before writers’s WCs.


As for poor sleepless Philip V of Spain tossing in his royal bed, Sacheverell hasn’t completely forgotten him. We learn in a rapid finale that he entered into a paranoid version of pure madness. But the Queen, who ran the show, was on his case. She brought Farinelli “at a wholly fabulous price” all the way from England to surprise Philip with a song beneath his window. Miracle! The King was sane once more.


Never again after that night did Farinelli sing in public, for he was bound by a strict contract to sing only for the King and for no one else.”


Which is a very fine story, but sticklers for fact would do well to check it out in a sober biography of Farinelli.




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