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Sitwell


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Family of British writers, patrons, and collectors. SirGeorgeSitwell (1860–1943) was an antiquarian and genealogist. He had three children, who formed probably the most famous literary family of the 20th century: DameEdithSitwell (1887–1964), SirOsbertSitwell (1892–1969), and SirSacheverellSitwell (1897–1988). They grew up at the family seat, Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, and are seen as children in Sargent's group portrait The Sitwell Family (1900), which is still at Renishaw. All three of them published numerous prose and verse works. Edith is best known as a poet, Osbert as an autobiographer, and Sacheverell for his writings on art and architecture, including several pioneering books on Baroque art, which was little appreciated in Britain when he started his career; Southern Baroque Art (1924) was the first of these books. The Sitwells were outspoken critics of culture they regarded as outmoded and they became vigorous champions of modernism in art, literature, and music, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s (after the Second World War their reputations and influence generally declined). Their most famous protégé was the composer William Walton, who collaborated with Edith on Façade (1922), a suite of ‘abstract poems’ or ‘patterns in sound’; it was greeted with abuse when first performed in public in 1923 but subsequently became popular in the concert hall and recordings. The Sitwells also helped to promote Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and in 1919 they sponsored an exhibition of ‘French Art 1914–17’ at the Mansard Gallery, London, which included work by Derain, Dufy, Matisse, and Modigliani. They patronized numerous artists, including several who made illustrations for their books. Osbert, who inherited Renishaw Hall when his father died, commissioned John Piper to make a series of paintings of the house and estate, many of which were reproduced in his autobiography (5 vols, 1944–50, with a sixth volume appearing in 1962).

There are many portraits of the Sitwells, particularly Edith, whose extremely flamboyant style and melancholy visage made her an inviting subject. The aquiline nose, so tactfully disguised by Sargent, was the delight of artists who portrayed her as an adult, among whom were Roger Fry (1918, City Art Gallery, Sheffield), the Chilean-born Alvaro Guevara (1894–1951) (c.1919, Tate), Wyndham Lewis, whose version remained unfinished (c.1923–35, Tate), and Pavel Tchelitchew (several pictures—she had an unrequited passion for him). The photographer and stage designer Sir Cecil Beaton (1904–80) took many pictures of her, and she also appears in Boris Anrep's mosaic floor in the National Gallery, London (as ‘Sixth Sense’ in The Modern Virtues). Osbert Sitwell, too, appears in Anrep's floor (as ‘Apollo’ in The Awakening of the Muses), but the best-known portrait of him is the brass head by Frank Dobson (1923, Tate).

Further Reading

J. Pearson, Façades (1989)

Subjects: Art.


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