Reviewed by Ali Hope
I read very few non-fiction books these days, but this was a book that ticked a number of boxes for me. I do like books about key literary figures, and I enjoy visiting large houses (usually National Trust) so a book about a literary family and the house they lived in appealed at once. I am also a sucker for lots of glossy colour pictures – and this book certainly has a nice collection.
The Sitwell family have lived at Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire since 1625 – and this book is very much the story of the family who lived at that house. ‘The Cavalier’ George Sitwell born in 1601 came to build Renishaw Hall from money saved before he came of age. The family he started at Renishaw were a fascinating collection of people. Gentlemen squires, a Jacobite, a Sheffield attorney, spendthrifts and a ghost who apparently steals kisses from pretty girls, and then there is a legion of wives and children. Desmond Seward gives us a brief history of each of these. Naturally, given the distance of time, what is known now about these men is limited, but Seward does an excellent job of bringing to life the times in which they lived, and exploring their impact upon the house and grounds of Renishaw Hall. These stories are really delightful, taking the reader on a glorious journey across the history of England.
(On Sir Sitwell Sitwell – owner of Renishaw 1793 -1811)
Although he died in the first year of the Regency, often his behaviour was that of a classic Regency Buck. The Sporting Magazine for November 1798 reports a characteristic exploit – how, with his harriers, he hunted down and killed a ‘Royal Bengal Tiger’ that had escaped from a circus at Sheffield, some hounds losing their lives. He was much admired for his stud, whose horses won many trophies. Yet at the same time he possessed impeccable taste in architecture and pictures. Above all, he was determined to cut a figure in the world.
The real creator of the Renishaw Hall of today however was another George Sitwell, Sir George Sitwell, father to Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell, rivals to the Bloomsbury group. Sir George’s interest in Italian art inspired the Baroque revival of Renishaw. The life of Sir George and his wife Lady Ida is compellingly told. It’s a story of an unhappy marriage, parental disharmony, imprisonment for fraud and one over-riding obsession. Desperate that his wife and children shouldn’t waste money and endanger the estate as had happened in previous generations, Sir George had a difficult relationship with his children who later portrayed him cruelly as a fool. Sir George was also a great lover of gardens, and again, inspired by what he had seen in Italy, proved himself to be a fine landscape gardener.
Sir Osbert Sitwell took over Renishaw in 1925, and lived at Renishaw for many years with his sister Edith. The three Sitwell siblings – often referred to as simply the trio – were a colourful, eccentric bunch. At Renishaw they were able to play glamorous hosts to many artistic and literary figures – a different environment completely to that of the country cottages, and the rooms of a tiny publishing firm favoured by the Bloomsbury group. By the 1950s and 1960s the Sitwells had become leading literary figures, publishing many works of biography, art history and poetry between them. They were famous, known to people the world over who had never read a word they had written.
In 1965, Reresby Sitwell, the son of Sacheverell Sitwell, took on the mantel of Renishaw, and together with his wife Penelope carried on the great work that Sir George had started at Renishaw. Today Reresby’s daughter Alexandra Hayward and her husband carry on the work of those previous generations. In its history the fortunes of Renishaw Hall have risen, fallen and risen again. It’ s a testament to the work of some of them that this beautiful house, full of Italian art and furniture, and its gardens survive in the exceptional state that they do. In 2015 Renishaw’s garden was named as HHA/Christies garden of the year. There had been times in the previous four hundred years when it had looked as if Renishaw wouldn’t survive at all.
I have not had the opportunity to visit Renishaw Hall yet – but now I feel as if I already know the house, and I long to walk through the rooms and gardens and soak up the atmosphere of a truly remarkable family.
Ali Hope blogs at Heaven Ali.
Desmond Seward, Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells (Elliot & Thompson: London, 2015). 978-1783961832, 288pp., hardcover.