If it wasn’t for the celebrated memoirs of his eldest children Dame Edith and Sir Osbert Sitwell, Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) would be remembered as an irascible, eccentric English landowner with a passion for Italian gardens. He served briefly as an MP, restored Renishaw Hall, his family seat in Derbyshire, and found modest success as the author of On The Making of Gardens (1909) documenting his later life’s work landscaping his Tuscan estate Castle Montegufoni.
Like the 2nd Baron Redesdale, Sir George found unwelcome fame in his children’s prolific published writings. But whereas Nancy Mitford’s autobiographical novels affectionately caricatured Lord Redesdale as the eccentric Uncle Matthew, Osbert and Edith depict their parents Sir George and Lady Ida in an entirely unsympathetic light. As Edith bluntly put it in her 1965 autobiography Taken Care Of ‘they were parents I would not recommend to anybody’. ‘I doubt’, wrote Osbert of his sister, ‘whether any child was ever more mismanaged by her parents’.
Harold Acton, an astute social commentator, called Sir George ‘the strangest old bugger you ever met’ though Sir George’s youngest son Sacheverell defended his father writing ‘he wasn’t nearly as comic a figure as Osbert made him appear. He was a much nicer person. I think he was much nicer than Osbert’. One suspects the truth lay somewhere in between and that Sir George was rather typical of his generation of English aristocratic males. He was remote, insular and able to indulge his interests unchecked as a consequence of his status but his was also a mercurial, inventive mind.
Sir George Reresby Sacheverell Sitwell was two years old when his father Sir Sitwell Reresby Sitwell died and he inherited the baronetcy. As a child he is recorded telling a stranger on a train ‘I am Sir George Sitwell, baronet. I am four years old and the youngest baronet in England’. Debt had forced Sir Sitwell Sitwell to abandon Renishaw Hall and the young Sir George was brought-up in Scarborough where his mother the Dowager Lady Louisa chose to live. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford.
Sir George became MP for Scarborough in 1885 and a year later married the seventeen-year old Lady Ida Denison who fled back to her mother three days after the ceremony at St. George’s, Mayfair. Lady Ida was instructed to return to her husband forthwith. Lady Ida was a beauty but she was also a hopeless spendthrift with a taste for cases of champagne and whiskey that fuelled violent rows with Sir George and subsequently her two eldest children Osbert and Edith.
When Sir George lost his Parliamentary seat a second time in 1895, he turned his attentions to writing a family history and researching a series of bizarre inventions. His inventions included a miniature pistol with which to shoot wasps, a musical toothbrush and the ‘Sitwell Egg’ with a yolk of smoked meat encased in white rice that singularly failed to impress Gordon Selfridge. Osbert would lampoon his father’s literary output by attributing titles such as Acorns as an Article of Medieval Diet, The History of the Fork and The Errors of Modern Parents to Sir George.
To his credit Sir George moved the Sitwells back to Renishaw Hall and set about landscaping the gardens and managing the estate with great success. He reportedly professed outrage that he could not pay Sacheverell’s Eton fees in produce from the Renishaw estate. Visitors were greeted with a sign reading ‘I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night’.
Of her childhood at Renishaw, Edith wrote ‘I was unpopular with my parents from the moment of my birth and throughout my childhood and youth’. She claimed she was ignored by her father, bullied by her mother and forced to wear a back brace and nose truss to correct her profile and physique. Of Sir George’s misanthropy, Edith mused ‘apart from the fact that he had married my mother, my father’s principal worry was that the world did not understand that it had been created in order to prove his theories’.
According to Osbert, his father suffered a nervous collapse in 1901 as a result of Lady Ida’s debts and drunkenness. ‘He rarely spoke to members of his family, or to visitors, seemingly indeed to be separated from them by an endless plain – a stretch of centuries perhaps’ said Edith of her father’s malaise. Supremely indifferent towards her husband, Lady Ida’s boredom had made her reckless. Unbeknown to Sir George, Lady Ida continued to spend profligately and charted a course that would end at the Old Bailey.
After his nervous collapse, Sir George retreated further from his family when he bought Montegufoni Castle in Tuscany in 1909 and, accompanied only by his valet Henry Moat, spent months touring Italy and researching his book about Italian gardens. Bringing Renaissance sculptures and his knowledge as a plantsman back to Renishaw Hall, Sir George’s gardens were praised by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens.
In 1915 Lady Ida Sitwell’s debts engulfed her and were exposed in an almighty scandal that saw the unfortunate lady brought to trial and sentenced to three months in Holloway convicted of fraud. On her release, Edith described her mother thus. ‘In later years after she had fallen amongst thieves, her appearance still retained the vestiges of that summer beauty, but as though a black veil had been thrown over it’. In 1925 Sir George signed Renishaw over to Osbert and retired to Montegufoni firing off a volley of letters to Parliament about the exorbitant taxes and duties imposed on landowners.
When Lady Ida died in 1937, Harry Moat reportedly said ‘well at least Sir George will know where Her Ladyship spends her afternoons’. According to Osbert, in his twilight years Sir George ‘retired into a Trappist seclusion within himself’ and died in Switzerland in 1943. With the benefit of hindsight Osbert published a final memoir about Sir George, Tales My Father Taught Me, in 1962. Though still humorous, the memoir was kinder in its conclusion. ‘He was adept at taking hold of the wrong end of a thousand sticks, yet when by chance he seized the right end his grasp of it was remarkable because of the intellectual power and application, as well as the learning, which he brought to his task’.