“A huge old baby vulture”

I couldn’t very well let the day pass without at least a brief mention of English poet and author Edith Sitwell, who was born on this day in 1887. Sitwell did, after all, write the book on eccentricity.

In 1933’s English Eccentrics, Sitwell consciously placed herself in the same tradition as her subjects, a motley congregation of daft squires, befuddled scholars and other oddballs including our old friend, Regency actor Robert Coates. “Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness,” proclaimed Sitwell. “It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”

Yes, this is a somewhat self-serving observation for someone of Sitwell’s aristocratic background who, from the earliest age, gave her desired profession as “genius”. “I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty,” ran one of her sub-Wildean bon-mots. “But I am too busy thinking about myself.” With Sitwell, as with Coates, eccentricity and narcissism were two sides of the same coin and she was well aware of her effect on others. As assiduously as she collected her English Eccentrics, so too did she (along with her younger brothers Sacheverell and Osbert) cultivate a circle of accomplices, including the likes of Cecil Beaton, Brian Howard and Stephen Tennant.

Had she never put pen to paper Sitwell would still register as an extraordinary presence, with a countenance so singular that in group photographs she always looked as though she had been drawn on after the fact. Rather than attempting to disappear into the background, she emphasised her charged, baroque otherness with turbans, brocade gowns and extravagant rings. She stood out, as she put it “like an electric eel in a pool of catfish”; Tennant described her as “a huge old baby vulture”. And he was a friend.

The Sitwells annointed themselves as the vanguard of English Modernism, and many took them at their word. They became the centre of a privileged, insular, dilettantish, non-threatening English avant-garde, lacking New World vigour or the daring and rigour of their continental contemporaries. Art historian John Richardson, who as a callow youth had been a fan of the Sitwells, gleefully demolishes the siblings’ brittle self-importance and relentless self-mythologizing in his book Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters.

In any case, all three eventually threw off their Modernist ambitions and retreated into the past and so today the Sitwells are not remembered as taste-makers but rather as human curios. Of the trio, Edith has probably enjoyed the greatest gains in the bourse of renown, particularly for her poetry, for which even Richardson found grudging words of praise.

Sitwell described her verse as “hymns of praise to the glory of life”, but her best-known poem, “Still Falls the Rain”, is an incantatory elegy which addresses the London Blitz (which – incidentally – began 70 years ago today), comparing the suffering of the capital to the Passion of Christ. You can read the text and hear Sitwell herself reciting it here.

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13 comments

  1. John Hastings

    She very much liked dazzling “bling” and very much loved Pawel Tchelitchev. Her darling Pavlik’s paintings are currently fetching a million euros and up– prices in an auction market where he is still a very decent buy .
    Ideally, the strangely compelling empurpled poesis of “Still falls the Rain”,should have been Tallu’s last lines in “Die,Die my Darling”.
    There is a family portrait done by Sargent. It is a mass of visual incongruouities that mirrors the desperate existence of the pained siblings and the brutal parents.
    A toast to Edith on her birthday!

    • God it was a gothically terrible childhood they had wasn’t it? Richardson – arch bitch that he is – even downplays that but it’s clearly central to their later development and the approval they sought (or demanded) from the public.
      I wasn’t aware of “Die, Die my Darling” but having looked it up my head is spinning at the idea of Tallulah Bankhead and Yootha Joyce in the same film.

  2. leo

    I too raise a glass to the dear old Dame. Sometimes when I read or listen to Edith I think she deserves the title the Godmother of Rap – not that I suppose for one moment she would appreciate it. She seems to have been one of the earliest proponents of making rhythmic music out of the sound of words sometimes regardless of their meaning.
    Personally I have been fascinated by the Sitwells since as a teenager I learnt tnat Edith was born in my home town of Scarborough. I have a vast collection of books and ephemera and to my great delight am now the proud owner of a 1924 Tchelitchew drawing (purchased for a song on Ebay). Enjoyabel read, thank you

    • Thanks for your comments. I would have liked to have mentioned Tchelitchew but time was short so I think I’ll come back to him another day. I’m sure someone somewhere is right now doing something adventurous on a mixing desk with a recording of Facade to prove your point of Edith as the rap godmother.

  3. .a personal jesus of sorts for me where style is concerned…i know personal jesus does not sound like much of a compliment but it must be…cause i say so.

    • John Hastings

      I hear you. Style is infinite specificity. Angst ridden and exploited and marginilized as she was, Dame Edith retained her sense of self and her unique style throughout her sojourn in this vale of tears.

  4. Edith and I share the same birthday, thus I have always felt a strange kinship with her. Great post!

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