The passing of Sir Reresby Sitwell brings to a close one of the most eccentric and diverting chapters of English lives and letters. His father Sacheverell, his Uncle Osbert and Aunt Edith were considered outlandlish heretics in the 1920's, that generation's equivalent of literary punks. Their patronage of the young composer William Walton resulted in 'Facade' which consisted of Edith reciting her uniquely eclectic verses through a megaphone as Walton's music skipped and shimmered, the first performance of which ended in an actual riot of disapproval.
High born, and possessed of a sense of purpose their class bestowed, they presented a fascinating trio. Edith, a plain woman who embraced the little life had blessed her with in looks with feathers fabrics and oversized jewels. It was once said she made a nunnery of poetry, spending most of her life in unrequited love with a homosexual Russian painter. She reacted with genuine horror to D.H Lawrence's suggestion that all that she needed was a good sexual experience. A bluntly funny suggestion, made in less polite terms, to her long thin face, which wasn't wide of the mark. Osbert, the discreet homosexual, the waspish wit, was a specialist in feuds both literary and social, whilst Sacheverell, the high minded poet and art lover, was the only one to produce further branches to the family tree, Reresby and his brother, also deceased.
To emerge from their long and influential shadows with any degree of personal accomplishment, stands as a perfect testament to Reresby Sitwell's charm and determination. When, in 1965, he inherited the dubious honour of Renishaw Hall, the stately Jacobean, but equally crumbling family pile in Derbyshire, it was more of a financial noose, than a monumental gift. He set about the long and daunting challenge of reclaiming his grandfather's glorious gardens, and even planted a vineyard. As the damp and neglected house shed decades of decline, he became in many respects the embodiment of a benevolent Edwardian landowner, giving an annual dinner for his tenant farmers. He also kept the tradition of the weekend house party alive into the 21st century.
Reresby Sitwell was born in London on 15th April 1927. He detested Eton, but enjoyed National Service, and went down from King's College, Cambridge without completing his degree in medieval history. His work record pre-Renishaw Hall, reads like something from a novel by Waugh. He was employed in the antique furniture department of Fortnum and Mason, where he met his wife Penelope, they married in 1952, and was also a wine merchant with Bruce Shand, the father of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
The literary pulse was not strong beat within him, though he wrote slim scholarly volumes about his family's home and history, and proved a witty and stimulating guide to eager visitors to Renishaw. There were exhibits to view of Sitwellian ephemera, and he also had a passion for Robim Hood. on whom he was considered an expert. The restoration of the house will be his lasting monument. He was also High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1983-84, and was a fitting reminder of much that has been swept away by the modern world.
Although the creativity of his father, uncle and aunt, is little read these days, their mark remains a strongly visible legacy within English letters. Reresby Sitwell was astute enough to be a benign and selfless curator of their efforts. A sense of history informed by a respect for it. Without his efforts Renishaw Hall would now likely have joined the list of fine houses in ruin, or worse still, those lost to demolition.
He is survived by his wife and his daughter, Alexandra, to whom his beloved Renishaw Hall now passes. - Rob Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2009.