Edith Sitwell exhibition, Renishaw Hall

Edith%20imageShe was fabulously rude, wore dramatic jewellery, turbans and brocade, was the photographic muse of Cecil Beaton, painted by Wyndham Lewis and famously feuded with Noel Coward and DH Lawrence while championing other young writers.

Aristocratic poet Edith Sitwell was certainly a woman of contradictions.

She has been described as eccentric, an English genius and conversely a poetic fraud. Her striking appearance with her long nose, high forehead and slender pianist’s fingers meant that, once seen, she was never forgotten.

Much has been written about the life she and her brothers Osbert and Sacherverell, led at Renishaw Hall near Chesterfield and a more recent biography urged the literary establishment to take another look at her work.

For those of us lucky enough to live in this region that is being made much easier by a new exhibition that has been created at Renishaw to mark the 50th anniversary of her death.

The hall, which has belonged to the Sitwells for almost 400 years, is now the home of Edith’s great niece Alexandra and she invites visitors to both the house and gardens.

There is a unique mix of grandeur and family home to be seen in the guided tours that can be tailored to suit interests in literature, architecture or art.

The hall’s archivist Christine Beevers is a woman who clearly enjoys her job. Her passion for the Sitwells is evident in the enthusiastic way she passes on her knowledge to anyone interested enough to ask.

For this new exhibition she has painstakingly worked through the ‘boxes and boxes’ of archive material at the hall to curate a fascinating snapshot of Edith’s life for the museum housed in the former stable block.

“To say Edith was eccentric is easy. What I have tried to do is give a balanced view of the person behind the façade. Edith was a person as much as she was a writer and what we have here is evidence of just that,” explained Christine.

Edith was a neglected child. Her parents Sir George (the 4th baronet Sitwell) and Lady Ida were distant – disappointed that their first child was a girl.

They refused to formally educate her and declared that university made girls unwomanly. They also cruelly tried to straighten her back and nose with the aid of metal braces.

She escaped Renishaw to live in shabby rented rooms in London and Paris with her old governess and her writing life began around 1912 when she was 25.

The author of Façade and Other Poets and The English Eccentrics, surrounded herself with the likes of Dylan Thomas, Yeats, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Joyce.

As editor of the journal Wheels she even introduced the poet Wilfred Owens.

The tantalising snippets in the Renishaw exhibition include letters she wrote to newspapers, her address book, which reads like a roll call of early 20th century artistic life and even an account of her meeting with Marilyn Monroe.

You might expect that the woman who liked to create the impression she was a haughty, highbrow genius might not take to the Hollywood actress, but you would be wrong for she wrote of her in glowing terms.

Not so the Duchess of Windsor, though. There is a fantastically sarcastic letter written to the editor of The Express newspaper about a news item featuring the former Wallis Simpson’s hair.

The exhibition is a great hors d’oeuvre for a full specialist guided tour of the house, which you will almost certainly want to book once you have had your appetite whetted.

For more details go to http://www.renishaw-hall.co.uk or telephone 01246 432310.