Family’s history speaks volumes

RH_0030There are a staggering 25,000 books at Renishaw Hall and on the day I was visiting that number had just been unexpectedly added to by the arrival of crates of the latest book about the Sitwell family.

My host Alexandra Hayward had thought just a couple of copies were on their way to the estate but instead her resourceful staff were faced with shoehorning them into a storage area ahead of them going on sale in the gift shop. To make matters worse it had just started to pour with rain.

“Crisis averted,” said Alexandra with relief when her head gardener David Kesteven told her it was all under control.

Alexandra inherited the 17th century stately home from her father Sir Reresby Sitwell, the 7th baronet of Renishaw in March 2009.

He had taken over the hall from his uncle Sir Osbert Sitwell in 1965 when he found that through ill health he could no longer run the estate and retreated to the family’s Italian castle at Montegufoni.

Alexandra, who has lived at Renishaw since she was seven, knows every inch of the hall and its magnificent Italianate gardens.

Like her father before her she adores showing people around the house and enthusiastically tells me the history behind the many treasures to be found there as we walk from the library to the drawing room, the dining room, the old kitchen, which dates back to the1803 and includes a dishwasher from the 1920s and the ballroom, which Alexandra describes as one of her favourite rooms.

She beams as she recalls her own wedding reception there in 1991 after her marriage to Richard in the village church.

The shutters in each room are thrown wide open by Alexandra to let in light onto the many portraits adorning the walls so she can point out the various colourful characters who make up the Sitwell family history – including the famous literary trio of siblings Edith, Osbert and her great grandfather Sacheverell.

“As a child I used to plod around behind my father when he was giving tours to friends. He used to love telling the interwoven family history even though I wasn’t aware of it then that’s when the history of this place started to grow on me,” explained Alexandra.

“It is a house with such a special character and that it has survived is quite remarkable and very much down to the determination of my parents. When they took it on it was barely habitable.

“They made it very much a home and now I am making improvements to add to the comfort and elegance of what he have here and to make sure that the archives are preserved.

“In the last couple of years there has been lots of rethinking. Much of the artwork has been rehung and repositioned and I have been refreshing and revitalising each room one by one. The books have all been catalogued and we have really concentrated on the archives.”

Most of the archives had been boxed up pretty haphazardly over the years but now with the expert help of archivist Christine Beevers they are
re-establishing the family history.

Among the highlights in the Renishaw collection of art are paintings by John Piper; the portrait of Edith Sitwell by Rex Whistler; a bronze bust of Osbert by Frank Dobson and a commode made by Thomas Chippendale.

It is, however, the gardens of which Alexandra is most proud at the moment as this year they have been made the Historic Houses Association/Christies Garden of the Year.

“I really am thrilled at the award. It’s testament to the hard work of my parents who worked tirelessly to bring them back to their original glory and the continuous hard work of our gardening team here,” she said.

Modesty stopped her from saying that she herself had overseen several new projects including new exotic planting in the bottom terrace and a new rose garden. She has also thinned out some of the shrubs around the hall to expose more of the architecture.

You can read a review of the new book Renishaw Hall, The Story of the Sitwells by Desmond Seward on page 59 of this month’s artsbeat magazine