The fine art of doing nothing: To be an aesthete is no longer practical, says Hugo Vickers. Harold Acton was one of the last HAROLD ACTON in The Independent Tuesday 01 March 1994
THE DEATH of Sir Harold Acton has captured the imagination as the passing of the age of the aesthete. Yet as always there are survivors and two fellow aesthetes stepped forward to pay tribute to him in obituaries, written in good time, at the pace at which aesthetes tackle such things. The novelist Anthony Powell and the writer Alan Pryce-Jones recalled a lost age and gave ample evidence of having studied Sir Harold closely, recounting anecdotes of his career while assessing his place in this century, with detail that might have caused Sir Harold some reflective discomfort.
The aesthete is defined as the 'professed appreciator of the beautiful' but he has come to encompass more than that: an elegant, or once elegant figure, residing in remote arcadian splendour, protected from the general fray of life, producing erudite works of literature, history, criticism or poetry, perhaps dabbling at the odd canvas, reviewing a friend's book, but measuring the pace of his life as if the books, the guests, the wine and the food appeared at subtly orchestrated moments to please the appropriate senses. The result appears effortless, but is the product of considerable endeavour. Sir Harold used to dwell on the subject of guests for whom he appeared to have limitless time, but he said: 'When writing one must be very strict and disciplined.' In this respect he might have been a little irritated that certain quarters of the press celebrated him as the Florentine host, in 1985, to the Prince and Princess of Wales, rather than for his more lasting achievements. In his long life Sir Harold produced many well-researched oeuvres, and yet when I talked to him in 1977, he seemed to concentrate on gossip. In preference to discoursing on the Bourbons of Naples, he was keen to talk of an invitation he had received from Russell Harty, adding 'But you know, I haven't quite been able to find the time to go . . .' He mused on the Snowdon divorce, and what he considered the less kind behaviour of husband to wife than of wife to husband; and of the fate of a mutual American friend who had moved to Paris: 'What did Oscar Wilde say? All good Americans go to Paris to die . . .' It did not seem to change when he was with his octogenarian contemporaries. My favourite exchange was a discussion over lunch of the short-lived marriage of Freya Stark and Stewart Perowne. Sir Harold said: 'When they married, she thought she'd found Lochinvar. She hoped to be taken out into the desert and ravished. Oh dear] She ordered a double bed, a double bath, a double lavatory . . .' At which point Lady Diana Cooper, stroking her chihuahua, interjected: 'Yes, and I could have told her what she was getting was an old bugger]' The last time I saw Sir Harold was at his 86th birthday dinner at La Pietra. He wore a very shiny grey suit, the kind a Mafioso might wear. It would be wrong, therefore, to suggest that the mind of the true aesthete dwells solely on the fine arts or sartorial elegance. The famous aesthetes of the early part of this century were fortunate to depend on substantial unearned incomes which shielded them from the unpleasant reality of earning their living. Thanks to the efforts of Sir Charles Tennant in the field of chemical works, the British Metal Extracting Company and extensive gold-mining, his grandson Stephen was able to lie in bed, surrounded by jewels, make-up and teddy bears, re-reading favourite authors, penning poetry and reworking the greatest unfinished novel of his day. Cecil Beaton had no private means and thus laboured hard, often in secret, before assuming the mantle of aesthete and pretending to have done nothing. He perfected the art of remaining unshaven in his pyjamas, working away, and then emerging newly shaved and elegantly clad for lunch, looking considerably fresher than the other already shady-chinned guests who had wielded their razors five or six hours before. The late Sir Peter Quennell qualified as an aesthete, being spared the need to take on commercial work thanks to a wife who could take care of him. Alan Pryce-Jones also married a rich wife, enabling him to live in comfort in Newport and travel at leisure. Today the unfortunate business of earning a living has forced convention on the aesthete. There are still plenty of heirs to fortune, but so often they become boorish playboys or take to cocaine and heroin, reducing themselves to figures of pathos, not to mention bankruptcy. Aesthetes are a dying breed. First there is the danger of over-exposure, particularly through the medium of television. Sir Harold appeared in one or two memorable documentaries and was occasionally filmed discoursing about a contemporary from the haven of his garden in Florence, but otherwise he eschewed the glare of television lights. The modern author who professed himself an aesthete and wrote memoirs such as Sir Harold's would find himself subjected to the 'brilliant' ideas of his publisher's PR. If maximum exposure were achieved, he would be set up on a panel in a television studio alongside the art critic Brian Sewell, and with two 'hearties' having a go at him. His aestheticism would be mocked for the benefit of the half-watching viewer. He would look foolish. For this reason a man like Quentin Crisp cannot qualify to be described as an aesthete. Second, there is the danger that many so-called aesthetes are phoneys. Those undergraduates who reached for megaphones and proclaimed verse from Oxford balconies in the late Seventies were pretentious imitators of their forebears. The quality of charm has undermined many an aesthete. Anthony Blanche, the fictional part-recreation of the young Sir Harold at Oxford, in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, warns Charles Ryder that so much of English art is blighted by charm. Alan Pryce- Jones regretted the loss of Hamish St Clair Erskine in 1974, describing him as a 'bright apparition who once upon a time swept past them like a kingfisher: all colour and sparkle and courage' but lamenting that he had found 'small place in a world which turned away from an unambitious charmer whose only enduring gift was his charm'; and Cyril Connolly wrote: 'the world is full of charming failures, for all charming people have something to conceal, usually their total dependence on the appreciation of others'. An aesthete of Sir Harold's calibre had considerably more to offer the world and there was substance beneath. Today the combination is no longer practical. In other circumstances I would advance a modest claim to being an aesthete, in that I live in arcadian surroundings, allowing the land around me to lie protected from huntsmen and shooters. While writing this I look out over a garden, soon to burst into life, and the only interruption has been to discuss the rehanging and replacement of curtains. So far so good. And yet it is an illusion, as there is no peace in the country. There is always a collapsed culvert to repair or an unheralded visitor discussing the 'deer problem' or a spontaneous adviser with an ingenious ready cash solution to the potholes in the drive. So the would-be aesthete is either busy administrating or remains chained to the desk, at the mercy of fax and phone, his quiet reading a pipe- dream for another day. The writer's latest books are 'Royal Orders' (Boxtree) and 'Loving Garbo' (Jonathan Cape), both due to be published in April.
Obituary: Sir Harold Acton ALAN PRYCE-JONES in The Independent Monday 28 February 1994
Harold Mario Mitchell Acton, writer and connoisseur: born 5 July 1904; CBE 1965; Kt 1974; died La Pietra, Italy 27 February 1994.
WHO, PRECISELY, was Harold Acton? 'Precisely' is the operative word. Reference books will tell you that Sir Harold was the son of Arthur Mario Acton and of Hortense Mitchell. We can learn from his memoirs that his father was British and his mother American. We can learn from the same source that his grandfather, Roger Acton, Neapolitan by birth, had gone with his brother to England 'to claim their rights as British subjects after the fall of the Bourbons'. The obvious conclusion is that these Victorian Actons in Naples were allied to the senior branch of the family in England, and that Sir Harold was one of them. But a family archivist would have none of this; nor is there any reference to the above-mentioned Actons in a British peerage. A more glamorous legend states that an old Neapolitan grandee - one of the Rothschilds has been named - had an affair with his cook, who gave him a male baby before overplaying her hand and getting thrown on the street with her child, to become cook in the local Acton palace. Time passed, and the little boy, having no visible father, became locally known as the Acton baby. He grew up a clever child and caught the eye of a rich American, who adopted him and took him to be educated in Chicago, where, in the fullness of time, he married the daughter of a prominent banker. This, according to one theory of the British Actons, was Harold's father. What is certain is that Arthur Acton was a very clever man, not overburdened with scruples, who, over the years, used his wife's fortune to amass a second one, bought into Florentine real estate, formed a great collection, and housed it in a splendid villa, La Pietra, where he also restored one of the magical gardens of Tuscany. By the time he had sent his sons, Harold and William, through Eton and Oxford he may well have convinced himself that he was British to the core. But, to the dispassionate eye, few families were more exotic than his. To begin with, in appearance and manner, they were totally Mediterranean. Dark-complexioned, sallow, with a sharp glance and a sharper tongue, they looked more like condottieri than scions, legitimate or no, of a uniquely cosmopolitan family, reaching into half Europe, but rooted in Shropshire. Italian came to them more naturally than English - during the Second World War William Acton was rejected from intelligence work on the grounds that his Italian was too colloquial, which merely meant that it was perfect. They alarmed their contemporaries, and still more the parents of their friends, by a stern dismissal of accepted schoolboy heroes in favour of Berenson, Diaghilev and the Sitwells. And they were tough, Harold especially. Far from aping the greenery-yallery aestheticism of the Nineties, they went on the attack. The early 1920s were the scene of parlour battles between the Aesthetes and the Hearties. Harold became a leader of the Aesthetes, brave, embattled and, moreover, liked. He chanted poems from his balcony in Christ Church, he flaunted the ever-wider trousers which became known as 'Oxford bags'. He invited Gertrude Stein to the university, where she gave a sensational lecture-recital. Between bouts of party-giving, he joined a group of by now legendary fellow- condottieri; Evelyn Waugh, Robert Byron, Brian Howard, Peter Quennell, Cyril Connolly. And, slightly in his shadow, his younger brother William was making an independent name for himself as an artist, a horseman, a swashbuckler, and, less amenably, a tippler with a weakness for ether - a stimulant which prompted him to feats like walking out of a high college window because he found the party dull. Before he was 30, Harold had published half a dozen books in prose and verse. Much the best of them was an entertaining scrap of rococo history, The Last Medici. As a poet he fulfilled his intention of pouring scorn on the Georgian poets of the day, already put sharply in their place by his role-models, TS Eliot and the Sitwells. Unluckily he did not substitute anything much better, and in fiction he limited himself to the kind of fantasy derived from Firbank which, for success, demanded a lighter touch than his. His ear was not reliable, and all his life he affected too often an arthritic jauntiness, such as writing of women as 'dames' and of some father-figure as 'an old dad'. Already, however, he displayed one unequalled gift: that of throwing into the air a stream of dazzling talk. In this field he was entirely his own man: not an epigrammatist, like Wilde, not a demure tease, like Max Beerbohm, not a polymath like Berenson, to name only three of the best talkers of the day, but an incomparable builder of cloud-castles, with at his command a wonderful range of verbal modulation, which wrung every last drop from his own cleverness. It is pleasant to be a rich young man with a generous father, but it is also a handicap for one essentially serious. Harold and William were often dismissed as playboys. After their Oxford years, their father gave them an immense London house in Lancaster Gate, filled with elaborate Florentine furniture superfluous to his collection which it was the function of his sons to show off at lavish parties and then to sell. Needless to say, the sons shone at their own parties but closed their ears to any mention of a sale. The wits and the beauties of the day flocked to Lancaster Gate, but in the end patience ran out and the house was abruptly dismantled. By this time, Harold had tired of Europe. Life in Florence was made hard for him because his parents so evidently preferred his brother. He shared his father's unflinching devotion to La Pietra and he also inherited a caring taste which filled the house with treasures and then created a vast collection of garden statuary. But at the same time he felt oppressed by the weight of possession and by the triviality of the city life which surrounded him. Like his father, he was at heart a hard worker and a careful scholar. Then all at once he perceived an escape-route: to the East. From 1932 to 1939 he lived in China, forming new collections, translating Chinese plays, lecturing, learning, immersing himself in the last years of a congenial civilisation. But he could not put Europe entirely behind him, and when war was about to break out in 1939 he returned, abandoning his Peking house and his new possessions, to join the RAF. He served chiefly in the Far East. For a time life at La Pietra was unchanged. Harold's parents could not believe that Fascism, however malevolent, would affect them personally. But in the end they were briefly put under arrest, before being allowed to leave for Switzerland. It was reported of Mrs Acton that during her stay in gaol she sat hour-long on an upright chair, round which she had drawn a chalk circle which the prostitutes who shared her cell were forbidden to cross. When peace returned the old Actons were in their seventies. Not long after being demobilised from the Pioneer Corps, their favourite, William, died in Italy and Harold felt that he could not abandon them to a sorrowful old age. By the age of 40 he had lived a full life: as a rich dilettante who was also a confirmed artist, a traveller, an academic, a protean original who could hold his own with the experts of his choice in several languages. He now began to put his experiences to account and published his first notable literary success, the two volumes of Memoirs of an Aesthete. The gloom of La Pietra was compounded by the deadening changes in Florentine living. The old guard, headed by Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell, Mrs George Keppel, Pino Orioli the bookseller and a scattering of elderly princesses, were dead or dying. Through the war years, though latterly fighting took place round La Pietra, and the house was occupied successively by German and Allied troops, surprisingly little damage was done. More and more Harold felt himself drawn to Naples, and to the studies which prompted his best work, The Bourbons of Naples. To this end he divided his time between Florence and Posilipo, where he occupied an apartment high above the sea. He knew that his mother was devoted to her husband, despite the fact that he tested her powers of forgiveness to the full. She tended him through years of depression and illness until he died in his 80th year, in 1953. After that, she and Harold were drawn more closely together, until in the end he accepted the responsibilities of his heritage and gave his time and energy to continuing and perfecting his father's work, with a view to making La Pietra and its gardens an undying memorial, preserved, since he left no heir, in the safe-keeping of New York University. His mother lived on until the age of 90, and she did not make life easy for him. She had been a beauty all her life, and behind a delicate facade a dominating personality. Harold was a devoted and admiring son, but if he wished to dine out he had to persuade his hostess to advance her dinner hour to 7.30 at the latest, because, though 60 himself, he was not given a latchkey and found it humiliating to climb into the house by a window once the servants had gone to bed. But at the same time he was himself becoming a legend. For 30 years and more he had been less a legend than a warning. The British have never cared much for aesthetes, and though Harold had a number of dedicated friends it was not until he reached the verge of old age that a large public began to treat him seriously. By then, as sole survivor of his family, his real virtues shone out. He pulled together the diminishing British colony in Florence; he worked hard to put the British Institute on its feet, he gave freely to intellectual causes. He travelled, he wrote on subjects as different as the Tuscan villas and his friend Nancy Mitford. Slowly he became a local icon. The British royal family descended several times on La Pietra as guests. Pilgrims came to pay homage. Throughout the century the Actons of both generations had always been lavishly hospitable, and Harold continued that tradition. In their entertainments they moved with the times. In her latter years Mrs Acton, seated demurely on her terraces under a parasol, became famous for the alarming potency of her cocktails. In London and Paris news of Harold and racy snippets of his talk were passed from friend to friend. Moreover, The Bourbons of Naples at last brought him true respect as a historian who was also an admirable entertainer. His energy, like his father's, was undimmed by age. Well over 80, he thought nothing of walking from the Ritz in Piccadilly to South Kensington for a luncheon party and, as always, the discernment of wit in others spurred him to match and excel. If he never fulfilled his early ambition to shine purely as a writer he added two substantial histories to the literature of his time; he was an enlightening and stimulating companion, and, as if he were a latterday Beckford or Horace Walpole, people will long study his books if only to catch an echo of his voice.