|This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time, I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.|
In 1933 the poet and author Edith Sitwell published English Eccentrics, a narrative of the weird and wonderful of human nature and though her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell feature, the one oddball who doesn’t figure is her own father, Sir George Reresby Sitwell.
It probably isn’t surprising since Sitwell was not loved by his children, but there is no doubt that he was as eccentric as they come.
Born in London in 1860, the son of Sir Sitwell Reresby Sitwell, the younger Sitwell was a man of his time, although the time he had in mind was the 14th century.
He assumed his title at the age of two when his father died in 1862 and was lord of the manor of Eckington in Derbyshire for 81 years, a position that suited him perfectly. A sign in the ancestral home of Renishaw Hall read:
I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents me sleeping at night.
Sitwell dabbled in politics on behalf of the Conservative party, winning and losing the Scarborough constituency twice, but antiquity was the real love of his life. And his interests were as wide-ranging as they were obscure. The seven sitting rooms of Renishaw Hall were littered with books and notes for possible future monographs on subjects such as:
- The Use of the Bed
- Pig Keeping in the 13th Century
- The History of the Fork
- Lepers’ Squints
- The History of the Cold
- Domestic Manners in Sheffield in the Year 1250
- My Inventions
The last would certainly have made interesting reading since among other things Sitwell invented were a musical toothbrush that played ‘Annie Laurie’ and a miniature revolver for shooting wasps.
Another of his inventions was the Sitwell Egg which had a yolk of smoked meat, a white of compressed rice and a shell of synthetic lime. It was designed as a convenient and nourishing snack for travellers and Sitwell was so convinced by its potential that he decided to hand the marketing of the egg to none other than Gordon Selfridge, founder of the Oxford Street store.
He arrived at Selfridge’s office without an appointment and announced, ‘I am Sir George Sitwell and I’ve brought my egg with me.’ Sadly history does not record Selfridge’s reply, but Sitwell shelved the idea shortly after.
But as I mentioned earlier, Sitwell was not highly regarded by his children, not least because he was forever inflicting his unwanted opinions on them. As he once told them, ‘It is dangerous for you to lose touch with me for a single day. You never know when you may need the benefit of my experience and advice.’
For example, when Osbert Sitwell said that he was thinking of writing a novel, his father said, ‘Oh I shouldn’t do that if I were you! My cousin had a friend who utterly ruined his health writing a novel!’
As for Edith’s literary ambitions, he observed that she had made a great mistake by not going in for lawn tennis. In fact, it seems that the pursuit of any sport was preferable to poetry, especially gymnastics. He said, ‘Nothing a young man likes so much as a girl who’s good at the parallel bars.’
It reached the point where Osbert and Sacheverell invented a mythical yacht, the Rover, pretending to be away on a voyage and so avoid their father for long periods.
But the one of Sitwell’s many and varied interests, the one that produced results was his passion for garden design and house decoration, although none of his projects was ever truly completed as it was a process of continuous change.
He had schemes for constructing or importing fountains, aqueducts, cascades and statues at Renishaw Hall and at one time employed four thousand men to work on an artificial lake. he also had a plan to stencil blue-willow patterns on his white cows, but their objections put an end to the idea.
Sitwell died in 1943, but Renishaw Hall remains in family hands through his great-granddaughter Alexandra.