Review published on July 13, 2015. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt
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Since 1625, Derbyshire’s Renishaw Hall, built under the instruction of a Cavalier, has been the home of the Sitwell family. Desmond Seward, author of Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells, has, as well as providing a chronological history of the Sitwell family, woven in four centuries of goings-on in England, paying particular attention to some of those events which so impacted upon the illustrious family in question. He writes that ‘three centuries of colourful characters left their own stamp on Renishaw – such as the Regency Buck who added the great rooms and was known to have hunted a tiger with his hounds’.
Spanning the house from its beginnings until the present day, Renishaw Hall includes details of the painstaking renovation which the house has recently undergone. Seward believes that ‘modern Renishaw’s real creator was the under-estimated Sir George Sitwell, a pioneer of the Baroque revival… Better known are his children, the Trio – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – who were the Bloomsbury Group’s rivals in the 1920s and leading literary figures in the 1950s and 60s’. Of the siblings, the writer Harold Acton remarked, ‘The Sitwells might wander far from Renishaw, but they would always return in spirit’.
Within Renishaw Hall, much detail is amassed with regard to the births, marriages and deaths of various familial members, but there is often scarce information – particularly in the first half of the book – as to what each of the individual figures were like. In this manner, Seward’s work can tend to be a little dry in places. The primary sources – diary entries and extracts from letters – do augment the whole however, adding some of the contextual information and firsthand observations regarding those in question.
The narrative itself does not really pick up until the twentieth century begins; evidently the wealth of readily available information about Edith Sitwell and her immediate family has helped greatly to make the whole more interesting. The Trio almost leap to life upon the page – Osbert especially. That is not to say that Renishaw Hall is a badly written account by any means, but there is no sense of carefully measured prose, and the descriptions which would have made the whole immensely more readable are few and far between. Even the initial description of the house has been glossed over somewhat, and one has to rely on the included photographs to really get a good feel for its appearance.
As with family histories in general, it can be said that some of the Sitwells were far more intriguing, or worthy of more curiosity, than others. There are certainly several elements of interest concerning them and the social history which they lived within in Renishaw Hall; the acquisition of art, travels in bygone eras, and the relationships between the Trio and their father, who was largely seen as a buffoon. Renishaw, writes Seward, ‘meant most to Osbert, who, born in 1892, was aware from an early age that the house and the estate were going to be his’.
Renishaw Hall is an interesting commentary upon the life of a house and the family who inhabited it, but I did feel as though some of the information – particularly within the earlier chapters – could have been handled better. The inclusion of a Sitwell family tree would have been of use to refer to at times as well. I found some of Seward’s slightly odd turns of phrase a little jarring – ‘After Lytton Strachey was safely dead’, for example. Rather a slow starter, Renishaw Hall does pick up, and if you have any interest whatsoever in Edith Sitwell particularly, it is certainly worth a read. Saying that, it is certainly not the compelling account of an old country house and its inhabitants which it could have been.
Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells by Desmond Seward is published by Elliott and Thompson in hbk in July 2015
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