Avant-garde artiste and overnight sensation: The life of poet Dame Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell, who favoured Plantagenet-style headdress with flowing drapery, ornate rings and

Dame Edith Sitwell, who favoured Plantagenet-style headdress with flowing drapery, ornate rings and bracelets. Picture: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In the latest of our series exploring the lives and times of those commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin traces the career of poet Dame Edith Sitwell.

Dame Edith Sitwell, the 69-year-old poet, essayist, novelist and historian, on pictured on her arriv

Dame Edith Sitwell, the 69-year-old poet, essayist, novelist and historian, on pictured on her arrival at Southampton aboard the liner 'SS United States'. Picture: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Tall, august, with a pale oval face, almond eyes, extended aquiline nose and tight lips, the poet, novelist, essayist and biographer, Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell (1887–1964) was born at Scarborough.

She was the eldest of three children of Sir George Reresby Sitwell, a genealogist and antiquary, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta Denison. Her brothers were the writers, and sometime collaborators, Sir (Francis) Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell (1892–1969) and Sir Sacheverell Sitwell (1897–1988). Osbert achieved wide acclaim for his autobiographical volumes whilst Sacheverell’s cultural studies became the standard fare for devotees of art, music and architecture. The family could even trace itself back to the 14th century and numbered kings of France, the English Plantagenets and the Macbeths among its ranks.

Growing up in Renishaw Hall, a Derbyshire house full of eccentrics, Sitwell was an exasperating child with a thoroughly individual streak which could not be moulded. Apparently when she became morose and contrary she would play the brat by assuming the pose of an artist. It has been reported that one day she simply announced that she would grow up and become a genius.

Her love of poetry began at the age of 16 when a new governess introduced her to the works of Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé and encouraged her to start writing her own material. An example of her early work, Drowned Sons, was first published in the Daily Mirror in 1913. From this point on she published poetry and prose continuously until her death.

When Sitwell broke the news to her parents that she was leaving the family home and heading for London, she said, “I write so much better when I’m alone”. Her father is reported to have asked, “And you prefer poetry to human love?”. To this she responded firmly, “As a profession, yes”. Apparently on hearing of his daughter’s early success with poetry, Sir George lamented that she had made “a great mistake by not going in for lawn tennis”.

Ten years later, in 1923, Sitwell became an overnight sensation and the most talked about poet in the country after she performed, perhaps her most famous work, Façade (1922). The piece, which was the result of prosodic experimentation, combined lyrics with music, specifically various styles of rhythm. Sitwell’s brothers had suggested that their friend, the then unknown composer William Walton, put something together to accompany her words and the work was first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London.

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Sitwell’s performance baffled the audience. For starters she had her back to them and was partially hidden, sitting behind a transparent curtain decorated with a moon-face. The poet used something called a Sengerphone – an instrument made of compressed grasses which was meant to retain the clarity of magnified tonal quality. According to audience members the performance “sounded like gibberish” but “had they listened more closely they might have discovered a great deal of humour and gaiety”. The work was also laden with “subtle criticisms of modern life, innuendoes of despair, decay and death”. The literary critic F.R Leavis was of the opinion that they belonged “to the history of publicity rather than poetry”.

The year 1930 saw Sitwell publish her first biography of Alexander Pope, that “small, unhappy, tortured creature… who is perhaps the most flawless artist our race ever produced”. Later that year she published Collected Poems to mostly favourable reviews.

She had tolerated a great deal of negativity with regards to her work. At one gathering where she had been reading her poetry a woman approached her and announced, “I just wanted to tell you Miss Sitwell, that I quite enjoyed your last book of poems”. The woman then paused but before she could continue Sitwell interrupted saying, “Now please don’t say any more. You mustn’t spoil me. It isn’t good for me to be spoiled”. Years later in the 1950s Sitwell could often be found giving impromptu poetry readings to startled customers at Dillons bookshop on Gower Street.

Edith and her brother Osbert took two trips to America where they toured the country lecturing and reading from their poetry. On one occasion they gave a performance of Façade at the New York Museum of Modern Art. During a second visit they were welcomed by the great and good of Hollywood, including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. The movie stars were very much fans of this avant-garde artiste. Sitwell appears to have fitted in easily, dressed in her long loose flowing robes, turban type of headdress and slender fingers with huge rings.

Brother and sister also spent time with the writer Aldous Huxley, an old friend, who they often saw when he returned for weekends from his teaching post at Eton. She remarked to a friend: “It’s so nice seeing dear Aldous and Maria Huxley... Aldous hasn’t changed at all since he was 23.” Years earlier she had commented on Huxley’s wife’s beauty, stating that she had “beautiful eyes, like those of a Siamese cat”. After first meeting Huxley in London, Sitwell recalled that he was one of her first friends in the city, reminiscing on a lunch they had enjoyed in Soho, “in a dream like golden day in June”.

In 1954 Sitwell was given the title of Dame of the British Empire and on a visit to the United States an American came up to her and said rather aggressively, “Why do you call yourself ‘Dame’?”. “I don’t,” she replied. “The Queen does.”

Sitwell’s final years were spent at Flat 42 of Greenhill, Hampstead High Street, a large neo-Georgian apartment block at the top of Rosslyn Hill. It is at this address that the blue plaque remembers her as a “poet”. Sadly the spinster’s time at this address was rather melancholy. When she arrived in 1961 her health was deteriorating and her finances were a cause for worry. The flat, which she shared with her nurse, was small and she described it as “just big enough for ghosts”. In 1964 she moved to Keats Grove, where, just before she died, she told a friend, “I am dying but otherwise quite well”.

In 1933 the Royal Society of Literature awarded Sitwell its coveted medal whilst four honorary degrees were bestowed on her including a doctor of letters from Oxford University.

A woman of formidable appearance, she was photographed by Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), painted by artist Roger Fry (1866–1934) and a sculpture, depicting the hand of a child clasping the hand of an old man, by Sir Henry Moore (1898–1986) marks her grave in Northamptonshire.