Saturday, December 11, 2010

Memoirs Of An Aesthete (Sir Harold Acton, Villa La Pietra and China)

 Sir Harold Acton (1904-1994)

"Half my friends disapprove of the title I have chosen for this book without having read it.  'What ! an aesthete ?   One of those scruffy long-haired fellows in peculiar garb, lisping about art for art's sake ?  No, no.  You'll prejudice all your readers in advance.  Old Oscar screwed the last nail in the aesthete's coffin.'

      Other titles have occurred to me:  they burgeon every morning before breakfast and wither every night when I go to bed.  'My Quilted Coat', for instance, from Po-Chu-i's poem The Cranes, translated by Arthur Waley, the ideal translator of Chinese:

'The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.'

The western wind has been blowing on me with a vengeance since my return to Europe in 1939 and I am beginning to feel the first cold, a cold as I never experienced in Peking, where the temperature in winter could easily drop below zero.  For the genius of the Chinese people kept me warm, and here I have not been able to fnd a substitute.

      Though I shiver and cough I refuse to be a pessimist.  We had a culture which war has interrupted, and it was nourished by a few people like myself, citizens of the world.  During the war we were forced into hibernation.  Many of us are hibernating still.

      We citizens of the world are neither famous nor spectacular.  But there is a slow fire burning within us, and it is time for our latent energies to swell forth anew.  It is time for us to reassert ourselves.  And it is our duty to remind our fellow creatures of what they are fast forgetting, that true culture is universal."

     This prose opens Sir Harold Acton's Memoirs Of An Aesthete, which along with its successor/companion volume More Memoirs Of An Aesthete, will interest any student of 20th century art and literature. I intend to reread both books in the coming year because I think they will help resituate me, both imaginatively and actually, in historical time and space, two axes that feel a little bit jumbled lately, a new (and I hope temporary) problem for me.

Garden at Villa La Pietra, Florence

     I think Harold Acton (1904-1994) faced similar questions and used both the events of his life and the exercise of drafting his autobiography as "sorting out places" in his search for equilibrium, which for him existed in the universal "true culture" he mentions.  For him this involved bridging Italian Renaissance roots (Acton, a half-American, English-Italian, was raised in Florence at his family's famous ancient Villa La Pietra home until departing for education in Switzerland and England) with the 19th century aesthetics that formed his immediate intellectual background, the 20th century modernism he took part in creating, and China, ancient and modern.  He traveled there after university and his early literary career seeking  maturity, wisdom and domestic tranquility, a combination he thought would be more available to him there, in part because he was a homosexual, than at addresses closer to home.

Impersonation Party, 1927 (Elizabeth Ponsonby, back row, in wig as Iris Tree, with Cecil Beaton on her right.  Seated from the left: Stephen Tennant as Queen Marie of Romania; George Sitwell with false nose; Inez Holden; Harold Acton. Foreground: Tallulah Bankhead as Jean Borotra.)

Qi Hua Men, Peking, Winter View, late 1930s
     Memoirs Of An Aesthete covers the years 1904-39, when Acton returned to England to serve in the war as a member of RAF Intelligence in England, India and Ceylon.   It includes, therefore, his Eton and Oxford years, where his school friends included such well-known writers and artists as Eric Blair (George Orwell), Henry Yorke (Henry Green), Evelyn Waugh (who was profoundly influenced by Acton), Cyril Connolly, Oliver Messel, Robert Byron and, of course, his great friend and associate, the tragic Brian Howard, whose biography, Brian Howard: Portrait Of A Failure, by Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster, is once again available (and finally at a reasonable price). 

Selfridges window display with live mannequins, London, 1920s

Xi'si Street, Peking, late 1930s

     I was attracted to Acton because we seem to share the same interests and approaches to acquiring knowledge and, in many respects, the same moods and strengths and limitations of character.   When I studied at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, I was surprised to learn of his close association with the school and amazed to read about his enormous bequest of Villa La Pietra and the remainder of his estate to the university.  Although Acton was an Institute trustee, I never saw him on our elegant premises and I expect that like his friend, faculty member Sir John Pope-Hennessey, he would have taken one look at me and wondered whether admission standards had become inexcusably lax.

Garden, Villa La Pietra, Florence

     I have only read Acton's memoirs, but a listing of his writings (including works of poetry, history, art history, travel and novels) reveals a real gift for book titling:
  • Aquarium, London, Duckworth, 1923
  • An Indian Ass, London, Duckworth, 1925.
  • Five Saints and an Appendix, London, Holden, 1927.
  • Cornelian, London, The Westminster Press, 1928.
  • Humdrum, London, The Westminster Press, 1928.
  • The Last of the Medici, Florence, G. Orioli, 1930.
  • This Chaos, Paris, Hours Press, 1930.
  • The Last Medici, London, Faber & Faner, 1932.
  • Modern Chinese Poetry (with Ch'en Shih-Hsiang), Duckworth, 1936.
  • Famous Chinese Plays (with L.C. Arlington), Peiping, Henri Vetch, 1937.
  • Glue and Lacquer: Four Cautionary Tales (with Lee Yi-Hsieh), London, The Golden Cockerel Press, 1941.
  • Peonies and Ponies, London, Chatto & Windus, 1941.
  • Memoirs of an Aesthete, London, Methuen, 1948.
  • Prince Isidore, London, Methuen, 1950.
  • The Bourbons of Naples (1734-1825), London, Methuen, 1956.
  • Ferdinando Galiani, Rome, Edizioni di Storia e di Letteratura, 1960.
  • Florence (with Martin Huerlimann), London, Thames & Hudson, 1960.
  • The Last Bourbons of Naples (1825-1861), London, Methuen, 1961.
  • Old Lamps for New, London, Methuen, 1965.
  • More Memoirs of an Aesthete, London, Methuen, 1970.
  • Tit for Tat, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1972.
  • Tuscan Villas, London, Thames & Hudson, 1973.
  • Nancy Mitford: a Memoir, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975.
  • The Peach Blossom Fan (with Ch'en Shih-Hsiang), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976.
  • The Pazzi Conspiracy, London, Thames & Hudson, 1979.
  • The Soul's Gymnasium, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982.
  • Three Extraordinary Ambassadors, London, Thames & Hudson, 1984.
  • Florence: a Travellers' Companion (introduction; text ed Edward Chaney), London, Constable, 1986. 

     This is how Memoirs Of An Aesthete, an extremely candid, non-self-aggrandizing work of autobiography (amazing from our 2010 "a celebrity autobiography every minute" perspective to recall that such works can actually be written), ends.  Here Acton is describing a portrait a Chinese friend, K'ang T'ung Pi (Madame Lo Ch'ang), painted of him in 1939:

"At this time she painted a remarkable portrait of myself as a candidate for Buddhist Sainthood, the only portrait in which I could contemplate myself with a glimmer of recognition.  Her calligraphic inscription on the painting is too flattering for me to quote in full.  Among other things she says: 'A believer both in Christ and Buddha, you harmonize in yourself their various teachings.' And in this her intuition has penetrated one of my cherished ideals.  Towards that harmony I continue to strive."  

Corner of tower, Forbidden City, Peking, late 1930s

     The portrait itself (which would not reproduce well; if you would like to see it you will need to find a copy of Memoirs Of An Aesthete) is both traditional in style and quite startling, and not just because it shows an English face depicted in Chinese garb and setting in the role of a Lohan.  The painter really does capture the sitter in an attitude that combines a sense of engagement with one of contented detachment and contemplation you do not see in other Acton portraits, including a very striking Cecil Beaton photograph taken in later life.

     I hope you don't find Acton's words quoted here stiff, stuffy or off-putting.  Both volumes of the autobiography really live and I think you would enjoy and find a lasting place in your lives for Memoirs Of An Aesthete, as I have since the day I pulled it from a high shelf  (next to J.R. Ackerley's books) at the old Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street in Manhattan.  

Note to readers:  Please move cursor over color-masked links in lines 8 ("England") and 10 ("China") in the seventh grammatical paragraph to play fascinating video clips.

Villa La Pietra, Florence

Harold Acton grave, Cimetero Evangelico degli Allori, Florence

Garden, Villa La Pietra, Florence


  1. Thomas Hart Benton Duffield CookDecember 13, 2010 at 3:18 PM

    Anthony Powell's Memoirs include a few Acton anecdotes, including one featuring Gore Vidal, a Venice palazzo, and a defenestrated dog.

    What impresses me so much about Acton is that, while his focus was art, he still could find the time to make brilliant political pronoucements like "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

    Speaking of Powell, my favorite cut on Bryan Ferry's new record ends with the words "a dance to the music of time."

    I wasn't serious; I was just Acton.


  2. Robert "Tuna" HarrisDecember 13, 2010 at 3:31 PM


    "Chateaubriand should have stuck to cooking steaks."

    -- C.M. Roberts, provoking wrath of Roger Wasby

  3. Lovely these at the end of a long day. THBDC I think of often, actually. How could one not? What a name! Caroline used to work in the AXA Building on 6th Avenue where the THB murals are hung. I tried to think of them and block THBDC out of my mind, but the DC kept creeping back in. I think I'd like to hear a new Bryan Ferry record, although I wish he included a lyric about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Does Paul Thompson play drums on it? He's my favorite. Re Tuna: If I said that (I probably did), I deserve a daughter who is at an early stage of a sarcasm project that seems to be well-planned and stretching out into an infinite future. I think of Roger Wasby fairly often. Curtis

  4. Sir Harold Acton was interested in history, and I think he would appreciate my passing along a bit of history here: while Sir Harold Acton was great in many ways, a relative of his, Lord Acton, is actually the one who said, 'Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

  5. Stephen: Hi and thanks so much for writing. I'm sure my old friend Roger is aware of the difference between 20th century Acton and his relative, the 1st Baron Acton, whose picture appears in another post in this space:

    As he joked: "He was just Acton."

    Thanks very much for visiting here and for writing. I hope you will come back soon and write again. I try to keep things bouncing as much as I can in these difficult times.



  6. Having lived in Florence for a few years I have seen Sir Harold around (for instance his bald head in the platea was unmistakable from the upper reaches of the Teatro della Pergola, at the concerts of the Amici della Musica). I actually was introduced to and exchanged a few words with him - but was far too timid to pursue the acquaintance - a pity for I think he was a very kind man, both interested in people and - obviously - very interesting himself. My one interesting memory of him is after a reading by Muriel Spark at the British Institute, to which I was taken by an American friend,who insisted that we should go and talk to Miss Spark - she was lovely as well !- after her lecture. We were the last in line after Sir Harold, and after he had taken his leave she turned to us with a big smile, saying "isn't he an attractive man?". He must have been in his eigthies,and she was no longer quite young either - but how well we understood what she meant...


  7. Dirk -- Thank you so much for your reply to this. I was fascinated to read what you wrote. I don't know where you are at the moment, but greetings from Berwyn, Pennsylvania, just ahead of American Thanksgiving. Curtis