The Sitwells of Renishaw Hall

The final event of the 2015 Derbyshire Literature Festival was a very special tour of Renishaw Hall on Sunday the 17th of May.

Renishaw Hall North Front
Renishaw Hall North Front

The original Hall was built in 1625 by George Sitwell, who had made his fortune producing nails and other iron goods, and his descendants still own and inhabit the house today. George’s Hall was quite a modest affair (just the part that’s framed by the two trees in my photo) and much of the Hall that we see today was added by Sitwell Sitwell, the first of the Sitwell Baronets between 1793 and 1808.

On the day of the tour, I arrived in plenty of time to explore the gardens, which was just as well, because they’re very impressive and photography is very much encouraged, whereas the interior of the Hall is a private residence and so not amenable to casual visitors taking pictures in. The gardens, however, contained a wealth of literary-themed art as well as a multitude of boards with garden-related quotes from works by the three literary Sitwells: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell.

I particularly liked this representation of Watership Down
I particularly liked this representation of Watership Down

Edith was the eldest of the siblings, and felt the pressure of being the firstborn though not the required male heir. She wrote from an early age, and was encouraged by her governess (and later longterm friend) Helen Rootham. In 1914 Edith and Helen moved to London, where they lived in a shabby flat. Edith’s poetry collections were published, and she also edited collections of of poetry by writers she wanted to encourage. She held literary salons, although these were far from grand, with guests receiving a ha’penny bun and a cup of tea.

In the 1920s and 30s, Edith and her brothers wrote extensively, supported writers and other artists and put on performances which mostly mystified the critics. Edith eventually moved to France, where she cared for Helen, who was now terminally ill, and concentrated on writing prose.

I also liked this statue, although I'm unsure of the story behind it
I also liked this statue, although I’m unsure of the story behind it

Following Helen’s death, and the outbreak of WWII, Edith returned to England and lived at Renishaw Hall with Osbert and his partner David Horner. Osbert was still writing and was also a major patron of the arts, while Sacheverell, who had married in 1925, was perhaps the most prolific author of the three.

As well as being famed for their writing, the Sitwells also continued the family tradition of collecting books — an interest which continued with subsequent generations. Although much of the original family collection was sold in 1849, in an auction lasting four days, the current family’s library contains between 2,500 and 3,000 books, with possibly 30,000 in the house as a whole. The library contains first editions of many of the trio’s works, with the aim being to eventually have two copies each of everything they wrote.

Edith’s real fame, however came in the 1940s and 50s after she returned to writing poetry and her work gained popularity in the US. She also became something of a celebrity to say the least, and was involved in famous feuds with other authors and with newspapers. On the other hand she continued to support fellow writers throughout her life, and during WWII knitted many items of clothing for men serving overseas.

Bluebell woods in the grounds of Renishaw Hall
Bluebell woods in the grounds of Renishaw Hall

Edith and Osbert supported Dylan Thomas (including financially at times) and helped popularise the poems of Wilfred Owen, with the 1919 edition of Edith’s poetry anthology, Wheels concentrating on his work. Edith lived until 1964, appearing on This is Your Life in 1962. Osbert died in 1969, and Sacheverell died in 1988 with the title and properties passing to his son Reresby.

Renishaw Hall now belongs to Reresby’s daughter Alexandra, while the title is held by Reresby’s nephew. As well as having impressive gardens, the Hall also hosts twice-yearly plant fairs, which I hope to attend now I’ve been inspired by my visit. Of course I now also need to go back and read works by all three Sitwells (and also their father, George, who designed the gardens), but especially Edith.

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4 thoughts on “The Sitwells of Renishaw Hall

  1. Always enjoy your blogs, Stevie. My knowledge of Edith close to none, but am often moved to quote: “Still falls the rain”, a line with a particular heaviness to it, and recently rather too much opportunity to do so! Didn’t Jacob Epstein do a head of her? Fabulous, raptor-like power to it. So much better to be striking and memorable, rather than wishy-washy-clone-pretty as young women today seem to think desirable.

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    1. Thanks!

      Edith was rather fabulous, and there are definitely some great representations of her at Renishaw, although I wouldn’t swear to having seen one by Epstein. Memorable looking people are far more interesting in my opinion too.

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