Books: One Man and His Clan Osbert Sitwell by Philip Ziegler Chatto & Windus, Pounds 25; Eccentric, Dilettante - or a Canny Cultural Entrepreneur Who Made His Family into His Fortune? Annabel Freyberg Explores the Tumultuous Times of a Tribal Elder

Article excerpt

Born to eccentric, incompatible and hugely spoilt parents, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell were uncomfortable, remote children who seemed to live in a world of their own. In a multitude of ways, this state of affairs endured for the rest of their lives. When D H Lawrence met them in the late 1920s he was bemused by their self- absorption, "as if they were marooned on a desert island and nobody in the world but their lost selves". The socially and artistically voracious triumvirate were by now renowned as writer-patrons; their reading through megaphones of Edith's Facade to William Walton's music passed into legend.

This self-dramatising was a gift to other writers. Noel Coward parodied them in a musical review; Wyndham Lewis mocked them savagely in The Apes of God; Aldous Huxley (in Chrome Yellow) and Lawrence (in Lady Chatterley's Lover) both based characters on Osbert. (This caused great umbrage; the family were keen feudsters.) The first biography of the three Sitwells appeared as early as 1927, and there have been several since, including excellent individual studies of Edith and Sacheverell.

This, however, is the first full-scale life of Osbert. He was the eldest son, the inheritor of the baronetcy and the family's forbiddingly grand home, Renishaw in Derbyshire, which mantles he cherished. He took his vocation as a poet equally seriously. After serving in the First World War he became a dedicated pacifist and much of his early work is devoted to this theme. He strove hard to improve his craft and won good notices and critical acclaim. The work may no longer be read today, but Philip Ziegler undertakes a thoughtful critique of it. Yet Osbert was quite unable to reconcile his position as artist and aristocrat. He dabbled in politics, acted as patron to William Walton, John Piper and Dylan Thomas, among others, even commissioned murals from the Italian Futurist Gino Severini, and spent an incredible amount of inherited money on pleasure while complaining constantly of his father's meanness. In the Thirties, he enjoyed popular success as a journalist and travel writer, but ironically, his writing - and his financial success - only really took flight when he turned his attention to his family. …