The Fine Art of Doing Nothing

By Acton, Harold | The Independent (London, England), March 1, 1994 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Fine Art of Doing Nothing


Acton, Harold, The Independent (London, England)


THE DEATH of Sir Harold Acton has captured the imagination as the passing of the age of the aesthete. Yet as always there are survivors and two fellow aesthetes stepped forward to pay tribute to him in obituaries, written in good time, at the pace at which aesthetes tackle such things. The novelist Anthony Powell and the writer Alan Pryce-Jones recalled a lost age and gave ample evidence of having studied Sir Harold closely, recounting anecdotes of his career while assessing his place in this century, with detail that might have caused Sir Harold some reflective discomfort.

The aesthete is defined as the "professed appreciator of the beautiful" but he has come to encompass more than that: an elegant, or once elegant figure, residing in remote arcadian splendour, protected from the general fray of life, producing erudite works of literature, history, criticism or poetry, perhaps dabbling at the odd canvas, reviewing a friend's book, but measuring the pace of his life as if the books, the guests, the wine and the food appeared at subtly orchestrated moments to please the appropriate senses.

The result appears effortless, but is the product of considerable endeavour. Sir Harold used to dwell on the subject of guests for whom he appeared to have limitless time, but he said: "When writing one must be very strict and disciplined." In this respect he might have been a little irritated that certain quarters of the press celebrated him as the Florentine host, in 1985, to the Prince and Princess of Wales, rather than for his more lasting achievements.

In his long life Sir Harold produced many well-researched oeuvres, and yet when I talked to him in 1977, he seemed to concentrate on gossip. In preference to discoursing on the Bourbons of Naples, he was keen to talk of an invitation he had received from Russell Harty, adding "But you know, I haven't quite been able to find the time to go . . ."

He mused on the Snowdon divorce, and what he considered the less kind behaviour of husband to wife than of wife to husband; and of the fate of a mutual American friend who had moved to Paris: "What did Oscar Wilde say? All good Americans go to Paris to die . . ."

It did not seem to change when he was with his octogenarian contemporaries. My favourite exchange was a discussion over lunch of the short-lived marriage of Freya Stark and Stewart Perowne. Sir Harold said: "When they married, she thought she'd found Lochinvar. She hoped to be taken out into the desert and ravished. Oh dear! She ordered a double bed, a double bath, a double lavatory . . ." At which point Lady Diana Cooper, stroking her chihuahua, interjected: "Yes, and I could have told her what she was getting was an old bugger!"

The last time I saw Sir Harold was at his 86th birthday dinner at La Pietra. He wore a very shiny grey suit, the kind a Mafioso might wear. It would be wrong, therefore, to suggest that the mind of the true aesthete dwells solely on the fine arts or sartorial elegance.

The famous aesthetes of the early part of this century were fortunate to depend on substantial unearned incomes which shielded them from the unpleasant reality of earning their living. Thanks to the efforts of Sir Charles Tennant in the field of chemical works, the British Metal Extracting Company and extensive gold-mining, his grandson Stephen was able to lie in bed, surrounded by jewels, make-up and teddy bears, re-reading favourite authors, penning poetry and reworking the greatest unfinished novel of his day.

Cecil Beaton had no private means and thus laboured hard, often in secret, before assuming the mantle of aesthete and pretending to have done nothing. He perfected the art of remaining unshaven in his pyjamas, working away, and then emerging newly shaved and elegantly clad for lunch, looking considerably fresher than the other already shady-chinned guests who had wielded their razors five or six hours before.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Fine Art of Doing Nothing
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?