Of all the eccentrics associated with Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), whose legend was immortalised by his three famous children, Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sir Osbert (1892-1969) and Sir Sacheverell (1897-1988), is my favourite.
He appeared oddly myopic about the roots of his prosperity: Evelyn Waugh describes him standing on the terrace at Renishaw gesticulating towards Barlborough across the “farms, cottages, villas, the railway, the colliery and the densely teeming streets” and remarking, “You see, there is no-one between us and the Locker Lampsons.” His children, however, told of sitting in the quiet of a Renishaw evening, listening to a faint tapping below which came from the miners hewing the black wealth beneath their feet.
He had a toothbrush that played ‘Annie Laurie’, and a miniature revolver for shooting wasps. He considered stencilling blue willow pattern on the white cows in the park, “to give distinction to the landscape”, but found it impractical. His schemes for estate improvements were never ending.
He had a passion for gardening, and began altering the surroundings of Renishaw in 1887. He also had a passion for local history, particularly when its minutiae illuminated the distant doings of his remote ancestors. Sir Osbert said that his father was “adept at taking hold of the wrong end of a thousand sticks”; John Pearson commented that “much of Sir George’s life was…spent correcting experts”. He was particularly proud that he “captured a spirit at the headquarters of the Spiritualists, London, 1880”.
He passed on a considerable share of eccentricity to his children, some of it deliberately: he advised Edith on one occasion that there was “nothing a young man likes so much as a girl who is good on the parallel bars”. She it was who in her youth at Renishaw once disguised herself as an armchair, covered in a dustsheet, in order to be carried upstairs by her brothers to avoid an aunt. Sir Osbert described himself as “educated during holidays from Eton”.
Sir George befriended the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and brought him to Renishaw repeatedly: Sir Reresby Sitwell describes Lutyens’ effect on his grandfather’s plans as “restraint rather than…guidance”. It was on the Sunday morning of one of these weekend visits that Lutyens asked the butler, “Is Lady Ida down?”
From 1909 onwards Sir George became increasingly preoccupied with the restoration of the castle he purchased at Montegufoni in Tuscany, until eventually in 1925 he moved out there permanently, and handed over Renishaw to his eldest son, Osbert, and his other English estate, Weston Hall, Northamptonshire, to Sacheverell.
His nephew, the late Sir Reresby Sitwell (1927-2009), carried on the tradition of celebrating eccentricity, particularly the manifest oddities of his grandfather.