EXHIBITIONS / No coherent taste at all: The NPG is paying tribute to the Sitwell family. The show has a certain fascination, but . . .

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The Independent Culture
SOME exhibitions are really more like books. Such is the case with the National Portrait Gallery's tribute to Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. Only about a dozen works on display merit close attention as art.

Many more things intrigue us because of their documentary value.

Photographs, letters, cartoons, a gramophone, pamphlets, first editions, campaign stickers; all these contribute to an experience that is more literary than visual.

And furthermore one that is social. We are invited to examine a network of associations between the Sitwell siblings and any number of artists and writers of the 1920s and 1930s, all of whom seem to be up-to-date and famous. The Sitwell phenomenon has to do with fashion but I don't think that they are explained by their liking for publicity. I would prefer to call them 'culture-happy' (an expression I owe to the late Clement Greenberg).

The culture-happy class buys the latest and smartest book, painting - or personality, for they are often patrons. They are led not so much by judgement as by the talked-about. They want culture continually new, therefore expendable. We first notice this class in Paris and London after the First World War, and of course they are with us today. How appropriate that the exhibition is sponsored by Harpers & Queen.

This said, the show does have a fascination. Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell were the children of aristocratic parents, their father eccentric and given to scientific pursuits, their mother a mad, arrogant spendthrift whose debts landed her in jail in 1916 when the children were still young. Edith was looking for something to do, Osbert in the trenches and Sacheverell at Eton.

The disgrace of this episode, the exhibition suggests, formed the Sitwells' social stance. They became, in Osbert's words, 'a closed corporation', mutually dependent, hostile to the world. No one will find this surprising.

But Sarah Bradford, one of the show's organisers, goes further. She says that the family background made the children aggressive and that they decided to use the arts as their weapon. 'The three Sitwells, standing shoulder to shoulder, resolved to take up the pen as a sword in the battle against the philistine.'

So is this really why the Sitwells were so keen on the modernists of their day? The psychological hurt might explain their belligerence but doesn't elucidate their tastes. As far as visual art is concerned, they had no coherent taste at all. This exhibition-cum-book is scattered and bitty and never demonstrates aesthetic value. It does show, however, how busy the trio were (another culture-happy characteristic), flying from salon to private view to concert to poetry reading to photograph session; assignations, weekends and luncheons innumerable. It's interesting to look at the record of this cocktail industry, but in the end one is frustrated; the NPG cannot record the best aspect of the Sitwells' business, which is in their writing.

By their words, not their address books, they should stand or fall. The catalogue is essentially a picture-book. I wish it had included a fresh account of Edith's weird but sporadically impressive verse; Osbert's fiction, his words for Walton's Belshazzar's Feast; and Sacheverell's ruminations on Italian baroque art. Evidently enough, such subjects do not attract bright young literary critics. Nor has Edith ever been granted one of those reprints from the Virago Press that are tributes from the modern feminist movement to previous women writers. The Sitwells' literary achievements remain obscure.

Edith must have been the most gripping of them. Although he did not like her, Wyndham Lewis spent the best part of a decade on her portrait. This long endeavour was surely because of a fascination with its subject. The familiar painting (it belongs to the Tate) may be the best tribute in the show to a personality that was both jagged and sombre. All the Sitwells were keen to have their features recorded, but they were not always wise in their choice of artist. Roger Fry's portrait of Edith is a dignified piece of work, but when Pavel Tchelitchew examined her - which he did six times - the results were awful.

In fact the photographs of the Sitwells were regularly better than their painted portraits, and these photographs bring us near to the present day.

Horst P Horst's depiction of Edith with a giant book is an interesting exercise in the manner of American Vogue in the late 1940s. Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Jane Bown all looked at her at various times, Beaton doing his best shots in 1962, when she was 75 years old. Beaton had a special feeling for all the family and contributes fine photographs of Osbert and Sacheverell - but such was the force of her personality that they look like imitations of Edith, not chips from the same block.

This is also true of a cunning Max Beerbohm cartoon of the brothers. They appear attenuated by the absence of their sister. And the more one considers the exhibition, the more it seems that the threesome did have an almost desperate need for each other, and that all the jinking around high society was a substitute for sibling passions that had their origin in the nursery.

It's as though the exhibition, like the lives of its subjects, was designed to conceal a secret. Among the works of art that are worth looking at are Sir John Lavery's portrait of Violet Trefusis, a previously unrecorded and unpublished Picasso drawing, and a sweet picture of the Sitwell living-room in Chelsea by the American-born painter Ethel Sands, who deserves a revival.

National Portrait Gallery (071-306 0055) to 22 Jan.

(Photograph omitted)