Obituary: Sir Harold Acton
Wednesday 02 March 1994
Alan Pryce-Jones might have added Gibbon too. In Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948) Acton wrote that he did not
understand those blase travellers who come to China boasting of their ignorance. No doubt they have excellent eyes, but this dependence on a purely personal vision seldom accompanies a freedom from national prejudices, which Gibbon deemed indispensable, together with 'age, judgement, a competent knowledge of men and books'. Copious reading enhanced my enjoyment.
Acton was deeply cultivated, profoundly well-read, a serious scholar, in addition to the mantle of his connoisseurship, the splendid setting of La Pietra, his courtesy and his hospitality. Memorable was the first course at lunch of chicken livers and tagliatelle bianchi, the crowded house, the superb Vasari frame upstairs, and the delightful terraced garden which was in his own words 'always a visual surprise'. As Acton agreed with Mark Amory in an 85th-birthday interview (Independent Magazine, 15 July 1989), his best books were historical, particularly The Bourbons of Naples.
What Harold Acton gave, and it is arguably the best of all his gifts to the generations that have followed his at Oxford, was the courage to realise that we are 'citizens of the world neither famous nor spectacular . . . and it is our duty to remind our fellow creatures of what they are fast forgetting, that true culture is universal'.
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