The fine art of doing nothing: To be an aesthete is no longer practical, says Hugo Vickers. Harold Acton was one of the last

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The Independent Online
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 late Sir Peter Quennell qualified as an aesthete, being spared the need to take on commercial work thanks to a wife who could take care of him. Alan Pryce-Jones also married a rich wife, enabling him to live in comfort in Newport and travel at leisure.

Today the unfortunate business of earning a living has forced convention on the aesthete. There are still plenty of heirs to fortune, but so often they become boorish playboys or take to cocaine and heroin, reducing themselves to figures of pathos, not to mention bankruptcy.

Aesthetes are a dying breed. First there is the danger of over-exposure, particularly through the medium of television. Sir Harold appeared in one or two memorable documentaries and was occasionally filmed discoursing about a contemporary from the haven of his garden in Florence, but otherwise he eschewed the glare of television lights.

The modern author who professed himself an aesthete and wrote memoirs such as Sir Harold's would find himself subjected to the 'brilliant' ideas of his publisher's PR. If maximum exposure were achieved, he would be set up on a panel in a television studio alongside the art critic Brian Sewell, and with two 'hearties' having a go at him. His aestheticism would be mocked for the benefit of the half-watching viewer. He would look foolish. For this reason a man like Quentin Crisp cannot qualify to be described as an aesthete.

Second, there is the danger that many so-called aesthetes are phoneys. Those undergraduates who reached for megaphones and proclaimed verse from Oxford balconies in the late Seventies were pretentious imitators of their forebears.

The quality of charm has undermined many an aesthete. Anthony Blanche, the fictional part-recreation of the young Sir Harold at Oxford, in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, warns Charles Ryder that so much of English art is blighted by charm. Alan Pryce- Jones regretted the loss of Hamish St Clair Erskine in 1974, describing him as a 'bright apparition who once upon a time swept past them like a kingfisher: all colour and sparkle and courage' but lamenting that he had found 'small place in a world which turned away from an unambitious charmer whose only enduring gift was his charm'; and Cyril Connolly wrote: 'the world is full of charming failures, for all charming people have something to conceal, usually their total dependence on the appreciation of others'.

An aesthete of Sir Harold's calibre had considerably more to offer the world and there was substance beneath. Today the combination is no longer practical.

In other circumstances I would advance a modest claim to being an aesthete, in that I live in arcadian surroundings, allowing the land around me to lie protected from huntsmen and shooters. While writing this I look out over a garden, soon to burst into life, and the only interruption has been to discuss the rehanging and replacement of curtains. So far so good. And yet it is an illusion, as there is no peace in the country. There is always a collapsed culvert to repair or an unheralded visitor discussing the 'deer problem' or a spontaneous adviser with an ingenious ready cash solution to the potholes in the drive. So the would-be aesthete is either busy administrating or remains chained to the desk, at the mercy of fax and phone, his quiet reading a pipe- dream for another day.

The writer's latest books are 'Royal Orders' (Boxtree) and 'Loving Garbo' (Jonathan Cape), both due to be published in April.

(Photograph omitted)

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