Obituary: Sir Harold Acton

Alan Pryce-Jones
Monday 28 February 1994 01:02

Harold Mario Mitchell Acton, writer and connoisseur: born 5 July 1904; CBE 1965; Kt 1974; died La Pietra, Italy 27 February 1994.

WHO, PRECISELY, was Harold Acton? 'Precisely' is the operative word. Reference books will tell you that Sir Harold was the son of Arthur Mario Acton and of Hortense Mitchell. We can learn from his memoirs that his father was British and his mother American. We can learn from the same source that his grandfather, Roger Acton, Neapolitan by birth, had gone with his brother to England 'to claim their rights as British subjects after the fall of the Bourbons'. The obvious conclusion is that these Victorian Actons in Naples were allied to the senior branch of the family in England, and that Sir Harold was one of them.

But a family archivist would have none of this; nor is there any reference to the above-mentioned Actons in a British peerage. A more glamorous legend states that an old Neapolitan grandee - one of the Rothschilds has been named - had an affair with his cook, who gave him a male baby before overplaying her hand and getting thrown on the street with her child, to become cook in the local Acton palace. Time passed, and the little boy, having no visible father, became locally known as the Acton baby. He grew up a clever child and caught the eye of a rich American, who adopted him and took him to be educated in Chicago, where, in the fullness of time, he married the daughter of a prominent banker. This, according to one theory of the British Actons, was Harold's father.

What is certain is that Arthur Acton was a very clever man, not overburdened with scruples, who, over the years, used his wife's fortune to amass a second one, bought into Florentine real estate, formed a great collection, and housed it in a splendid villa, La Pietra, where he also restored one of the magical gardens of Tuscany. By the time he had sent his sons, Harold and William, through Eton and Oxford he may well have convinced himself that he was British to the core. But, to the dispassionate eye, few families were more exotic than his.

To begin with, in appearance and manner, they were totally Mediterranean. Dark-complexioned, sallow, with a sharp glance and a sharper tongue, they looked more like condottieri than scions, legitimate or no, of a uniquely cosmopolitan family, reaching into half Europe, but rooted in Shropshire. Italian came to them more naturally than English - during the Second World War William Acton was rejected from intelligence work on the grounds that his Italian was too colloquial, which merely meant that it was perfect. They alarmed their contemporaries, and still more the parents of their friends, by a stern dismissal of accepted schoolboy heroes in favour of Berenson, Diaghilev and the Sitwells. And they were tough, Harold especially. Far from aping the greenery-yallery aestheticism of the Nineties, they went on the attack.

The early 1920s were the scene of parlour battles between the Aesthetes and the Hearties. Harold became a leader of the Aesthetes, brave, embattled and, moreover, liked. He chanted poems from his balcony in Christ Church, he flaunted the ever-wider trousers which became known as 'Oxford bags'. He invited Gertrude Stein to the university, where she gave a sensational lecture-recital. Between bouts of party-giving, he joined a group of by now legendary fellow- condottieri; Evelyn Waugh, Robert Byron, Brian Howard, Peter Quennell, Cyril Connolly. And, slightly in his shadow, his younger brother William was making an independent name for himself as an artist, a horseman, a swashbuckler, and, less amenably, a tippler with a weakness for ether - a stimulant which prompted him to feats like walking out of a high college window because he found the party dull.

Before he was 30, Harold had published half a dozen books in prose and verse. Much the best of them was an entertaining scrap of rococo history, The Last Medici. As a poet he fulfilled his intention of pouring scorn on the Georgian poets of the day, already put sharply in their place by his role-models, TS Eliot and the Sitwells. Unluckily he did not substitute anything much better, and in fiction he limited himself to the kind of fantasy derived from Firbank which, for success, demanded a lighter touch than his. His ear was not reliable, and all his life he affected too often an arthritic jauntiness, such as writing of women as 'dames' and of some father-figure as 'an old dad'. Already, however, he displayed one unequalled gift: that of throwing into the air a stream of dazzling talk. In this field he was entirely his own man: not an epigrammatist, like Wilde, not a demure tease, like Max Beerbohm, not a polymath like Berenson, to name only three of the best talkers of the day, but an incomparable builder of cloud-castles, with at his command a wonderful range of verbal modulation, which wrung every last drop from his own cleverness.

It is pleasant to be a rich young man with a generous father, but it is also a handicap for one essentially serious. Harold and William were often dismissed as playboys. After their Oxford years, their father gave them an immense London house in Lancaster Gate, filled with elaborate Florentine furniture superfluous to his collection which it was the function of his sons to show off at lavish parties and then to sell. Needless to say, the sons shone at their own parties but closed their ears to any mention of a sale. The wits and the beauties of the day flocked to Lancaster Gate, but in the end patience ran out and the house was abruptly dismantled.

By this time, Harold had tired of Europe. Life in Florence was made hard for him because his parents so evidently preferred his brother. He shared his father's unflinching devotion to La Pietra and he also inherited a caring taste which filled the house with treasures and then created a vast collection of garden statuary. But at the same time he felt oppressed by the weight of possession and by the triviality of the city life which surrounded him. Like his father, he was at heart a hard worker and a careful scholar. Then all at once he perceived an escape-route: to the East. From 1932 to 1939 he lived in China, forming new collections, translating Chinese plays, lecturing, learning, immersing himself in the last years of a congenial civilisation. But he could not put Europe entirely behind him, and when war was about to break out in 1939 he returned, abandoning his Peking house and his new possessions, to join the RAF. He served chiefly in the Far East.

For a time life at La Pietra was unchanged. Harold's parents could not believe that Fascism, however malevolent, would affect them personally. But in the end they were briefly put under arrest, before being allowed to leave for Switzerland. It was reported of Mrs Acton that during her stay in gaol she sat hour-long on an upright chair, round which she had drawn a chalk circle which the prostitutes who shared her cell were forbidden to cross.

When peace returned the old Actons were in their seventies. Not long after being demobilised from the Pioneer Corps, their favourite, William, died in Italy and Harold felt that he could not abandon them to a sorrowful old age. By the age of 40 he had lived a full life: as a rich dilettante who was also a confirmed artist, a traveller, an academic, a protean original who could hold his own with the experts of his choice in several languages. He now began to put his experiences to account and published his first notable literary success, the two volumes of Memoirs of an Aesthete. The gloom of La Pietra was compounded by the deadening changes in Florentine living. The old guard, headed by Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell, Mrs George Keppel, Pino Orioli the bookseller and a scattering of elderly princesses, were dead or dying. Through the war years, though latterly fighting took place round La Pietra, and the house was occupied successively by German and Allied troops, surprisingly little damage was done.

More and more Harold felt himself drawn to Naples, and to the studies which prompted his best work, The Bourbons of Naples. To this end he divided his time between Florence and Posilipo, where he occupied an apartment high above the sea. He knew that his mother was devoted to her husband, despite the fact that he tested her powers of forgiveness to the full. She tended him through years of depression and illness until he died in his 80th year, in 1953. After that, she and Harold were drawn more closely together, until in the end he accepted the responsibilities of his heritage and gave his time and energy to continuing and perfecting his father's work, with a view to making La Pietra and its gardens an undying memorial, preserved, since he left no heir, in the safe-keeping of New York University.

His mother lived on until the age of 90, and she did not make life easy for him. She had been a beauty all her life, and behind a delicate facade a dominating personality. Harold was a devoted and admiring son, but if he wished to dine out he had to persuade his hostess to advance her dinner hour to 7.30 at the latest, because, though 60 himself, he was not given a latchkey and found it humiliating to climb into the house by a window once the servants had gone to bed.

But at the same time he was himself becoming a legend. For 30 years and more he had been less a legend than a warning. The British have never cared much for aesthetes, and though Harold had a number of dedicated friends it was not until he reached the verge of old age that a large public began to treat him seriously. By then, as sole survivor of his family, his real virtues shone out. He pulled together the diminishing British colony in Florence; he worked hard to put the British Institute on its feet, he gave freely to intellectual causes. He travelled, he wrote on subjects as different as the Tuscan villas and his friend Nancy Mitford. Slowly he became a local icon. The British royal family descended several times on La Pietra as guests. Pilgrims came to pay homage.

Throughout the century the Actons of both generations had always been lavishly hospitable, and Harold continued that tradition. In their entertainments they moved with the times. In her latter years Mrs Acton, seated demurely on her terraces under a parasol, became famous for the alarming potency of her cocktails. In London and Paris news of Harold and racy snippets of his talk were passed from friend to friend. Moreover, The Bourbons of Naples at last brought him true respect as a historian who was also an admirable entertainer.

His energy, like his father's, was undimmed by age. Well over 80, he thought nothing of walking from the Ritz in Piccadilly to South Kensington for a luncheon party and, as always, the discernment of wit in others spurred him to match and excel. If he never fulfilled his early ambition to shine purely as a writer he added two substantial histories to the literature of his time; he was an enlightening and stimulating companion, and, as if he were a latterday Beckford or Horace Walpole, people will long study his books if only to catch an echo of his voice.

(Photograph omitted)

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