Photograph of the Month

1 December 2014 - 1 February 2015

Room 31

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Dame Edith Sitwell, by Cecil Beaton, 1930 - NPG  - © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby

Dame Edith Sitwell
by Cecil Beaton
1930
NPG P867

December 2014 marks fifty years since the death of the poet and biographer Edith Sitwell (1887-1964). Born in Scarborough, she grew up in her ancestral home, Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, before moving to London in 1913. Sitwell’s first published poem, 'Drowned Suns', appeared that same year and in 1915 her first book of verse: The Mother and Other Poems was published.

From 1916 to 1921 Sitwell and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell published an annual anthology of modern verse called Wheels, edited by Edith; it collected their own poems and the work of young talents such as Nancy Cunard, Wilfred Owen and Aldous Huxley. Edith’s fame grew dramatically in 1923 when she gave a reading of her avant-garde poetry collection Façade (1922) using a megaphone and sitting behind a curtain; William Walton provided musical accompaniment. Noël Coward was said to have walked out, while Virginia Woolf sat 'dazed'. Later, an interest in English history led Sitwell to write books including Alexander Pope (1930), The English Eccentrics (1933), Victoria of England (1936) and a biography of Elizabeth I.

In the 1940s her poetry grew more poignant with works such as Street Songs (1942) and The Song of the Cold (1945) in which she denounced the suffering caused by the Second World War.

Beaton´s allegorical portrait shows Sitwell with a harp during one of the grand house parties staged at Renishaw Hall in the summer of 1930. She had just published her first work of prose, Alexander Pope, and the Collected Poems. Posed in front of one of the family’s tapestries; Beaton’s portrait makes reference to Sitwell's historical ancestry while the fantastical setting makes allusion to her unique sense of style. Beaton took various portraits of the poet and the Sitwell family. They were thrilled with the results, Edith writing: ‘I can’t simply tell you what excitement there is at Renishaw about the marvellous photographs – or what joy and gratitude. We are all, including mother, half off our heads with excitement…’

Previous Photographs of the Month