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Edith Sitwell

© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby's London

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Edith Sitwell

by Cecil Beaton
vintage bromide print, 1930
8 7/8 in. x 6 7/8 in. (225 mm x 176 mm)
Given by Sir (Alan Charles) Laurence Whistler, 1977
Primary Collection
NPG P867

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), Photographer, designer and writer. Artist associated with 1111 portraits, Sitter associated with 361 portraits.

This portraitback to top

A self-styled 'English Eccentric', Edith Sitwell knew the power of a larger-than-life image when promoting one’s work. She took part in several experimental photoshoots with Cecil Beaton, creating iconic images that continue to inspire fashion shoots today. In this particular portrait, Sitwell merges with the Brussels tapestry at the family seat, Renishaw. She plays the harp, linking back to earlier notions of the woman poet as 'improvisatrice'. This was only one of a kaleidoscope of theatrical personas adopted by Sitwell.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Clerk, Honor, The Sitwells, 1994 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 October - 22 January 1995), p. 132 Read entry

    August 1930 saw one of the largest and grandest Sitwell house parties at Renishaw and was the occasion for Cecil Beaton's famous conversation piece of the family and some of his most memorable photographs of Edith. While Sir George and Lady Ida stayed at the Sitwell Arms, the rest of the family was subject to the acute observations of Evelyn Waugh who, as a guest with his friend Robert Byron, recorded the proceedings in his diary.1 The constant stream of guests also included Walton, Zita Jungman, Lady Aberconway, Constant Lambert, Richard Wyndham, Anthony Powell, Tom Balston, Raymond Mortimer, Tom Driberg, Rex Whistler, Harold Monro, Lord Berners, Francis Birrell, Arthur Waley, Alastair Graham and, among the older generation of Osbert's friends, Mrs Keppel and Ada Leverson.2 How Beaton managed to take the photographs in this hectic month is not recorded but Edith did not always see eye to eye with Sackeverell's and Osbert's friends and was presumably happy to be taken off by Beaton to pose for him. In September, when Osbert and most of the other guests had departed, she wrote to Beaton: 'I simply can't tell you what excitement there is at Renishaw about the photographs … We are all, including Mother, half off our heads with excitement ... and are longing to have them published in papers.'3 Full-page reproductions of Edith in bed and Georgia with her borzoi, Feo, duly appeared in Vogue in October 1930.

    Edith's biography of Alexander Pope had appeared in March and seems to have influenced Beaton's theatrical mimicry of the painter Zoffany, a 1920s rediscovery and a later enthusiasm of Sacheverell's.

    1 M. Davie (ed.), The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, 1986 edn, pp 327-8.

    2 Sarah Bradford, Sacheverell Sitwell, Splendours and Miseries, 1993, pp 217-9.

    3 Ibid., p 219.

  • Muir, Robin, VOGUE 100: A Century of Style: Highlights (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 11 February - 22 May 2016), p. 41
  • Muir, Robin, VOGUE 100: A Century of Style (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 11 February - 22 May 2016), p. 43
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 201 Read entry

    In December 1926 Cecil Beaton met the poetess Edith Sitwell for the first time. He found her: 'a tall graceful scarecrow, really quite beautiful with a lovely, bell clear voice and wonderful long white hands'. She was a natural sitter, and the more exaggerated the pose the more she enjoyed it. The next year Beaton travelled to Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire to photograph the whole Sitwell family. They were delighted with the results, Edith writing: 'I simply can't 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 head with excitement …'. This portrait dates from that time, and exemplifies that element of refined fantasy, evocative of past ages, which he brought to his portraits of this dedicated bohemian and her eccentric family.

    This print was given to the Gallery by Lawrence Whistler. It had previously belonged to his brother the illustrator and mural-painter Rex, a close friend of both Beaton and the Sitwells, whose own work has affinities with the archaic, aristocratic yet pastoral tone of Beaton's photograph.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 567

Events of 1930back to top

Current affairs

Amy Johnson is the first woman to fly solo to Australia. She flew the 11,000 miles from Croydon to Darwin in a De Havilland Gipsy Moth named Jason and won the Harmon Trophy as well as a CBE for her achievement. She went on to break a number of other flying records, and died while serving in the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1941.

Art and science

Noel Coward's play, Private Lives is first performed. The original run starred Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier as well as Coward himself. Private Lives became Coward's most enduringly successful play.


Gandhi leads the Salt March. The march to the coast was a direct protest against the British monopoly on the sale of salt and inspired hordes of Indians to follow him and adopt his methods of Satyagraha (non-violent resistance to the British rule of India).
Stalin orders the 'liquidation of the kulaks (wealthy farmers) as a class' in a violent attempt to centralise control of agriculture and collectivise farming.

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