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Edith Sitwell

© Mark Gerson / National Portrait Gallery, London

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Edith Sitwell

by Mark Gerson
bromide fibre print, May 1962
9 7/8 in. x 7 7/8 in. (250 mm x 200 mm)
Purchased, 1993
Photographs Collection
NPG x46700

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Mark Gerson (1921-), Photographer. Artist or producer associated with 277 portraits, Sitter in 2 portraits.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Clerk, Honor, The Sitwells, 1994 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 October - 22 January 1995), p. 157 Read entry

    Edith was photographed by Mark Gerson for an article she wrote in Books and Bookmen, August 1962, to coincide with the publication of The Queens and the Hive. Gerson also photographed Leo the cat on his own and sent a print to Edith. He received a warm thank-you letter: ‘You have made him look so majestic in the full-face one that I think, no matter how fine your photographs of me may be, it is Leo who ought to figure on the cover of Books and Bookmen".’1

    Leo was one of four cats that took up residence with Edith at Greenhill. Since childhood she had been an animal lover, but cats occupied a special place in her affections. 'All poets love cats', she said. After leaving her Paris cat in the care of Evelyn Wiel in 1939 she sent money for his food and expected regular bulletins on his health.

    1 Edith Sitwell to Mark Gerson, 26 May 1962.

  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 89
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 131 Read entry

    During her lonely and unloved childhood in the ancestral home at Renishaw, the redoubtable poet often felt that her only friends were the animals and birds she adopted. There was Peaky, the Renishaw peacock with whom she ‘walked round ... with my arm around his lovely neck, that shone like tears in a dark forest’ until ‘my father brought Peaky a wife (in my eyes a most dull and insignificant bird) and he discarded my companionship ... It was my first experience of faithlessness.’ There was also a puffin with a wooden leg, and ‘a baby owl that had fallen out of its nest, and which used to sleep with its head on my shoulder, pretending to snore in order to attract mice’.

    In later life, however, it was cats who shared Dame Edith’s life. She was indefatigable in her devotion to them, writing vociferous letters to newspapers and even notes in her address book about cruelty cases. A cat she had had to leave in Paris in 1939 was regularly sent money for his food, and frequent reports on his health were required in return. By 1962 she was living in a flat in Hampstead, north London, with four cats: Shadow, a Siamese, two adopted strays, Orion and Belaker, and her favourite, the cream-coloured Leo.

    The photographer Mark Gerson, who came to photograph Dame Edith for an article in Books and Bookmen, also photographed Leo on his own. ‘You have made him look so majestic’, she wrote, thanking him for his gift, ‘that I think, no matter how fine your photographs of me may be, it is Leo who ought to figure on the cover of Books and Bookmen.’ As it is, the glimpse of wheelchair, Dame Edith’s still powerful profile and Leo’s gentle acquiescence add up to a touching image of resilience in old age and fading greatness.

Placesback to top

Events of 1962back to top

Current affairs

After a series of by-election defeats, the prime minister, Harold MacMillan organises a drastic cabinet reshuffle, dismissing one third of his cabinet. Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe's wry comment summed up the desperate action: 'greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life.'
Britain suffers the 'Big Freeze' with no frost-free nights between 22nd December 1962 and 5th March 1963.

Art and science

The Beatles have their first hit with Love Me Do and release their first album Please Please Me.
The new Coventry Cathedral is consecrated and creates a showcase for British artistic talent with the first performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, a wall hanging by Graham Sutherland, stained glass by John Piper, and sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Elizabeth Frink.

International

The world comes to the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In response to the USA's nuclear advantage, the USSR sent missiles to Cuba. The crisis lasted for 12 days before a deal was finally stuck between Khrushchev and Kennedy in which the Cuban missile bases were dismantled in return for the secret removal of US missiles from Turkey.

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