Laughter in the Next Room

As a Captain in the Grenadier Guards, Osbert Sitwell came unscathed through the heavy fighting in Flanders, and with the final victory in 1918 he, his sister Edith, and his younger brother Sacheverell turned to the arts with a new sense of release and opportunity.



IF BY birth mine was a dangerous inheritance, and although I possessed, as I did, most difficult parents, of whom to be the son, alone, without attempting any other labor, would have constituted a profession in itself, at least I was privileged, at times plunged in great misery, at times flooded with the frustrated laughter of both high and low comedy, to watch a unique combination and interplay of forces, an unrivaled disruption of powers and dispersion of assets, and, further, to observe at close — often, uncomfortably close — range, one of the most singular characters of his epoch. At a time when people of his kind, of similar derivation, were declining in vigor and in the originality of their character, and becoming lazy in the use of their minds, my father provided a last flash of the old fire.

I must confess that his fantasies, the System chief among them, and all his individual ways of thought attained their fullest range and sweep in the years following the Armistice. During several years, he had seven sitting rooms in his own occupation as studies, and in three or four of these stood a specimen, straddling a sofa, of the desk he had designed in order to enable him to write more easily when lying down. All his papers he kept on the floor, so that each resembled a drift of dusty snow, or a beauty spot after a public holiday. The majority of documents, some of them folded and done up with red tape, others overflowing from boxes or, again, just loose and ready ns an angel’s wings to float up to heaven on any casual draft, related to a lawsuit he was conducting against the coal lessees: the rest was concerned with his customary interests, pedigrees, household economies, heraldry, decorative furniture, summaries of his financial transactions with me, or consisted of notes on practical farming, on the Use of Ceremony in Byzantine Court Life, on the Origin of the Medieval Romances, the Buildings of the Emperor Frederick II in South Italy, or the Black Death — of course — and on his own Inventions, possible and impossible.

In these he had recently been taking a renewed interest. In the summer of 1923, when he had been staying in London, he had sent for me to see him one afternoon on an urgent matter. When I entered his room, he rose from his bed, in which he had been resting, locked the door so as to be sure we should not be interrupted, and then went back to bed again. In a low voice, he confided in me: —

“You know, Osbert, I sometimes have an idea with money in it.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Well” — he gave a long dry laugh like a cackle — “I’ve just produced an egg.”

He waited a little to allow me to look astonished, which certainly I did — sufficiently, even, I think, to satisfy him.

Gratified, he continued: “It’s a breakfast egg. . . . The yolk will be made of smoked meat, the white, of compressed rice, and the shell, of synthetic lime — or a coating of lime. It will be delicious, will last forever, and be ready at any time. It wouldn’t matter where you might be, in the desert or on a polar expedition, all you’d have to do would be to boil it for two or three minutes, as you wish — and there would be your breakfast, ready for you, and very nourishing and sustaining. You’d feel wonderfully fit after it, ready to do a real day’s hard work. It may make the whole difference to explorers!”

“What a good idea; you ought to patent it at once.”

“As a matter of fact, that’s why I want to consult you. I would like to make a little money for Sachie after I am gone — but how am I to place my egg on the market? ... I thought perhaps I’d see Selfridge’s about it — they seem very go-ahead. But whom shall I ask for, and how shall I announce the reason for my visit? I daren’t trust my egg to anyone else — it might be stolen.”

“I should ask for Mr. Gordon Selfridge himself. Tell the commissionaire to take you up in the lift, and just step into Mr. Selfridge’s sanctum, saying, ’I’m Sir George Sitwell, and I’ve brought my egg with me!'”

“Capital idea! That is what I will do. Thank you so much, dear boy: I knew you would help me.”

Accordingly, he set off for the Oxford Street shop the next morning at eleven: he was dressed in a silk hat and a frock coat — an article of dress already, even then, nearly extinct — and carried a bundle of papers, with diagrams on them. . . . He was very late for luncheon when he returned, and though his eye seemed to rest on me with a certain coldness, he never explained what had happened during the interview, if it took place. My mother did not like to ask him, nor subsequently did he ever refer to the egg again. Yet it had in no whit discouraged him for I noticed on the floor of one of his studies that the sheaf entitled Inventions had grown much more bulky of recent months.

It was, as he often explained, much more convenient to keep everything on the floor. “I know exactly where to find what I want, and can put my hand on it at any moment!” he would say. So that, now, when the coal lawsuit had just been settled out of court, it was with regret that he began a retreat, and rather ruefully de-requisitioned one sitting room after another, surrendering them again to the use of the family. But though circumstances obliged him to do this, for he had grown to like many guests to come to the house in August and September, and otherwise there would have been nowhere for them to sit, nevertheless in no least respect did he modify his ideas, moderate his conceptions, or abate his flights. Indeed latterly he had coined several new slogans to express his individual sentiments, at last developed to their utmost capacity, and when, having risen from his bed to come down after dinner, he sat by himself, in full evening dress, white tie and waistcoat, in the ballroom in the middle of his Regency sofa, very long, and supported by a carved and painted lion at either end, so that he resembled a Byzantine Emperor on his throne, he would often at this hour, and always to the delight of his children, enunciate his favorite command disguised as a request: —

“I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as u interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”

Albeit I tried to persuade him to have this notice printed on cards, and to cause one of them to be placed on the chimney-piece of each room in the house, my efforts, though they came very near success, ended in failure.


DURING the late summer, in the decade following the war, we entertained nearly every year a large house party. Some members of it were invited by my father and mother, others by me, who acted as host. Among my guests was often Constant Lambert, who came on his first visit to us in August, 1923, when there were about twenty persons staying in the house. He arrived in time for dinner, at which my father, whose acquaintance he had yet to make, was not present (for very frequently in these years, my father would go to bed for dinner and come down afterwards, without warning, so as to give us all a jump, and clothed, of course, in full evening dress). Constant was only eighteen, and, since this was his first large house party, was very alert and rather nervous. In consequence, he was punctual to the minute in coming down to breakfast at nine o’clock in the dining room. He found it empty, though the table was laid, and the air was full of the savor of breakfast dishes. A plume of steam hovered in the air from a Viennese coffee machine on a sideboard. An almost electric tension brooded in the emptiness, as if anything might occur at any moment. The young musician, however, concentrated on eggs and bacon and coffee, and sat down, with his back to the chimney, and facing the sash windows.

Suddenly, the strange happening for which subconsciously he had been waiting occurred: for, looking towards the window opposite him, he was amazed to see the distinguished, bearded, medieval face of an elderly gentleman, crowned with a large gray felt hat, pass just outside, in a horizontal position — as if he had fallen prone and were about to raise himself — and holding a Malacca walking stick in his mouth. The vision of this venerable figure proceeding on all fours was startling in its unexpectedness, and strongly recalled to the mind of him who beheld it Blake’s picture of Nebuchadnezzar, though it is true that the Babylonish king was notably less spruce in appearance, and that his counterpart was plainly English, and lacked those memorable nails shaped like the claws of birds. Constant hurried to the window, looked out — and realized what was happening. It was — it must be — my father, at work, and carrying his cane in this unusual manner in order to observe the views and measure from the new level — for he intended to drop the lawn three or four feet and so, in his present position, was at the height of a man standing at the altitude he planned. . . . But even though Constant knew in his heart who it must be, he was too bewildered to mention what he had seen to the other guests, who now came into the dining room, filling it with their chatter.

A distinguished archaeologist was also staying in the house at this time, being engaged in excavating for my father the problematic site of the Norman Manor of Eckington, held by the Estutevilles. The place having been arbitrarily selected, not one stone remained aboveground, or was found under it, to suggest that such a building had ever existed. Even Professor Voxall, I apprehend, was surprised when one morning he dug up a bottle of truffles and a tarantula spider set out on a board; objects which my brother and I, tired of this futile exercise of my father’s and of its expense, had, the day before, buried there for the expert to discover. While at Renishaw, this learned man was afflicted with a return of malaria, from which he suffered, having contracted it in the East during the war.

When I went to tell my father that his guest was indisposed and would be obliged to stay upstairs for dinner, I found him in bed resting. I ended with the words, “I only hope he’s not dangerously ill. It’s malaria!” The reaction was immediate. Plainly my father was taking no risks. Almost before I had finished speaking, he had whisked out of bed and rung the bell, and when it was answered, he said curtly, “Robins, bring me my mosquito net!" Thereafter, for a month, he slept under it.


MY MOTHER spent much time in her bedroom: for she had now a Swiss maid, and had to her delight learned that Frieda could yodel. One of the endearing traits in my mother’s character was that she could never have enough of a good thing, and so she was continually sending for Edith, Sacheverell, and me to help her to persuade her maid to perform. The entertainment delighted her, and she would sit in her chair, her face creased, her whole body shaking with laughter. The Swiss girl did not notice, for she was very shy, and would only consent to perform for us if hidden by a screen: but once installed behind her Japanese panels of black embroidered with bumpy storks in gold thread, she would tirralirra her heart out.

My sister was usually successful in inducing Frieda to yodel to us, for she was her pupil, taking yodeling lessons every day. So we would all gather there, in my mother’s room with its gay but faded paper of bunches of flowers, and its niche and eighteenth-century cornice; my mother in the armchair, near the wide open window, where the sun-drenched scent of the sweet green leaves she loved came in at her. My sister would he sitting on the bed. Now a person of the utmost distinction and beauty, with her long slender limbs, and long-fingered hands, and the musing but singularly sweet expression which always distinguished her, she belonged to an earlier, less hackneyed age, in which the standards of Woolworth mass production did not exist (in fact, as an American is said to have remarked in front of her portrait in the Tate Gallery, “Lord, she’s gothic, gothic enough to hang bells in!”).

My mother, who had so cruelly ill-used her, had come to love her society, her wit and perception, and it was symptomatic of Edith’s fineness of character that she responded and, now that my mother was growing old and her spirits flagging, set herself, at a great waste of her own energy and time, to amuse her — and there was little else one could do for her. Edith, then, would be sitting on the bed; and on a very straight Chippendale chair, but thrown backward and supported in front by his own two long legs, Sacheverell would balance his tall frame. His appearance at that age — twenty-five or -six — his very handsome head, with hair curling at the sides, and with its cut and contours so Italian in essence, but so northern in color, translated perfectly the strange power and intensity that have always been his, the generous warmth of his temperament, so genial and impulsive, the passion of many kinds that burns in him — passion for people, for books, for learning, for works of art, for old lamps that can be lit again at his fire — the wit, so distinguished and apt, which he so despises in himself and does nothing to cultivate, instead preferring the jokes of others which he so immensely enjoys: the flash, deep as bright, of his anger, large as the scale of his mind and frame, but never enduring, breaking down eventually into a smile, though by no means an easy smile.

Meanwhile, I, with my rather heavy mask and build, would be seated in an armchair opposite. Frieda’s shelter was in front of the door, and sometimes, just as her voice had reached to the top of a high mountain, and was preparing to receive answer from another, my father, attracted by the sound, and always liking to know what was going on, would bolt in and find himself enclosed with her behind the Japanese screen. He was tall enough for his bearded face, which recalled more vividly every day the Italian paintings of the Renaissance — he was at no great distance from the portrait of Cesare Borgia or of the Grand Turk by Bellini and the heads of effigies of the same or an earlier epoch on tombs — to show, just above the top of the screen, with an expression of extreme and dignified distaste. He would say nothing — indeed he could not make himself heard, for the maid had not noticed his entry and continued her song, until, a few minutes later, she suddenly saw him and stopped. Standing on tiptoe, and blushing, she would then peep over the barrier, and say, “Please m’lady, I cannot go on with my music.”

My mother, still laughing, would say, with an effort at control, “I wish you wouldn’t always interrupt, George. You’re just like an auguste — must always be in everything!” He would go out, with that particular lowering of one shoulder that meant that he would not forget and would think out countermeasures for use later on.


IT WAS during one of these summers at Renishaw, so like in tone, that Constant Lambert enjoyed another curious adventure. Very tired after conducting, he had come to spend a few days with us. My father was in the middle of a course of Nauheim baths to relieve his heart, which he alleged to be overstrained, and — for the cure has to be done by degrees — had reached the stage where the treatment becomes the most rigorous, and the whole day has to be given up to it and to resting. There was a nurse in attendance, and she had just prepared his bath, melting the salts in it, and had left the room, to let it cool for a while, when Constant entered, knowing nothing of all this — for he had only arrived the previous evening — and, seeing a bath ready and steaming for him, as he thought, leaped into it.

The nurse now returned, and finding the door locked, realized what had happened. She knew my father would be furious if he found out she had allowed someone to have his bath. There was not time to prepare another (for to get the water to the right temperature, with the salts properly dissolved in it, was by no means a short process). Under these circumstances she showed presence of mind. Regarding my father with an expression that plainly said “Something is wrong with you,” she seized his wrist, felt his pulse, and with a note in her voice both of surprise and of gravity, observed that it was far too rapid, and counseled that it would be most unwise for him today to have such drastic treatment as the bath provided. As for Constant, he thoroughly enjoyed the bath, and stayed in a good while. But he developed a curious blue tinge in his complexion for all the remainder of the day, and for at least a week complained of singular palpitations and of a feeling of utter exhaustion.

Though such incidents continued at Renishaw, yet as I look back, 1924 appears to have been unequaled for excitements of this sort. Perhaps it was because the object for which I had striven so long was near to attainment. I had persuaded my father to emigrate — to Italy. He was always far happier there, and I had long realized that he was one of the fortunate few whose energies and wish to control those round them increase and strengthen with age

— he was now sixty-four. I had my own work, and so had my sister and my brother, theirs. There was no hope of any of his three children being allowed to have a career, unless he could be persuaded to go. The general atmosphere which was always menacing, the interruptions, the scenes, the surprises, and the ambushes laid, the fussing, the necessity my father felt both for consulting and for contradicting me, the economies, the extravagances, all put it beyond possibility to write a line when our parents were in the house. Though I realized that they, of course, would continue to visit me from time to time for long periods in England, and I should have to stay with them in Italy, yet their residence abroad would induce a new feeling of rest and freedom in the air.

As an inducement to him, there was Montegufoni, with its enormous house and garden, just waiting to be “improved”! He liked the idea; “I shall be known as the Italian Sir George,” he remarked — though I never could make out by whom. Meanwhile there was much to be done. He shut up Wood End and moved all the furniture, which he had brought from Italy, from there to Renishaw— special furniture vans were simply hurtling about on the railway — sorted it, added to it pieces he had imported similarly to Renishaw, and then moved the whole lot back to Italy. The same patient frieze of workmen whom we saw in The Scarlet Tree — and still without their special felt shoes — plodded by impassively with articles of furniture, backwards and forwards, or placed and extended their ladder, to the same music of my father’s perpetual “No, no, no: all wrong!”

Sometimes a guest lying in bed would be startled by my father, at the head of his troupe, bursting in and proceeding to remove all the furniture. Neither he nor the workmen would heed protests, and the poor victim, as my father went on, remorselessly, inexorably, to dismantle the room, would begin to believe himself invisible and inaudible, indeed almost to doubt his own existence. At last, he might be able to get through some remote hint, as though it were a message in a bottle, to my mother, who would at once stop Frieda’s yodeling, send for my father, and say: —

“George, you can’t do that!”

“Somebody has to do the work, Ida. I don’t know how it would get done without me! It is a great strain on my health.”

My mother repeated to herself softly the refrain of a famous clown’s song: “A terrible lot to do today, to do today, to do today. A terrible lot to do today, to do to do today.”

“You ought to take things more easily,” she would urge.

“But how can I? Everybody on the place sometimes has a holiday. But I can never afford to take one!”

“Nonsense, George.”

“And none of the work is for myself,” he pointed out. “It’s all for others.”

“Yes, but you know,” I interposed, “that in most cases the people you are doing it for have asked you not to do it.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help that! It’s the right thing to do — and now most of it will have to wait until I’m able to visit RenishaW — if I’m spared!" . . . And a look of dejection spread over his face, as he thought of how he was setting out, to make his way in the world all over again.

My mother took the change philosophically, except for her fear that she would not get the English newspapers punctually. “The Government muddle everything,” she would remark.

Certainly it was a new life for my father and mother. . . . The first night was to be spent at Boulogne because a long journey, he averred, tired his back, and probably too, because, an ancient town, it had lain on the old Pilgrims’ Route — a fact which always now greatly influenced the direction of his traveling.


OUR adventures, which ranged in tone from tragedy to farce and back again, started on the cross-Channel steamer, where my mother sat on deck, near a couple of parents who were on their way to visit the grave of their son who had been killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1918. On the boat, the poor father had a heart attack; his first one. My mother, with a kindly impulse to help, said, “I’ve the very thing. The doctor has given me some stuff for the heart. Call Frieda, and tell her to get it out of my bag!” Unfortunately, the action of my mother’s heart was fast, that of the traveler slow: the medicine at once further retarded it, and he grew rapidly worse. At Boulogne, an ambulance had to be called to meet him at the quay. My father sat near-by, watching, and remarking from time to time, “One day your mother will be the death of someone!” or, “Poor man, you’d have thought having to go to see his son’s grave was enough!” . . . I never heard whether he recovered.

Meanwhile it was found that my father had told his servant to register all the luggage through to Paris, where we were not going: there was no way of obtaining it until the next day, and we were doomed to pass a miserable night without our belongings, at Boulogne, in a large seaside hotel with interior walls of a paperlike thinness. By the time we arrived at the hotel my father, unprepared for the brand of gothic discomfort with which he was thus faced — the System had been put out of action by the loss of equipment — was in a far from good humor. My brother and I went upstairs to see our bedrooms, and as we came down the double staircase, mean in its Louis-XV-hotel pretensions, we could hear my father indulging in the curious buzzing-like humming we knew so well, for he always made this noise when irritable or angry. He was walking up and down the hall with a rapid, impatient gait, just outside the dining room.

“It sounds exactly like a bluebottle,” I remarked to my brother.

At that moment, my father approached, and looking in the direction of the dining room said at once, and in character, “I was just wondering which table to settle on!”

That we laughed — and it was difficult not to do so — made the atmosphere still more uneasy.

Baveno, on Lake Maggiore, was always my father’s first Italian stopping place, and we set out for it the next day, going straight through on the train de luxe, while Robins and Frieda came on by a cheaper train. Directly Robins arrived he went up to my father’s room. It was about two in the afternoon, and he found the old gentleman resting, He was in bed, as usual with the head of it turned against the light, so that he lay facing the door, and he was wearing a coat over his pyjamas. As Robins came in, his master looked at him severely, and remarked: “You’ve again forgotten my keys, Robins! I’ve told you repeatedly not to let me travel without them.”

Robins crossed behind him, and taking up the keys, which were lying on the dressing table, beside a heavy gold watch and chain, as they had been taken out of his pocket by my father when he had undressed, said, “I knew I hadn’t forgotten them. Here they are, Sir George, with your watch!”

Without looking round, my father said, “No, they’re not! And by forgetting them, you’ve put me to a great deal of trouble and expense. I’ve had to break all the luggage open.”

As he finished speaking, pandemonium broke loose in the passage outside. There were sounds of sobbing and shouting, even screams. Robins rushed from the room, and found two ladies, the manager, valets and porters and maids in furious altercation. He remarked, too, what he had not observed when he came in, all my mother’s and father’s luggage lying there, and at once noticed that there seemed more of it than usual. . . . At this moment, the quarrelers united and attacked him in a body. What did he mean by it ? Had other people’s property no value for him? They would call in the carabinieri: he would soon be in the lockup. It was a scandal! Other phrases of the same kind poured out.

The explanation of all this disturbance was that my father had not only broken open his own luggage and that of my mother, but also two large trunks which had been lying near it, outside neighboring doors. These had been placed there, packed and locked, ready to be taken to Baveno station, in order to be registered to Paris, by the train de luxe, in which the owners of the luggage were traveling. The train was due to start in an hour’s time. Indeed, the two ladies had just been starting in the omnibus, when they looked for their luggage and discovered what had occurred. The locks were destroyed beyond repair, the contents lay in disorder, turned upside down, as if a Customs House Officer had been running wild through them.

Robins escaped back into my father’s room, and told him what had happened. My father calmly locked the door, and said, “I’m afraid I really can’t help other people’s troubles.”

Eventually the manager found two other trunks (my father refused to contribute a centime to the cost), and the two poor ladies hurriedly repacked and, still in a woebegone condition, just caught the ordinary passenger train, on which, no doubt, they were compelled to sit up all night.


THE shack in which a fresh start in life was to be made looked more imposing, immense, dilapidated, yet splendid, than ever, as we approached it that September day. We wore driving in my father’s motorcar, the first he had owned, and the body of which had been specially built for him. Even my father’s place, however, was far from comfortable, because, its antique lorry engine, if it allowed progress of any kind — since often it would go on strike altogether — would indulge in a startling series of thumps, bumps, and explosions for which, throughout the long life of this commodious instrument of torture, no adequate explanation was ever provided: and this again, since he judged even motors in terms of his own, furnished him with a very poor opinion of this whole form of locomotion. Nevertheless, today the machine conducted us decorously enough, to what was to be for their remaining years my mother’s and father’s home.

Montegufoni was now a very different place from what it had been when my father bought it. The courts had been cleared of their accretions of buildings, so that vistas of other rooms, and of courtyards, could be obtained from every room in the house. The vegetables, lettuces and Indian corn and tomatoes, had been removed from the terraces, and Tuscan roses bloomed month by month in their place. The oleander, in size a tree, which had been moved, flowered now in the middle of a small box parterre my father had made, in the Cardinal’s Garden: but in spite of alterations, the main changes were still to come. This vast labyrinth of a building, in which for the past thirteen years, since he had bought it, there had been perpetual discoveries and openings-up, and renovating and repainting, was, in the next fifteen years, never to know an hour’s rest from structural repairs and decoration: it was being continually carried back, pinned down to a past that — like the present — only existed in my father’s mind.

During this period, both my mother and my father were to find a happiness and comparative contentment they had never yet known, for my mother liked the climate, and the life in Florence, and my father enjoyed the absence of life in the house. Another rhythm and tempo had been substituted for the Renishaw comedy, those of the Commedia dell’Arte. The old play of my father’s aloofness, and lack of interest in people, the largeness and smallness of his mind, with its contradictory layers of intense nonconformity, and yet of respect for the conventions, against my mother’s unthinking, easy, unfailing sociability, and complete want of intellect or aesthetic understanding, was acted once again in this new setting, still more grandiose, romantic, and yet in a sense, derelict (for it was without life and belonged only to the theater), so that the action had now the fullest sweep and scope.

My mother, for example, would ask twenty people to luncheon, and forget to tell either my father or the butler or chef; indeed, it would pass from her mind altogether: suddenly just as my father was having a quiet early luncheon, the guests would arrive, tired after their long mountain run — that was the sort of incident which would occur regularly, affording, as it were, a theme for variation.

As for my father, nobody, when he was out of his study, would know where to find him, though he would be in the house or on the terrace: one moment he would be inspecting the well in the cellars; the next, peasants, wandering below, would be astonished to see Il Barone at the top of the tower, with his glasses to his eye. Sometimes they would think they saw him there after dusk, high up under the sky, outlined against it in the lilylike opening, until they began to believe that he was an astrologer — practicing his craft, telling the course of the future. Actually, he was more concerned with the earth than formerly. He began, too, almost to like people in the excitement he derived from showing them the Castello, and what he had done to it.

As yet, it was hardly a comfortable dwelling, for heating and electric light had not so far been installed, and as usual in my father’s houses, the largest rooms, such as the Gallery, were badly arranged and had no chairs in which it was possible to sit with ease: he would take at least two years, sometimes ten, to think out how to dispose the furniture in one room alone. My mother slept in an ancient gilded iron bed, in a room like a cave, divided into two halves, the outer being painted with fantastic landscapes, gardens and villas, while the sky was full of swarms of cupids, some rosy, others Negroid and equipped with bats’ wings. This had not yet been furnished in character: but much had been done. In especial, my father had collected beds, the finest in Italy, great constructions supported by twisted and gilded pillars and carrying carvings of vine and rose, but, further, galleries and painted halls were all full of fine furniture and rather mediocre pictures.

He would lead the party round — the tour would take at least an hour — until he came to the chamber on the first floor painted by Gino Severini, for the idea of which my brother and I shared the responsibility. The vitality and breathing life of this administered, amid the encircling deadness, a shock to him every time he entered it. He invariably forgot its existence, opened the door — for it is a passage room — rushed in at the head of his rout, and was brought up sharp by the sight of the frescoed walls on which was depicted, more true in its purity and essence than the real landscape outside, of which it had been born, a landscape in which moved his contemporaries and companions of the Commedia, or sat, drinking wine, under the shade of the vines. He would gaze at them for a moment, rather sadly, until, summoning his point of view, he would give a patronizing laugh, and remark, with a strong note of disapproval in his voice, and always in Italian: “Non è mio gusto.

Then he would gallop out again, followed by his motley pack. . . . Many of the visitors were distinguished in the arts, but my father and mother never knew who they were. Sometimes, therefore, when I was in England, my mother would, if she remembered the name, write to me, to make inquiries concerning the identity of her guests, or to give me a description of them. And I found that my mother’s pen pictures were always more vibrant and full of point than my father’s. “A Mr. D. H. Lawrence came over the other day,”she wrote, “a funny little petit-maître of a man with flat features and a beard. He says he is a writer, and seems to know all of you. His wife is a large German. She went round the house with your father, and when he showed her anything, would look at him, lean against one of the gilded beds, and breathe heavily.”


TIME had supplied my father with a new foil for his comedy; another, that is to say, in addition to Henry, the butler. This was Signor Braccioforte, a charming, amiable, childlike elderly antique dealer, who had begun life as a painter. My father’s only friend in Italy, he played an enthusiastic Bouvard to his Pécuchet and excelled in the pricking of the bubbles which in conjunction they had blown. Together, they would search for antique copper washbasins of the fifteenth century, and hatracks and coat hangers of the seventeenth. Sometimes embarking on even more abstract antiquarian wildgoose chases, they would motor for whole days at a time in each other’s company.

On one occasion, for example — and it always remains in my mind as the best instance of the kind of episode which at this period of his life was so usual — my father decided to motor to Spezia along the old Pilgrims’ Route, in order to identify to his own satisfaction the places mentioned in a medieval romance. Braccioforte had, of course, to go too; but worse, my father insisted that Sachcverell and I, who were staying with him at the time on one of our short visits, should also accompany him. It was plain that he was set on it, would be offended if we refused, and so the only thing was to accept the position and make the best of it. As we bumped drearily along the ancient road, in our almost equally ancient motor — already, even in those early days, known in Florence as the Ark — my brother kept on saying to me, “Don’t be irritable or interfere! Leave them alone, and something funny is sure to happen!” This he said since I was inclined to be annoyed because my father had already, by his continual changing of plans, contrived to lose for me the whole of the manuscript of Before the Bombardment. (It was found a few weeks subsequently.) Now, however, that he had already found much that he had wanted to see, he began to be pleased with life, and in consequence to alter less his program for each day.

It only remained for him to trace the site of the Castle of Ogier or Ogher the Dane, a celebrated character of the Romances, a Paladin of Charlemagne, and a ward of the Fairy Morgan le Fay. It was difficult., he admitted, to obtain the clue to the precise whereabouts of this stronghold, but certainly it had existed — he was sure of it — somewhere in the precise neighborhood where we now found ourselves. Happily, while he talked, the motor gave a sudden leap like a bucking horse and broke down in the piazza of a very small hill town: which, with its three converging streets of stone houses and its shop windows hung with Bologna sausages, afforded a perfect background for oldfashioned pantomime action and humor.

Braccioforte immediately got out, and wandered off down one of the crow’s-foot alleys; first framing in his broken baby-English his invariable cue or theme song on such an excursion. “We go look old t’ing: maybe we find somet’ing: ‘oo know?" But my father’s mind at the moment was too much occupied with thoughts of the Paladin to let him join in the hunt. His eyes were carefully searching the piazza, scanning the facades. After some moments, he noticed the name over a shop, and suddenly blazed up into an excitement unusual for him. “But look over there! This must be the very place: that shop is called Ogheri! Probably its owners are actually descended from the Great Dane himself! Fetch me my notebook at once; it’s in my hatbox, and I’ll make a note of it !” At this moment, Braccioforte, who had drifted back and had heard what my father had said, remarked: —

“But that, not Ogheri, Sir George; that, Drogheria! The first two letters and the last, they ‘ave fallen themselves off: these little shop, they ‘ave no money to repair.”

After that, things went rather flat for a while.

During the journey, however, my father and Signor Braccioforte were engaged, as they had been for a long time, in buying breastplates and cuirasses, and other odds and ends of ironmongery, to invest the Castle Armory with an impression of authenticity. Sacheverell and I considered the money would have been better expended on the purchase of modern pictures, or upon objects of beauty in general. We became so bored with this, to us, emasculate worship of objects utterly dead, that had never possessed any aesthetic appeal, while at the same time they had long ago lost any usefulness they had formerly possessed, and so chagrined, too, at the large sum spent on their pursuit and capture that, soon after we returned to the Castle, we placed in the Armory, among the other pieces, an old stovepipe we had found in a corner of the cellar at Montegufoni. This grooved and tubular shape in iron so greatly resembled the armor in design and surface, that for about ten days my father accepted it; that is to say he did not notice it as alien and obtrusive, displayed as it was among all his other rusty acquisitions. But one afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Berenson came over to pay us a visit, and my father showed them round the Castle. When he entered the Armory, he took up the stovepipe in an absentminded way, and remarked: —

“Rather an interesting brasset which my artist friend Signor Braccioforte and I found a week or two ago at Castel Tedesco!”

Then, as he took hold of it and lifted it up to show to them, he examined it himself more carefully, and a new expression came into his pale eyes. In a tone of disgust he remarked, “Purely puerile! . . . Another joke of the boys!”

He had, of course, no notion of Berenson’s celebrity, distinction, or even identity. Indeed, as my father grew older, he plainly lost his bearings and ceased to know any longer who was alive and who, dead. On one occasion he invented a novelist who did not exist: now, in somewhat more macabre fashion he planned to give a party.

“I thought next May, I’d give an Artists’ Party, Osbert,” he announced to me; for artists were still a tribe, like the Levites, set apart. “May is always the best month here. And it would be nice if you two boys could come out to join me. We’d get some really interesting people together, who could be relied upon to entertain one another — far less tiring for the host! ”

“Whom would you ask?” I inquired cautiously, well knowing, of course, already that he would not ask any of our own friends among painters, and was, indeed, quite unaware of their names or profession when they arrived to stay at Renishaw: nor was he likely to ask the older masters we admired, of whom Picasso was the chief. But I was startled when, as he reeled off for me the list, I comprehended both how thoroughly he had thought it out, and that all of his proposed guests, Whistler, Degas, Renoir, Rodin, Lalique, Sargent, at least possessed one thing in common: they were all dead! Some had died recently, their corpses still surrounded by candles in the press; the bones of others had been immured for years in their tombs. It would have been a party only to be thought of after the Judgment Day, when the dead rise up and shake on their flesh again; a party of ghosts, which would have added known names to those anonymous spirits whose presence could surely at times be detected in the sensitive, dry, Italian air of chamber and corridor.


MEANWHILE, a flicker of daily life was afforded by the constant coming and going to Florence of my mother, who seemed either always just on the point of leaving for the city, or to have just returned, and to be walking slowly through the courtyard with a motorload of friends she had imported.

My father usually preferred to stay behind at Montegufoni. He occupied as his study a room in a good strategical position for comedy, for it was situated right in the middle of the Castle. Moreover its three doors faced the vistas of rooms leading north, east, and west: while, in addition, a person entering any of the courtyards had to pass near-by, and the two windows to the south — the only ones except those in his bedroom wired against mosquitoes — afforded a detailed view of the terraces below. In fact, it was impossible to go from any one part of the house or garden to another, without walking by, or through, his room. It smelled of strong Turkish cigarettes. Two high painted beams obscured a ceiling frescoed with one of the several triumphs of Cardinal Acciaiuoli. Under this was a design in grisaille, and each side of the door hung, on one wall, a picture without a frame, representing the Fair at Impruneta, on the other, a frame without a picture, showing, like a mirror, a blank space of brown wall: and never, it seemed, the twain could meet.

The room was crowded with furniture, a large octagonal center table, a sideboard in noce, two console tables in brown and gold, with marble tops, all littered with miscellaneous objects. Its air was somewhat that of a superior — or, at times, inferior — antique dealer’s private apartment, full, both of valueless possessions that he liked, and of others that, because he could not get rid of them, he had taken to himself; somewhat that, too, of a medieval alchemist’s laboratory, so that one expected to see a skull and retorts on the table. Instead, there were several early Charters, documents belonging to the Manor of Eckington, and many books on pedigrees, modern scientific thought, nineteenth-century philosophy, the Black Death (to which he still remained faithful), pamphlets on the correct methods of making coffee, volumes of photographs of Italian gardens, and innumerable fragments of which it was difficult to tell the purpose, half a cupid in carved wood, a bit of a reliquary devoured by deathwatch beetles, a broken, rusty cuirass, part of an early piano front, a silver two-pronged fork, very rickety in the prongs, a coat of arms from a smashed terra-cotta vase, with a portion of a wreath of fruit attached to it, and countless scraps of brocade, tiles and petit point, as well as the lids of Venetian boxes and enameled watchcases and a few pieces of rough glass bowls and cylinders. There was a sofa for him to lie down on; but all the chairs were covered with books and boxes of papers. Between the windows stood a cupboard, full of neatly docketed cardboard boxes in a mulberry color, containing his manuscript notes, all, as usual, assembled under the wrong labels.

From this room, my father led the comedy, and directed the alterations, usually in company with Braccioforte, and a character whose name nobody ever found out. He was known as Il Professore, and it was his duty to superintend the scratching and restoring and faking that were everywhere in progress. It was difficult sometimes to tell what were the improvements on which the workmen were engaged. Once, for example, I remember my father taking me into a room where six plasterers had been employed for a fortnight, from early morning till dusk, scratching the walls like a mischief of monkeys.

“Do you notice any change here?” he asked.

And when I replied, “No, none,” he said with an air of intense gratification, “Good, that’s just what I’ve been aiming at!”


ROBINS had married early in 1924, and had left my father’s service, entering mine once more, at Renishaw. In his place, Henry Moat had gone back to look after my father. Henry took to life at the Gastello with joy. Now he presided with a still more immense dignity over my mother’s luncheon parties, and the sound of his tread as he came to announce a guest was equivalent in stateliness to a procession. Henry liked the red wine, the peasant girls, the sunshine, the sleepiness. Apart from occasional attacks of the gout from which he now suffered, this period formed a long Indian summer for him as it did for my parents. While my mother was in Florence, and my father resting, Henry would retire to read in his small room upstairs, which rather resembled a cabin. Its chief feature was a string which hung across from above the door to above the one small window. From this aerial line were suspended by wooden clips various immense pairs of trousers.

Henry’s favorite book at this time was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which he had borrowed from me. When next he visited England with my father, spending some months there, he lent the novel to the various retired sea captains who were his friends and neighbors in the fishermen’s quarter of Whitby, and who also so greatly enjoyed it that the volume was only returned to me after some two years, its pages dog-eared and covered with their powerful thumb marks. “By Gum,” Henry would remark, “it’s a grand book! You can fair smell them Whales!” After reading it, he associated the Great White Whale with my father, and would often refer to him under that name. Thus once at Montegufoni, as he was going to my father’s room, he met Constant Lambert in the passage, and confided in him, “Moby Dick’s up to his usual tricks today! . . . I don’t think I can stand this job for another moment more than seven and a half years!”

The trials were, indeed, numerous. Henry would have to call my father at 5 A.M. and bring breakfast not long afterwards. My father would then read the Times of two days before, and other journals and letters till seven: when he would get up. At eight he would go round the Castle in detail, telling all the workmen to stop what they were doing, and do something else instead. Then he would consider the garden, interfere with the gardeners, and go back to write in his room, probably various severe letters. If he intended a letter to be really disagreeable, he would pen it many times, at each correction infusing into it a fresh but icy venom. After this fashion he would both perfect it, and also be able to keep a copy.

Luncheon would follow, usually by himself, at 11.30; then a siesta till three, when he would get up again, and go the rounds of the Castle once more, this time informing the men that they were gravely at fault, had misunderstood what he had said earlier, must undo everything they had done since, and go back to what he had stopped them doing in the morning. The Italian plasterers and painters, in their round caps made of newspaper, their light overalls, and their faces covered with fine dust from the walls, seemed thoroughly to enjoy all this. But Braccioforte and II Professore became sunk in melancholy. “Your fader, Sir George, ’e no understand,” Signor Braccioforte would say. And my mother would sometimes confide to me, “It’s not very amusing for me here alone. The three of them never speak after dinner. Your father sits in one corner, looks up and says ‘Ba!’ Braccioforte says ‘Ma!’ and the Professore, ‘Pa!’”

Henry, for his part, complained that during his own long absence, my father’s manners had deteriorated. He had, his servant averred, abandoned his former dignified choice of language. Previously he had never even been known to use a single colloquialism, but now, whether due to my influence — to that knowledge of modern slang which he sometimes alleged I possessed — I do not know, Henry asserted that, one morning when he approached his master, and politely asked for the settlement of an account, long overdue, my father sidled towards him, and slowly bringing his face very close to that of his servant, pronounced clearly, in quiet but menacing tones, the words: —

“Shut your ugly mug, can’t you?”

“Believe me, Mr. Osbert, you could ‘ave knocked me down with a feather, when I’eard ‘im demean ‘imself like that,” Henry added.


IN the summer of 1937, my mother died in London after a short illness at the age of sixty-eight. To her last days, she remained in part child, with a child’s impetuosity and humor, and in part, older than her years, though she did not look more than fifty-five, and was as straight as though she had been a young woman, retaining her particular carriage of the head, so distinctive to her. She always told me that she entertained a great horror of old age. Indeed, as I drove round in a taxicab at six o’clock on a July morning to break to my father in his hotel — she had removed to a nursing home — the news of her death, there came back to me, unbidden, but perhaps with a certain cruel relevance typical of the way the human mind works on very mournful occasions such as this, a fragment of conversation from many years before. It had taken place in the dining room at Renishaw, at luncheon, on a fine August day. Only my mother, my father, and I had been present. My mother, who had been silent, suddenly observed, “How much I should hate to live to be old!”

This remark, harmless as it seemed, pierced my father’s armor, and he replied, but addressing his Words to me, and in that unnaturally placid voice which in his case sometimes heralded a storm, “I think all intelligent people would like to live to be old, wouldn’t they, Osbert?”

My mother then interposed, “But I should hate to feel I was being a trouble to anyone.”

And I, answering her, said, “But really intelligent people don’t mind that, Mother.”

My father had glowered at me, and had fallen back on one of his favorite rebukes, “ Rude without being funny!”

That had been fifteen years ago, and now I was on my way to tell him she was dead.

In the autumn, my father returned to Italy, He seemed happiest at Montegufoni—which he seldom left — happier I think than he had ever been, though he still, I know, greatly enjoyed his rare visits to me at Renishaw. Ernest de Taeye had, alas, died in 1934, and a new but able chief reigned in his stead over the flowers. I recall one morning that my father, during his last stay, entered the hall in an obvious state of exhaustion.

“What have you been doing?” I inquired.

“Just been showing the gardener round the garden,” he replied, bestowing on this task of supererogation an air of indefinable patronage.

To a certain extent his advancing years had compelled him to cease from continual active interference in the plans of his children, for he grew tired more easily. He now relied more on a sole weapon: will-rattling, as Samuel Butler has described it. He continually altered or threatened to alter this document, and made a different one with several firms of solicitors. He liked from time to time, too, to stage a deathbed scene, when he would summon out for the occasion from England the ancestors of his descendants — that is to say his children. When thus sent for, I would always ask if I might see his doctor, and I remember the despairing voice of the celebrated Florentine doctor he consulted, as he said to me: —

“Such an illness as Sir George lays claim to is a matter of X-ray plates, and not of faith. Sir George has not got it. I am twenty years younger, and he may outlive: me 1 by many years. He is an old man, but if he does not get pneumonia, he may live for twenty years.”

When I returned from Florence to Montegufoni, I found my father in bed, awaiting the end, and looking extremely melancholy.

“How long does he give me?” he gasped out.

“Another ten to twenty years,” I replied.

This cheered him up. And usually his fears — or at any rate the same fears — did not last long. He had too much to do, and he could not combine a perpetual deathbed Scene with giving orders to the workmen and countermanding them.

In the winter of 1937 I went out to Montegufoni to warn my father that in my opinion Italy would before long be involved in war with Great Britain. For my trouble, however, I was dismissed with an outsize flea in my ear. “There won’t be a war!" he maintained with an air of omniscient finality. I countered this, for I was worried about what might happen to him, by saying: —

“All right, there won’t be one, then — but if one was to occur what would you do?”

In the manner of Robin Hood, he replied, “I should take refuge in the mountains!”

The same kind of life he had always led was continuing at the Castle. He was still at work, entering notes, writing long books, tracing pedigrees. I do not think he was lonely, his time was more than fully occupied, and as Henry once remarked, “Sir George always liked to know where people were, and now he knows they’re all in the cemetery.” None of them now could contradict him, or interfere with his plans. He was undisputed lord of his own territory in space, time, and imagination. He thought what he wished to think: and as a small instance of this I remember his remarking to me suddenly, “Edith made a great mistake by not going in for lawn tennis.” He had grown more than formerly to like seeing people — yet he still seldom knew who they were. Sometimes he gave large luncheon parties (I always wondered on what principle he gathered the guests, and how it was arranged), and when I was staying with him, he would preside at a table in the vaulted dining room, while I would be in charge of a smaller table in the hall beyond. And I recollect being struck by the pathos and symbolism of a remark he made to me one afternoon, after the guests had gone. “I don’t know how it is, but always it seems to me that I hear more laughter in the next room.”

In August, 1939, my father went on a visit to England, but hurried back towards the end of the month to the Continent. As soon as he arrived in Italy, he set to, and began to renovate the stucco statues of gods and goddesses and peasants in the seventeenth-century grotto, the finest in Tuscany. The domed and painted ceiling had become so fouled by weather and so obscured by dirt that mythological personages and symbolic emblems portrayed upon it were unrecognizable: now, however, with washing and a little judicious aid from an expert in this line of work, they had become clearly identifiable. In his enthusiasm at these results my father wrote me a letter of, in a sense so abrupt, and certainly to prying eyes, so mysterious a kind that it was not delivered for a full two months: during which period, no doubt, the officials of the English Censorship, their gaze then directed towards the Mediterranean nations, were busily trying to interpret the cryptic message they were sure it must contain.

The figure of Athens, under the Crown, is now clearly visible rising from sea, at the moment when Aurora’s chariot is topping the horizon. She gazes in the direction of Rome, behind whom are to be distinguished the figures of Mars, the God of War, and Neptune, who governs shipping. Egypt, in the guise of a priest, looks on in dismay, wondering what her fate may be. And, in the right corner is an owl, the attribute of both Athenae and Minerva.
Ever, dear boy,
Yr affectionate father,

After this, for many months, the letters which arrived for me from my father were stained with acid, and had plainly been subjected to a thousand tests of one sort and another. It looked to me as if the Italian authorities were also on the track, for out of one letter fell a scrap of paper, with niente scrawled on it in pencil.


IT is difficult to know the end of the world when you reach it, as difficult as to sound the depths of Hell’s all-consuming fires, illimitable and unconfined. There are no signposts to tell you where you are. The sky is still there, the light shines down, from heights canopied or azure. In the shapes of the clouds, in their groupings and shiftings, you can still read visions of fortune as easily as of disaster. You think in the same way. Moreover there is the cruel physical, or animal, persistence. You sleep and eat — eat with the same movements of jaws and hands. Nothing comparable to the collapse of the West, which we are witnessing, has happened since the fall of Constantinople to the Turks: and even then, the shock was not so great, because the inhabitants of the great maritime city, though for so long masters of the world, had not called in Science to give them an assurance of infallibility; they too, however, those of them who survived to see the next day, were by habit and necessity compelled to eat and sleep, and in time to work.

Since I began to write this autobiography, in 1940, the world has again changed out of recognition. Some dangers have disappeared, and others, if possible more stupendous, have tumbled into their places. To disregard for a moment — before returning to it — the future, in the last few years, tens of millions of human beings have perished in circumstances of execrable torture, by the ragings of war, the wastings of peace, the malice of man. For this, the actions of no person or group of persons are solely to be impugned. No one can read the chart of the future, even if it exists. However, it is permissible to blame the selfishness of those who lived in upholstered towers constructed to last only until their death. To these, my father, of whose tower I have so often written, had never belonged: the materials he had used were of fine quality, and its design was individual, fantastic but complete. Moreover the future — as he saw it—was ever in his mind, and the edifice was dedicated to it, to house countless impersonal generations, armies of descendants.

No: I refer to those who mouthed in first-class railway carriages the comfortable Edwardian slogan “it will last my time!” or the equivalent, in trams and buses, “Why worry? For myself, I had never expected the world I knew to endure, and this, perhaps, gave a sharper edge to my vision, to my living. From my earliest youth, I had, I believe, an unusual sense of time, of the recession of the present into the past, and its emergence into the future.

We cannot peer across at the future, though its people can gaze at us with a cool and detached curiosity from across the chasm. But it is well that we are thus curbed, since it is unlikely that we should either see much that would please us or hear much good of ourselves. (Indeed the living, even the most trivial and unworthy, always extend a patronage to the dead, however famous.) Even if we could foresee the events of a few years, we should not, I believe, add to our contentment. It was happy for my father that he did not understand the state of affairs in June, 1940, for it was already a time of calamity.

My father often in years past had pointed out the error in my literary outlook. I was pessimistic, he said. A book should always have a happy ending. Tragic things, he was glad to say, seldom happened in real life. Yet, had he now been gifted with the power of prognostication, what a vista of miseries, individual no less than terrestrial, would have been disclosed to him! A man of eighty must know that Death is not far away in the wings, is already hovering for his cue: but my father would have seen, as well as his own end in Switzerland, some three years ahead, in utter isolation, in a house in which he could see no one, and send and receive no letters, the ruin of all he had planned for, through the vicious Cupidity and deceit of those who pretended to serve him; a result that had come to pass because of his own continually increasing blindness to character.

An omniscient being, again, posed high in a refuge on the mountains and looking out from it, would, if well disposed towards humanity, have perceived little that could gratify him. The second installment of the atrocious cataclysms of the twentieth century, which no statesman, and only one writer of genius, Flaubert, had foreseen, were on the point of being realized, would soon reach a new culmination. Gifted with an eagle’s vision, he would, on the same day of June, have perceived the prostrate body of Europe crawling with gray Gorman armies like lice. Just over the border of the morrow, he would have seen France, for centuries the light of Europe, vanish for the space of four years, to emerge in a new guise, and beyond that, Italy, Mother of the West, crawl out from the wreckage with a broken spine.

When I wrote the introduction to the first volume of my autobiography, the bombing had already begun, but who could have guessed the ultimate harvest of fire? The Germans attacked London, and reaped their reward in cliffs of desolation, in angular mountains of rubble, taller and more obsolete than the Aztec pyramids, which had been their great cities, and which now choke and encumber the survivors. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and paid for it with a gigantic totem pole of smoke, surely fated, in the same fashion as the story of the Flood, to become a legend for savage men in the future. That monstrous shape rose over Hiroshima, a city which for an infinitesimal fraction of time glowed with such a light as man on earth had never seen; a light which, though in itself it was Western Man’s final tribute to Darkness, seemed more potent than the radiance which had once attracted the Three Kings to the Manger, and, indeed, its shadow still lies over the future of the world. But what the price may be that will one day be extracted from the whole of humanity for that devil’s picnic in the flower-sprinkled isles, we can still as yet only comprehend at times in the dumb and sable corners of consciousness, where a knowledge of the future and a terrible awareness of justice abide.

I stare out the window, trying to conjure up the metropolises of the future, when men have once more crept out of the ground into which they will have been forced. Once out of their burrows, again, they will build with renewed vigor and aspiration. As the reader knows, who has had patience to accompany me so far, I have indulged in sciomancy and the magic of clouds all my life, and I see vast cities, palaces and domes, spires and arches, rise up, re-form, as the clouds tumble like children on the hills. Towards the apex of the sky are whole clusters now of gigantic towers, crowned with the sun, and through the vast thoroughfare of the firmament run rivers and torrents and cascades of light. On walls vast as hills, and undulating like the Great Wall of China (which once I saw), are set great images, gods or demi-gods, drenched in light, the reflection of times in which the states and cities were born.

Among the golden rush and swerving of the clouds, maned like horses, from the vaulted halls where sit in conclave the ancient philosophers, with their grave eyes, wide-open as those of statues, and with the white beards flowing in the spectral, polar winds, while they listen to music or ask questions of the past, I hear voices, reaching to me faintly. What was the world like, before it fell, they ask: was there great sorrow? . . . No, there was a peculiar sadness in the air, a feeling of hundreds of days leading up to this particular day, and every now and then the breath of a change to come as when the great airs of summer move under August trees: only that, and a surge of vanity in man. It is difficult to know the end of the world when you reach it.

(The End)

  1. He did.