Harold Acton

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Sir Harold Acton
CBE
Cimitero Evangelico Agli Allori - grave - Harold Acton.jpg
Born (1904-07-05)5 July 1904
Villa La Pietra, Galluzzo, near Florence, Italy
Died 27 February 1994(1994-02-27) (aged 89)
Villa La Pietra, Galluzzo
Occupation poet; historical Writer
Language English, Italian, French
Nationality British
Ethnicity Anglo-Italian
Alma mater Oxford University
Notable works The Last of the Medici (1930, 1932), Modern Chinese Poetry (with S.-H. Ch'en, 1936), Peonies and Ponies (1941, 1983), Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948), The [Last] Bourbons of Naples (1956, 1961), Ferdinando Galiani (1960), Florence (with M. Huerlimann, 1960), Nancy Mitford (1975), The Peach Blossom Fan (with S.-H. Ch'en, 1976)
Notable awards knighthood (CBE), 1974
Relatives John Dalberg-Acton, Sir John Acton

Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton CBE (5 July 1904 – 27 February 1994) was a British writer, scholar, and aesthete. He was born near Florence, Italy, of a prominent Anglo-Italian family. At Eton College, he was a founding member of the Eton Arts Society, before going up to Oxford to read Modern Greats at Christ Church. There he co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom, and mixed with many intellectual and literary figures of the age, including Evelyn Waugh, who based the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited partly on him.

Between the wars, Acton lived between Paris, London, and Florence, proving most successful as a historian, his magnus opus being a 3-volume study of the Medicis and the Bourbons. He also wrote fiction, biography and autobiography. Moving to China, he studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry, some of which he successfully translated. After serving as an RAF liaison officer in the Mediterranean, he returned to Florence, restoring his childhood home La Pietra to its earlier glory. Acton was knighted in 1974, and died in Florence, leaving La Pietra to New York University.

Life[edit]

Early years[edit]

La Pietra

Acton was born into a prominent Anglo-Italian-American family at Villa La Pietra, his parents' house one mile outside the walls of Florence, Italy. He claimed that his great-great-grandfather was Commodore Sir John Acton, who was prime minister of Naples under Ferdinand IV, and grandfather of the Roman Catholic historian John Acton. However, the basis of this has been disputed;[1][page needed] Acton was in fact the great-great grandson of Sir John's younger brother Joseph Acton (1 October 1737 – 12 January 1830), via his eldest son Charles.[citation needed]

His father was the successful art collector and dealer Arthur Acton (1873–1953), the illegitimate son of Eugenio Acton.[2]{ His mother Hortense Mitchell Acton (1871–1962), was heiress to John J. Mitchell, a President of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank and an appointed a member of the Federal Advisory Council,[citation needed] and a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago (e.g., 1908–1909).[3][better source needed] Arthur met Hortense in Chicago while helping to design the Italianate features of the bank's new building in 1896, and the Mitchell fortune allowed Arthur to buy the remarkable Villa La Pietra on the hills of Florence where Harold lived for much of his life.[4][5] The only modern furniture in the villa was in the nurseries, and that was disposed of when the children got older (Harold's younger brother William was born in 1906).[citation needed]

Early education through Eton[edit]

His early schooling was at Miss Penrose's private school in Florence. In 1913 his parents sent him to Wixenford Preparatory School near Reading in southern England,[6]:17 where Kenneth Clark was a fellow-pupil. By 1916 submarine attacks on shipping had made the journey to England unsafe and so Harold and his brother were sent in September to Chateau de Lancy, an international school near Geneva.In the autumn of 1917 he went to a 'crammer' at Ashlawn in Kent to be prepared for Eton,which he entered on 1 May 1918. Among his contemporaries at Eton were Eric Blair (the writer George Orwell), Cyril Connolly, Robert Byron, Alec Douglas-Home, Ian Fleming, Brian Howard, Oliver Messel, Anthony Powell, and Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green).In his final years at school Harold became a founding member of the Eton Arts Society, and eleven of his poems appeared in The Eton Candle, edited by his friend Brian Howard.[citation needed]

Oxford years[edit]

In October 1923 Harold went up to Oxford to read Modern Greats at Christ Church. It was from the balcony of his rooms in Meadow Buildings that he declaimed passages from The Waste Land through a megaphone,(an episode recounted in Brideshead Revisited, with character Anthony Blanche).While at Oxford he co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom, and published his first book of poems, Aquarium (1923). Acton was regarded as the leading figure of his day and would often receive more attention in memoirs of the period than men who were much more successful in later life; for example, the Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams described this encounter with Acton in his autobiography George (1961):

"Bowing with the courtesy of another age and clime, he spoke, an English flawlessly italianated [sic]. 'I do most dreadfully beg your pardons this inclement night – though I have been resident a year, I find it too idiotically difficult to find my way about, I have been round Tom like a tee-toe-tum, too too madd-ening – where does our dear Dean hang out?' He thanked me profusely, raised the bowler with a dazzling smile, and propelled himself Deanward, an Oriental diplomat off to leave a jewelled carte de visite. 'Jesus,' said Evvers, 'what's that?' 'He's the Oxford aesthete,' I informed him, 'a Victorian, his rooms in Meadow are in lemon yellow and he stands on his balcony and reads his poems through a megaphone to people passing, and he belongs to the Hypocrites Club with Brian Howard and Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh and all that set, they call themselves the Post-War Generation and wear Hearts on their lapels as opposed to the pre-war Rupert Brooke lot who called themselves Souls. They're supposed to eat new-born babies cooked in wine.'"[7]:260f

Williams also described Acton's review of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the Oxford student newspaper Cherwell: "a charming boy's book, we would suggest a cheap edition to fit comfortably into the pocket of a school blazer"; and summarised Acton's modernist approach to literature: "But if one finds the words, my dears, there is beau-ty in a black-pudding."[7]:314

Influence on Waugh[edit]

Evelyn Waugh peopled his novels with composite characters based upon individuals he personally knew. Harold Acton is reputed for having inspired, at least in part, the character of "Anthony Blanche" in Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). In a letter to Lord Baldwin, Waugh wrote, "There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names – that was 2/3 Brian [Howard] and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man [than Howard]."[8]:505 However, Waugh also wrote, "The characters in my novels often wrongly identified with Harold Acton were to a great extent drawn from Brian Howard".[9]

General Strike and after[edit]

In 1926 he acted as a special constable during the General Strike, apolitical as he was, and took his degree. In October he took an apartment in Paris, at 29 Quai de Bourbon, and had his portrait painted by Pavel Tchelitcheff.[10] Moving between Paris and London in the next few years, Harold sought to find his voice as a writer. In 1927 he began work on a novel, and a third book of poems, Five Saints and an Appendix, came out early the following year. This was followed by a prose fable, Cornelian, in March. In July Harold acted as Best Man at the wedding of Evelyn Waugh to the Honourable Evelyn Gardner. Waugh's Decline and Fall bore a dedication to Harold 'in Homage and Affection', but when Harold's own novel – disastrously entitled Humdrum – appeared in October 1928, it was slated in comparison with Decline and Fall by critics such as Cyril Connolly.

In the later 1920s Harold frequented the London salon of Lady Cunard, where at various times he encountered Ezra Pound, Joseph Duveen and the Irish novelist George Moore. On visits to Florence he cemented his friendship with Norman Douglas, who wrote an introduction to Harold's translation of a lubricious 18th-century memoir of Giangastone de' Medici, The Last of the Medici, privately printed in Florence in 1930 as part of the Lungarno Series. A fourth collection of poems, This Chaos, was published in Paris by Harold's friend Nancy Cunard, though the Giangastone translation pointed in a more promising direction. History was indeed to prove far more congenial to Harold than poetry. His The Last Medici (not to be confused with the earlier book of similar title) was published by Faber in 1932, the first of a series of distinguished contributions to Italian historical studies.[11]

One close observer, Alan Pryce-Jones, felt that life in Florence weighed upon Harold with its triviality, for, like his father, he was a hard worker and a careful scholar. The East was an escape.[12] He took up residence in Peiping, as Beijing was then known, which he found congenial. He studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry. Between his arrival in 1932 and 1939 he published respected translations of Peach Blossom Fan and Modern Chinese Poetry (1936), both in collaboration with Ch'en Shih-hsiang (陳世驤), [13] and Famous Chinese Plays (1937) in collaboration with L.C. Arlington. His novel Peonies and Ponies (1941) is a sharp portrait of expatriate life. He translated Glue and Lacquer (1941), selected from the 17th century writer Feng Menglong's Tales to Rouse the World, with a preface by Arthur Waley, the leading scholar-translator and member of the Bloomsbury Group.

The Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, but Acton did not leave until 1939, when he returned to England and joined the Royal Air Force as a liaison officer in the Mediterranean. When the war was over, he returned to Florence. La Pietra had been occupied by German soldiers, but he expeditiously restored it to its proper glory.[14]

Work[edit]

Acton's non-historical works include four volumes of poetry, three novels, two novellas, two volumes of short stories, two volumes of autobiography and a memoir of his friend Nancy Mitford, who was his exact contemporary. His historical works include The Last Medici, a study of the later Medici Grand Dukes, and two large volumes on the House of Bourbon, rulers of the Kingdom of Naples in the 18th and earlier 19th century, which together may be said to constitute his magnum opus.

Awards and honours[edit]

Acton was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE, i.e., he was knighted) by the Crown in 1974.[15] The British Institute in Florence, an important center for Anglo-Florentine cultural life since 1917, renamed its collections the Harold Acton Library.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Acton was Catholic;[16]:151f [17] his cultural and historical commitment to the Church remained unchanged throughout his life. Acton's name was first on a petition submitted to Rome in 1971 by British cultural élite, requesting that the traditional Latin rite of the Mass not be abrogated in England.[16]:359 [17] His mother, the heiress Hortense Lenore Mitchell, a dominating personality in his life who lived on until the age of 90, did not make life easy for him but he still remained the devoted and admiring son.[12]

After Acton's death, in reply to a magazine article that speculated both about the probable suicide of Acton's brother and about Acton's homosexuality, author A.N. Wilson remarked, "To call him homosexual would be to misunderstand the whole essence of his being" and that "He was more asexual than anything else".[18] The article, by American writer David Plante, described Acton's time at Oxford as a "virile aesthete-dandy," but noted that while in China during the 1930s Acton's predilection for boys led to a classified government document describing him as a "scandalous debauchee," and prevented the possibility of his serving in the intelligence services there, when war broke out. Plante also described the young men whom Acton welcomed to La Pietra, including Alexander Zielcke, a German photgrapher and artist who was Acton's companion for the last twenty-five years of his life.[18]

When Acton died he left Villa La Pietra to New York University.[19] In leaving his family’s property and collection to New York University, Acton expressed his desire that the estate be used as a meeting place for students, faculty, and guests who might study, teach, write and do research, and as a center for international programs.[19] Following his death, DNA testing confirmed the existence of a half-sister born out of wedlock, whose heirs have gone to court to challenge Acton's $500 million bequest to New York University.[20]

Acton was buried beside his parents and brother in the Roman Catholic section of the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in the southern suburb of Florence, Galluzzo (Italy).

Published works[edit]

  • Aquarium, London, Duckworth, 1923
  • An Indian Ass, London, Duckworth, 1925.
  • Five Saints and an Appendix, London, Holden, 1927.
  • Cornelian, London, The Westminster Press, 1928.
  • Humdrum, London, The Westminster Press, 1928.
  • The Last of the Medici, Florence, G. Orioli, 1930.
  • The Last Medici, London, Faber & Faner, 1932.
  • Modern Chinese Poetry (with Ch'en Shih-Hsiang), Duckworth, 1936.
  • Famous Chinese Plays (with L.C. Arlington), Peiping, Henri Vetch, 1937.
  • Glue and Lacquer: Four Cautionary Tales (with Lee Yi-Hsieh), London, The Golden Cockerel Press, 1941.
  • Peonies and Ponies, London, Chatto & Windus, 1941; rpr. Oxford in Asia paperbacks. Hong Kong; New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Memoirs of an Aesthete, London, Methuen, 1948.
  • Prince Isidore, London, Methuen, 1950.
  • The Bourbons of Naples (1734–1825), London, Methuen, 1956.
  • Ferdinando Galiani, Rome, Edizioni di Storia e di Letteratura, 1960.
  • Florence (with Martin Huerlimann), London, Thames & Hudson, 1960.
  • The Last Bourbons of Naples (1825–1861), London, Methuen, 1961.
  • Old Lamps for New, London, Methuen, 1965.
  • More Memoirs of an Aesthete, London, Methuen, 1970.
  • This Chaos, Paris, Hours Press, 1930.
  • Tit for Tat, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1972.
  • Tuscan Villas, London, Thames & Hudson, 1973.
  • Nancy Mitford: a Memoir, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975.
  • The Peach Blossom Fan (with Ch'en Shih-Hsiang), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976.
  • The Pazzi Conspiracy, London, Thames & Hudson, 1979.
  • The Soul's Gymnasium, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982.
  • Three Extraordinary Ambassadors, London, Thames & Hudson, 1984.
  • Florence: a Travellers' Companion (introduction; texts ed Edward Chaney), London, Constable, 1986.

References[edit]

  1. ^ James Lord,1996, Some Remarkable Men: Further Memoirs, pp. TBD, New York, NY, USA: Macmillan-FSG, ISBN 0374266557, see [1], accessed 11 July 2015.[page needed]
  2. ^ Maurizio Cuomo, et al., 2015, "Genealogy of the Acton family, including the Lyon-Dalberg-Actons, and the Actons of Aldenham [lower center of image]," at Il portale informativo di Castellammare di Stabia: Storia, Personaggi Illustri [The information portal of Castellammare di Stabia: History, Famous People], see [2], accessed 11 July 2015.[better source needed]
  3. ^ ARTIC, 1908, "Catalog of the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, October 20 to November 29, 1908," p. iii, Chicago, IL, USA:The Art Institute of Chicago, see [3], accessed 11 July 2015.
  4. ^ Martin Green, 2008 [1977], Children of the Sun: A Narrative of "decadence" in England After 1918, pp. 1–8, 94–117, 220, 393–395, 425f, Mount Jackson, VA, USA: Axios Press, ISBN 1604190019, see [4] or [5], or Martin Green, 1977, ibid., pp. 118–125,[verification needed] London, LND, GBN: Constable, ISBN 009461430X, see [6], both accessed 11 July 2015.
  5. ^ Charlotte Eagar, 2011, "The house of secrets and lies," The Sunday Times (magazine, online), 3 July 2011, see [7], accessed 11 July 2015. Subtitle: "The art dealer Arthur Acton's love affair with an Italian beauty led to an illegitimate child, two exhumed bodies and a long-running, vicious feud."
  6. ^ Evelyn Waugh, 1983, The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, Donat Gallagher, Ed., London, LND, GBN: Methuen Limited, ISBN 0413503704, see [8], accessed 11 July 2015. "Page numbers given inline."
  7. ^ a b Williams, Emlyn (1965) [1961]. George: An Early Autobiography. London, LND, GBN: New English Library (Four Square). Retrieved 11 July 2015. Page numbers given inline. 
  8. ^ Waugh, Evelyn (1980). Mark Amory, ed. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. London, LND, GBN: Orion-Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 1857992458. Page numbers given inline. 
  9. ^ Dougill, John (1998). Oxford in English Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. p. 319. ISBN 0472107844. Retrieved 25 September 2016. 
  10. ^ Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948.
  11. ^ Andrew Gumbel, 1996, "Shadow of the Last Aesthete," The Independent (online), 14 April 1996, see [9], accessed 11 July 2015. [Subtitle: "In his Tuscan palazzo, Sir Harold Acton created what he hoped would be an enduring idyll. Two years after his death, the dream has turned sour."]
  12. ^ a b Alan Pryce-Jones, 1994, "Obituary: Sir Harold Acton," The Independent (online), 28 February 1994, see [10], accessed 11 July 2015.
  13. ^ John C. Jamieson, Cyril Birch & Yuen Ren Chao, 1974, "Shih-Hsiang Chen, Oriental Languages, Berkeley (1912–1971), Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature," at University of California, In memoriam, 1974 (online), pp. 20–22, Berkeley CA, USA: Academic Senate, Berkeley Division, p. 5, accessed 11 July 2015.
  14. ^ Sir Harold Acton Is Dead At 89; Prototypic Esthete Of The 1920's John Darnton, New York Times 1 March 1994
  15. ^ Crown Office, 1974, "State Intelligence, Honours and Awards… Harold Mario Mitchell Acton, Esquire, C.B.E.," London Gazette (online, 21 February 1974), Issue 46214, p. 2311, see [11], accessed 11 July 2015.
  16. ^ a b Joseph Pearce, 2006, "Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief," San Francisco, CA, USA: Ignatius Press, ISBN 1586171593, see [12], accessed 11 July 2015.
  17. ^ a b David Kubiak, Memories of an Aesthete Modern Age Vol 51 Nos 3-4 (Summer-Fall 2009)
  18. ^ a b Andew Gumbel, Shadow of the Last Aesthete Independent 13 April 1996
  19. ^ a b About Villa La Pietra
  20. ^ Haden-Guest, Anthony (10 November 2014). "In Tussle Over Will, Mistress's Family Takes a Bite Out of NYU". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 10 November 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

Substantial secondary sources[edit]

  • Martin Green, 2008 [1977], Children of the Sun: A Narrative of "Decadence" in England After 1918, Mount Jackson, VA, USA: Axios Press, ISBN 1604190019, see [13] or [14], accessed 11 July 2015. [A book in which Acton features very prominently. For his relationship to villa La Pietra, see pp. 1–8, 94–117, 220, 393–395, and 425f. For his early education, see pp. 11, 79, 103, and 115f. For his time at Eton, see pp. 98f, 127–182, and 256. For his time at Oxford, see pp. 2ff, 11, 20, 82, 117, 155, 163–195, 201, 227, 305, and 464. For his experiences in World War II, see pp. 333–355, and 367. For his parents Arthur and Hortense, see pp. 6, 102–114, 338, and 385f.]
  • Charlotte Eagar, 2011, "The house of secrets and lies," The Sunday Times (magazine, online), 3 July 2011, see [15], accessed 11 July 2015. Subtitle: "The art dealer Arthur Acton's love affair with an Italian beauty led to an illegitimate child, two exhumed bodies and a long-running, vicious feud."
  • Alan Pryce-Jones, 1994, "Obituary: Sir Harold Acton," The Independent (online), 28 February 1994, see [16], accessed 11 July 2015.
  • D. J. Taylor, 2007, Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age, New York, NY, USA: Macmillan-FSG, ISBN 0374116830, [17], accessed 11 July 2015. [See pp. 21–31, 68, 74–77, 83–88, 127, 140ff, 150, 163–166, 171–179, 189–205, 216–218, 231, 257, 279–288, 311–315.]

Archival resources[edit]

Miscellaneous further sources[edit]

External links[edit]