Harold Acton

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Harold Acton
Born (1904-07-05)July 5, 1904
Died February 27, 1994(1994-02-27) (aged 89)
Occupation Writer and scholar
Nationality British

Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton CBE (5 July 1904 – 27 February 1994) was a British writer, scholar and dilettante. He is known for being believed to have inspired the character of "Anthony Blanche" in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). Waugh himself wrote, "The characters in my novels often wrongly identified with Harold Acton were to a great extent drawn from Brian Howard". In a letter to Lord Baldwin, Waugh says, "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]."[1] Waugh, like many other writers, peopled his novels with composite characters based upon individuals he personally knew.


Birth and early years[edit]

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.[2]

La Pietra

Harold was in fact the great-great grandson of Sir John's younger brother Joseph Acton (1 Oct 1737 – 12 Jan 1830) via his eldest son Charles.

His father was the successful art collector and dealer Arthur Acton (1873–1953), the illegitimate son of Eugenio Acton.[3] His mother Hortense Mitchell (1871–1962), was heiress to John J. Mitchell, the President of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank and also a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago who was appointed a member of the Federal Advisory Council.[4] Arthur met Hortense in Chicago while helping to design the Italianate features of the bank's new building in 1896.[5][6] 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.[7] 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).

Early education and time at 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,[8] 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, 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.

Oxford: "New-born babies cooked in wine"[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 recalled in Brideshead Revisited which Waugh gives to the character of 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.”[9]

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."[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), and Famous Chinese Plays (1937) in collaboration with L.C. Arlington. His novel Peonies and Ponies (1941) is a sharp portrait of expatriate life. His translation, 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.[13]


Sir Harold Acton: the grave at "Agli Allori" evangelical cemetery in Florence

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.

In 1974 he was named a Knight Bachelor (Kt).[14]

Personal life[edit]

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.[15]

The American writer David Plante wrote about Acton's years in China, mentioning that in the Thirties his predilection for young boys caused him to be described in a classified government document as a "scandalous debauchee" and prevented him from serving in China in the intelligence services when war broke out.[16] The author AN 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".[16]

When he died he left Villa La Pietra to New York University.[17] In leaving his family’s property and collection to New York University, Sir Harold Acton expressed his desire that the estate be used as a meeting place for students, faculty, and guests who may there study, teach, write and do research, and as a center for international programs.[17]

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.[18]

Sir Harold Acton was Catholic.[19][20] His cultural and historical commitment to the Church remained unchanged throughout his life. Standing first on a petition submitted to Rome in 1971 by the British cultural élite requesting that the traditional Latin rite of the Mass not be abrogated in England was the name of Harold Acton.[21] 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.


  1. ^ Waugh, Evelyn; Edited by Mark Amory (1980). The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 505. ISBN 1-85799-245-8. 
  2. ^ James Lord, Some Remarkable Men
  3. ^ http://www.liberoricercatore.it/Storia/personaggiillustri/Genealogy-of-the-Acton-family.pdf
  4. ^ http://www.artic.edu/sites/default/files/libraries/pubs/1908/AIC1908PandS21stAn_comb.pdf
  5. ^ http://forgottenchicago.com/features/banks/ Image of ITSB building 1896
  6. ^ http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008678296/
  7. ^ Green, p. 118-25, Sunday Times magazine
  8. ^ Evelyn Waugh, The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (Methuen, 1983), p. 17
  9. ^ a b Williams, Emlyn (1961). George. 
  10. ^ Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948.
  11. ^ D. J. Taylor, Bright Young People, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.
  12. ^ "Obituary: Sir Harold Acton" The Independent, 28 February 1994.
  13. ^ Sir Harold Acton Is Dead At 89; Prototypic Esthete Of The 1920's John Darnton, New York Times 1 March 1994
  14. ^ London Gazette, 21 February 1974
  15. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-sir-harold-acton-1397017.html
  16. ^ a b http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/shadow-of-the-last-aesthete-1304745.html
  17. ^ a b http://www.nyu.edu/lapietra/
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ http://books.google.com/books?id=mkRD-NLNyJYC&pg=PA454&dq=Literary+Converts:+Spiritual+Inspiration+in+an+Age+of+Unbelief&hl=fi&sa=X&ei=gHFPVNrNDcPXyQPq7YCQBA&ved=0CB8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Literary%20Converts%3A%20Spiritual%20Inspiration%20in%20an%20Age%20of%20Unbelief&f=false
  20. ^ http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1741
  21. ^ http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1741&theme=home&page=2&loc=b&type=ctbf
  • Green, Martin, Children of the Sun, London 1977.
  • Lord, James Some Remarkable Men
  • Edward Chaney, "Sir Harold Acton", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
  • Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie, Oxford, China and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton, Florence-London, 1984.
  • fr:Jean-Marie Thiébaud, "Une famille bisontine d'origine anglaise : les Acton", Procès-verbaux et Mémoires de l'Académie de Besançon et de Franche-Comté, Besançon, 1987.
  • Christopher Hollis, Oxford in the Twenties (1976)
  • London Gazette, 21 February 1974.

Further reading[edit]

Archival resources[edit]

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