Philip Sassoon, The Duke of Kent and the Sitwells

Waugh crops up in a number of articles about the upper class in the interwar period. In  Spear’s magazine, editor William Cash reviews a book by Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone and Hythe. This is a biography of Philip Sassoon entitled Charmed Life, the Phenomenal World of Sir Philip Sassoon which has just appeared in paperback. Sassoon had a house at Port Lympne in the Folkestone and Hythe district and was also for a time a predecessor of Collins as its Member of Parliament. After a background of Sassoon’s family and his early history, Cash reaches the topic of his social climbing, a subject close to Evelyn Waugh’s heart:

To be honest there is quite a lot that is not to like about Sassoon’s almost compulsive-obsessive collecting of celebrities and politicians, socialites and artists. He didn’t just have an upwardly mobile party flitting nature. He gave dinners and lunches for prime ministers as a form of social and political pimping. …  But Collins manages to make Sassoon emerge as an all too human if hugely enigmatic man whose Jewish background and social, aesthetic and sexual complexities (he was discreetly gay) all make him such an unlikely figure to ‘epitomise’ (in the words of fellow MP Bob Boothby) ‘the sheer enjoyment’ of the decade 1925-1935, with life at Port Lympne, the exotic fantasy country house he had decorated by Rex Whistler, being one of ‘endless gaiety and enjoyment’.

Collins’s book, according to Cash, illustrates how Sassoon used his skills to charm his way into the top reaches of the society of the times. Cash concludes:

Yet like him or loathe him, Sassoon gave the parties and political ‘Cabinet lunches’ that tout London- from Diana Cooper to Churchill – wanted to be invited to. … That was why Evelyn Waugh described ‘charm’ as one of the deadliest of English social sins. The English ‘disease’ no less, as the exotic old Etonian Anthony Blanche says to Charles Ryder in Brideshead. In many ways the gay socialite aesthete Blanche and Sassoon have much in common, including a taste for expensive suits tailored in the New York style. … Noel Coward called Sassoon ‘a phenomenon that would never recur’. Although I dare say I would not have had the moral or social courage to have tuned down his engraved At Home invitations, I do hope Coward is right.

The Scottish Daily Mail has run an article by John McLeod about the Duke of Kent, who was a younger brother of George VI but was a bit more of a social animal than his older brother, perhaps a bit more like his eldest brother who became the Duke of Windsor. He died in a plane crash in Scotland in 1942 while serving in the Navy. According to the Mail’s story, he sounds like he was also a notable charmer, perhaps in a league with Philip Sassoon, only with a better pedigree:

…gorgeous to both men and women, and he knew it. He was highly intelligent, sophisticated. a keen collector of beautiful things–only the second royal boy to attend a proper school [Eton College] and the first to hold a proper professional job. Indeed, at the darkest hour of the Abdication crisis a reeling Government seriously considered installing him on the throne–and (disguised as the Duke of Clarence) Kent even had a walk on cameo in Evelyn Waugh’s sublime novel, Brideshead Revisited.

In Waugh’s novel, the Duke and his wife appear at the exhibition of Charles Ryder’s Latin American paintings arranged by his wife Celia. This is described in Chapter 2 of Book 3 in the 1960 edition:

Presently there was a slight hush and edging away which which follows the entry of a royal party. I saw my wife curtsey and heard her say: ‘Oh, sir, you are sweet’; then I was led into the clearing and the Duke of Clarence said,: ‘Pretty hot out there I should think.’ 

‘It was, sir.’

‘Awfully clever the way you’ve hit off the impression of heat. Makes me feel quite uncomfortable in my greacoat,’

‘Ha, ha.’ (Penguin 1962, p. 254)

Prof Paul Doyle also comments that Kent would have been one of the “young princes” in Book 2, Chapter 2 of the novel whom Julia was ineligible to marry.

Finally, Renishaw Hall, the home of the Sitwell family, has announced the offering of  curated Literary Hall Tours of the property. Waugh was one of several artists of his generation who were taken up by the Sitwells and enjoyed visits to the estate. Among those mentioned in the announcement in addition to Waugh are writers Wilfred Owen, T.S Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley D.H. Lawrence and painters Rex Whistler and John Piper. The Sitwells were also artists in their own right: Edith Sitwell established herself as a poet on an international scale, her brother Osbert was the writer of his brilliant memoir, Left hand! Right Hand!, describing his Renishaw childhood, while her youngest sibling, Sacheverell, become one of the great writers of the time on art and architecture. 

The tours begin on 28 May and continue at the rate of one per month thereafter through September. They can be booked at this link.

UPDATE (24 May 2017): A more detailed description of the subject matter of the Renishaw curated tours, including an interview with the curator, Christina Beevers, recently appeared in the Sheffield Star. See link.

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