A Woman a Week

One of my favourite literary men was the late Sir Harold Acton who was born in 1904, educated at Eton and Christ Church Oxford.

He enjoyed a long friendship with Evelyn Waugh and was a fond admirer of Edith Sitwell and Gertrude Stein. A British writer, scholar and dilettante – perhaps most famous for being wrongly believed to have inspired the character of Anthony Blanche in 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.’ That being said, we must also note that in a letter to Lord Baldwin an elucidating Waugh reveals: ‘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.’

It would seem that Waugh like many other writers peopled his novels with composite characters based on individuals he personally knew, and that while neither Howard nor Acton can be totally identified on a one-to-one basis with any particular character, neither can claim their influence, in large part or small measure, to be completely ignored.

In 1932 Harold Acton took up residence in Peking, which he found congenial. He studied Chinese language, traditional drama, poetry and lectured in English at the National University. He became a devotee of Chinese classical theatre and lived there until 1939.

In 1989, I was introduced to Harold by Lord Lambton who was living then in Siena. In no time at all, I formed a close friendship with Harold and was regularly invited to dine with him at La Pietra, his magnificent renaissance palazzo with its beautiful gardens overlooking Florence.

Villa La Pietra Stefano Marinaz Florence

As a result I interviewed him for my book Singular Encounters, published in 1990.

Have you ever been a romantic? I asked.

I’ve been an admirer of Schiller, of the romantics, and so on. I think we’ve all gone through a romantic phase, particularly in youth.

Did you ever fall in love?

Oh, yes, I think we all did, but I suppose I haven’t got the depth of character to fall desperately in love, like so many of my friends. No, I never had that. I suppose I must be a cold blooded fish, really – more mental than physical. 

Certainly it occurred to me to marry. I was proposed to many times, but I lived in China then and it would have been very inconvenient. I liked to be an independent bachelor in Peking, having my choice of friends and of girlfriends. I preferred my freedom. I’m happy now. I’m an old bachelor, but I don’t suffer from solitude. I sometimes regret that I never chose such and such a person, but I have many particularly good friends here. 

I spent a long time with a Chinese woman, which was a very happy time, except when I had to leave, of course, but you couldn’t continue forever. It was a rewarding relationship. The Chinese have such an exquisite old civilisation and Chinese women have a wonderful instinct for affection. They’re warm hearted, and I like their figures: very graceful and unhairy. I don’t like a lot of hair, so they appealed to me. If I had married I would have married a Chinese. So I was living with a Chinese girl for many years, and happily because I was never disturbed; no scenes, no jealousy, nothing of that sort.  They have another tempo. With an Italian woman it would be a series of scenes and life would become impossible. I know, because I have so many Italian friends. 

When the interview appeared in print, the press was astounded to hear that Harold, long considered to be gay, had some sort of a physical relationship with at least one Chinese woman. When I pressed him further on the subject he would tap me coyly on the hand as if chastising me for being such a ‘naughty boy’. I then graciously dropped the subject which elicited a sweet smile from him.

Harold told me a lot about China, which intrigued me more than ever before, having avidly read all the work of Pearl S. Buck during my teens.

For this reason, and as a tribute to a great man, I would like to dedicate my Woman of the Week – who happens to be Chinese – to his memory.

Liu Wen’s arrival in a top ten list of the highest paid supermodels can only reflect the extent of the growth in Chinese luxury purchasing power.

Forbes’ 2013 list, published recently, featured two new names that illustrate how rapidly markets in China and the Far East are making their impact on magazines, campaigns and catwalks more ethnically diverse than at any time before.

The addition of Chinese supermodel Liu Wen has risen from an unknown teenager to become the fifth highest-earning model in the world thanks to campaigns with Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss.

It is the first time an Asian model has appeared in the annual Forbes list – but then Liu Wen is used to firsts. The twenty-five-year-old was the first Asian model hired as a face of Estee Lauder and the first hired as a Victoria’s Secret Angel.

Born 27th January 1988 in Yongzhou, Hunan, Liu is an only child. In her teens, her mother encouraged her to be professional, to eat well and to enter the modelling contest that led to Liu’s discovery.

In September 2007, Liu caught the attention of the international fashion industry when she shot an editorial in clothes designed by Karl Lagerfeld and Viktor & Rolf and would later walk for both of those brands.

She was invited to Paris in 2008 to sign with an agency and participate in Paris Fashion Week. She’s never looked back since.

As these pictures clearly show, she has a contagious freshness and the silky kind of complexion that Harold Acton described to me about Chinese women during our many pleasurable encounters. One can easily fall in love with such a sublime creature. The gods must have smiled when they sent her to earth as their charm-offensive delegate to enchant us all.

Hence, my woman of the week is certainly well-fitted to the task.