SIR HAROLD ACTON
Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton CBE (5 July 1904 – 27 February 1994) was a British writer, scholar, and aesthete. He wrote fiction, biography and autobiography. During his stay in China, he studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry, some of which, he translated.
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 in Paris, London, and Florence, proving most successful as a historian, his magnum opus being a 3-volume study of the Medicis and the Bourbons. 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.
Here is the substance of an interview I did with him in 1990.
On the subject of beauty, you have written that those who philosophize most loudly and persistently about it seldom have intrinsic taste. Is beauty purely subjective?
I fear it is. In my case I’ve been privileged: born in Florence and surrounded by beautiful things with a father who was a painter and collector and whose friends were art historians, art critics. I think of Offner, whose centenary will be celebrated very soon, and Berenson, and Herbert Horne, who bequeathed his collection to Florence – his place is now a museum – and Stibbert, another Englishman who lived not far from where I do. All these men were collectors and I imbibed something of that atmosphere when I was young. There were many beautiful villas, all full of treasures. The British community was then predominant, though it’s been ebbing now for some time, ever since just before the last war. People gave up their houses and went back to live in England. I suppose that really they were scared away by fascism. Life was made very unpleasant for them by the young blackshirts, you know, so they started to retreat, to leave their lovely houses in the Italian countryside. One or two, like Lord Lambton, have in more recent times bought properties here in beautiful situations near Siena, Signa, Pistoia, all around here. In fact some parts of Tuscany are today quite Anglicized, you might say. Young English historians and art critics like John Flemming and Hugh Honour live near Luca and write well on Italian painting, and those are the few who remain. Formerly every other Englishman here was an art historian or collector or painter. It was like a kitchen of the arts.
You have said that your most valued experiences have been aesthetic. Could you elaborate?
A single visit to Florence can answer that question, though Florence is suffering from new horrors. There is an appalling lack of architectural taste today. It’s rather sad, this degradation of architecture in Italy which I don’t think applies in the same way in England. Incidentally, where England is concerned, I do think Prince Charles is very enlightened. Aren’t we lucky to have a prince who takes an interest in architecture. It’s unique. After all, architecture in England has always been very important, but lately people have closed their eyes to the horrors that have arisen in London. Prince Charles is absolutely right to point it out. Of course, good architects do exist, but Prince Charles is in revolt against the vulgarization of everything. He’s a man of taste. I don’t think the Duke of Edinburgh cares two hoots. As for the Queen, she has other things to think of.
Are there any objective, or at least non-subjective, criteria for beauty?
Yes, I think there are. The French, after all, have Versailles, and they have so many marvellous buildings which are perfectly proportioned in every sort of style. They have the classical tradition of remarkable taste, but unfortunately, as soon as the petite bourgeoisie takes over, then it becomes grotesque. French taste has gone down the drain. Even their painting is now very poor. Only think what they used to be in the eighteenth century. The whole question of taste is very difficult because taste is so personal, so private a thing, but I think that a person who has a certain classical education is entitled to some say in matters of taste. Classical education is the background. I’m afraid there is also natural bad taste, and bad taste is more general than good taste. When I see the garish, the obvious, the bright, the sexy, all of that appals, alas.
In your memoirs you say: ‘In spirit I remain a nomad, a restless and nostalgic ex-pat’. Is this still true?
The older I get the more true it seems. With age I feel that I am more devoted to travel in search of art, of international art, not limited to English or Italian. I’ve always been drawn, for instance, to Chinese art. I also like their drama, which I have translated with L. C. Arlington, and I have translated popular Chinese plays which are immensely artistic and beautiful in performance. Unfortunately China today is too different from the China I knew in the seven happy years I lived in Pecking. I have no particular yearning to return under the present regime, but all the same I’m haunted by the happy years I lived there just before the war. All the accounts that friends bring me of China today are rather depressing, but I love the country and I like the people. Wherever I went, whether in the North, to Honan and Hoonan, or all the way south to Hong Kong, I always got on well with the Chinese. I feel homesick sometimes for China, but I know it’s been transformed under Mao Tsetung. How could it be otherwise? When I was there, there were still the remains of the Imperial Manchu dynasty. I met several who were talented painters, Prince P’u Ju P’u Hsin-yu, for instance, a cousin of the ex-emperor, who was a very talented poet and painter and who I think eventually fled to Japan. I don’t expect he’s alive now, but I knew him well and his place was not far from where I had a house in Kung Hsien Hutung. He painted a portrait of me, which I haven’t got because I left everything behind in Pecking, expecting to go back after the war, but of course the revolution changed all those expectations. Instead I returned to Italy where I was born, and here I have remained: all my eggs in one basket.
You wrote about your early years: ‘I cannot remember thinking of myself as a child for I was as embarrassed by children then as I am now and whined when I was referred to as one of their species.‘
I’ve always been uncomfortable with children and they’re uncomfortable with me. I don’t know why, but I never felt at ease with children, and, of course, if you’re surrounded by works of art then you’re always terrified that they’re going to break them; and those children that I know will immediately go towards a little statue and crash!, within a moment the statue is down in smithereens on the floor. Children are very destructive, particularly English children, though I don’t think I was ever destructive as a child. I was always rather careful. I had a natural instinctive love of art and so was always extremely careful of everything in this house. I never played with the statues or the paintings I admired. Quite early in life I became attached to Italian art. I used to go to the galleries, which children would not normally do nowadays, and would feast in the Pitti and the Uffizi and the different churches of Florence. I don’t know that I could say I had a very happy nature. I enjoyed Florence, I enjoyed Italy, so when I was at school in England I was very homesick for Italy. I never settled happily in the English atmosphere. Not when I was a child, at any rate. Oxford was another matter. Those days in England were very exciting. There were the three Sitwells, for instance, all of them publishing, and reciting their poems to music composed by William Walton. They, too, had a place here in Florence at Motegufoni, a huge palatial structure about fifteen miles on the way to Siena. It was bought by Sir George Sitwell, the father, and there they stayed for many years. Sir Osbert Sitwell lived there after Sir George’s death, and continued to write, and I think his work, which is detailed and beautifully written, will be more appreciated in the future for the history of our time and the figures he knew in the arts. Sacheverell Sitwell, too, woke people up to appreciate the baroque and his book on Italian Baroque is still excellent. Of course, baroque has now come to be generally understood and appreciated, but the Sitwells were voices crying a little in advance of the present success.
Of all the literary people you knew during your Oxford days, you speak with special fondness of Edith Sitwell and Gertrude Stein.
Both of them in their ways were poets. Edith Sitwell is probably underestimated as a poet today, but she brought new life, new colour into the English language with Façade, set to music so beautifully by Walton. Gertrude Stein was playing pranks with the English language, but as recited by her, her portraits of human beings sounded rather imposing. Anybody who reads them, and reads them in her slow American voice, will see how they were very sharp portrayals of artists and people she knew. She was in Florence at a time when Mabel Dodge lived at the villa Curonia here, and she did a portrait that doesn’t make sense from a logical point of view but which is somehow a creative abstract portrait of Mabel Dodge. I think it is quite extraordinary how she managed it. In terms of abstract language, her portraits of people are really rather good. Nobody else has done it; she’s unique. Her first book, Three Lives, is still a rather remarkable work, not especially exciting but successful as a literary experiment.
You once said, ‘Most novels are confessions in disguise; most “confessions”, like Rousseua’s, are novels in disguise.’ Where did your poetry fit into such a scheme of things? Did you see your early poetry as confessional or were you aware that others might view it as such?
I think all poetry is confessional. It seems to me that the poet unburdens himself of his dreams, of his subconscious, and I’m sure that my poems, which I never look at nowadays, were really subconscious confessions that had to come out in one way or another. Though I’m a Roman Catholic, I don’t think they ever came out in the confessional. They had to come out in more elaborate ways and they came out in verse.
You said of writing that you wanted to pour honey from your hive, but what people wanted was gall and wormwood. Were you ever tempted to compromise?
I was never so tempted. All the poets around me, such as Auden, Spender and others whose names I forget, were left-wingers producing poems of protest. There will always be poems of protest, but poetry should take other forms, should not be limited. Poems of protest have existed since Dante, you might say, but I’m not at all politically minded, and I take the view that politics and poetry do not combine. I suppose Byron with his love of Greece was politically minded, but it is not something you find very often at the heart of the English tradition. Among Italian poets – Leopardi and Carducci- you do, but in English poetry I don’t think it’s ever that important. With the English, in poetry as in painting, it is nature that is all-important. My poetry was just colour and rhythm, and it was joyful, but as I now realize, it had no depth. It was no more than the exuberance of youth, and every young man has a poetic mood. I was just trying to express my joie de vivre, which is nothing to be ashamed of. The older I grow the more I admire the quality in other people.
You once called Cyril Connolly a treacherous Irishman on the grounds that he was a hundred per cent homosexual at school, slept with everyone, then turned against those who remained so.
Well, Connolly was personally antipatico to me. He laid down the law, a little dictator surrounded by yes-sayers, all of whom agreed with him, though it also has to be said that he did a good job editing the magazine Horizon. When we were contemporaries at Eton I used to get very irritated with his dictatorial manner. He was rather a bully, and he was entirely homosexual, then he changed over to the women and never stopped. He discovered the girls rather late in life, and then it was one after another. A treacherous Irishman is what he was, and I didn’t care much for him.
You sometimes make Eton sound a like one of the ‘cities of the plain’.
Oh, no. It was the most innocent place. No cities of the plain there. In fact a sharp eye was kept on the morals of the Etonians by the housemasters, so they could not stray, though I suppose subconsciously there was a good deal of homosexuality.
Your friendship with Evelyn Waugh spanned many years. Did you admire him as a man and writer equally?
I admired his writing far more than I admired his character, but he was a delightful, warm-hearted, hot-tempered personality such as you rarely find today. He was a man of extreme views and a convert to Catholicism, and a passionate convert at that, which is also rather rare nowadays. He was a deeply religious person, but his gifts were not really in the most serious vein. His gifts were humorous and I think his best novels are the least serious. For instance, Decline and Fall, dedicated to myself, is still I think one of the most brilliant of English light novels. He got a little more serious towards the end, and he lost somehow the light touch, so rare in English literature. Not many people have that light touch. Evelyn Waugh was a master of prose as well; he wrote very good English. That’s another thing that is rare nowadays: good, sound, logical English. I wouldn’t say Waugh was depressing as a person. He was rather more depressed than depressing because he saw the way the world was going and it didn’t appeal to him at all. But he had a heart of gold and I was really very fond of him. I was best man at his first wedding, a marriage which went badly, alas. I’m afraid he married a rather superficial lady who flirted with others and he couldn’t stand it. He was very old-fashioned, expected his wife to be loyal and faithful to him. He couldn’t stand the strain of her going off on her own. He was a proud man and he was very loyal as a friend. We stayed friends till the day he died and he’s one of the few friends I’ve never quarrelled with. I’m also a friend of his son Bron. Towards the end of his life, Evelyn became a kind of recluse, except that he loved his family, and loved to be in the company of his devoted wife, surrounded by his children. He didn’t care to join literary societies, but liked to stand on his own. He was independent. There’s too much nowadays of congregating in these literary societies, of people blowing their own trumpets, but Evelyn was dignified about all of that.
It has been said that characters in Brideshead Revisited are based on your own character. Do you find the idea flattering or provoking?
I think it is very flattering, but I don’t recognize any character in Brideshead connected with myself. He’s taken little traits from me in one of the characters, certain physical traits so that people confuse me sometimes with that particular character, but I don’t think it was in his mind. A novelist has to take everything in his experience and use it. That’s why we respond. If we felt a novelist’s work was false, we wouldn’t admire it, unless his fiction were absolutely farcical and fantastic, and Evelyn’s is only farcical up to a certain degree. There is seriousness underlining all his fiction.
Max Beerbohm and Somerset Maugham seem to have belonged in quite separate worlds, but you knew the both. Were they at all alike?
They were not very alike, except that they belonged to the same period in a sense, Beerbohm being very much a figure of the 1890’s, a sort of dandy of that era who survived into the present century. Maugham, too, had all the mannerisms of a man of the nineteenth century: very formal and living in the South of France in sumptuous splendour. He was not a modern; he didn’t really change with the century. He had this stutter, poor man,vwhich only vanished on certain occasions. When he had to speak in public he stopped stammering, but in private life it was embarrassing because he took a long time to come out with any sentence. Pathetic. He used to stay here next to us before he went to the South of France. As for being an admirer of his writing, I would have to answer yes and no. I don’t think he’s a first-rate novelist. Of Human Bondage is a book that will last, and there are a lot of things he wrote that exactly struck the mood of the moment.
Is there any foundation in the rumour of a rift between you and Gore Vidal?
It’s a fabrication. He’s not exactly one of my heroes, far from it, but he is in a way a very amiable young man, though very naïve. He thinks himself sophisticated, but he’s really very simple. If there’s any disagreement, it’s entirely on his side not mine. I live, as you see, in a totally different atmosphere. He was in Rome, I think, for a time, used to turn up here occasionally, but I have very little in common with him. He’s not an aesthete, not by any means. The arts don’t mean much to him. He’s an embryo politician and all his ambitions are towards the Senate in the United States. He’s a fish out of water here in Florence. We have never quarrelled on my side. On his, I do believe he bears me ill-will. I’m very sorry for it because to me he is just like an American sophomore. I can’t take him seriously as a writer.
You have dismissed most English novelists as preachers who mistake their vocation.
Lately they have tended to preach less. I don’t think, for instance, that Somerset Maugham was much of a preacher and the Bloomsbury writers, Virginia Woolf – or even Aldous Huxley – did not preach much. But the Victorians were eminently preachers. If you pick out any Victorian novelist, you find they have a tendency to speak from a pulpit, to address an imaginary public. If I were to have my reading confined to one English novelist I should say Dickens because I think he was a man of overall breadth of view and knowledge of society. Though his language is very dated, it is vey vital English. As you read him you are still living in a sort of Victorian present. Thackery is also remarkable, but I feel he is more of the past. I don’t feel he is as alive as Dickens is today. As for the English being a literary nation, I find the claim exaggerated. I fear they’re not literary. They do not buy literary works, they want something different. Nowadays it’s sex, sex and lively fashion magazines. The stress of modern life drives them to the frivolous by contrast, it seems to me.
On the subject of religion, you write that the Protestant faith has much misery to answer for. Why single out the Protestant faith?
I think it could be said of many religions, but as a Roman Catholic I remain firm in seeing all around me in this country how religion lives among the people and how it is the inspiration, the joy and the philosophy of the Italians that has kept them going for centuries. I feel a stronger Catholic here than anywhere else, though it is always a delight, a joy to me when I got to England to find out that Westminster Cathedral is full. I can’t say I’m deeply religious, but I believe religion is essential to us and that without it we lose our bearings. It is extremely important for us to have a faith if we’re fortunate enough. I cannot imagine being without faith, I cannot imagine the purpose of life in that case. After a good long life, my faith is stronger than ever. My belief is in the Church and in our wonderful Pope. I have the greatest admiration for him. He is a heroic man. I’m very happy to have been with a Polish squadron during the war. They were all deeply religious: heroic boys, but deeply pious. If you went to Mass in Blackpool it was all Poles at that time. They sang beautifully, and in their voices you could hear their faith ringing out. It was quite splendid, an inspiration, and wherever I’ve been – even in India – the Catholics were always far more vocal that the Protestants. I wouldn’t want to make any sort of comparison, but it was a great inspiration. There’s only a one faith for me. It’s in the Church of Rome. Of course the Pope is a traditionalist. The Church is traditional, it has to be. We can’t revolutionize what Our Lord has preached in the past, we can’t change his words. I freely admit, though, that I was saddened by the abandonment of the Tridentine rite. The strength of the Church is in the old Tridentine.
Do you believe in sin?
I believe rather in weakness than in sin, though certain politicians make me believe seriously in sin. If one turns to politics, one has to admit that there are evil people about.
Can you think of any really honest and straightforward politicians?
I remember at Oxford how the young men who were going in for politics and the Union were very shallow, very superficial. They were only ambitious for themselves. I stayed aloof from all those brilliant geniuses who were passing all their exams with top marks, double firsts and all that, then disappearing into the House of Commons. We’ve heard nothing from them since. Those with the biggest reputations at that time have vanished. Roger Hollis is still known, perhaps, though he was a scandalous fellow, a traitor. I also met Guy Burgess, but I prefer to forget him. A boorish sort of fellow, not an intellectual. He was nothing. I don’t know why people talked about him. He had a talent for making noise, that’s all. Speaking of politicians, I did admire Churchill. He was an outstanding person who also wrote well. He was enlightened, the sort of universal man who can be admired anywhere in the world. He was a great draughtsman and he could also paint. Some of his earlier work will endure, I’m sure, but then he became experimental. The desire is always to be young, always to experiment, always just to beget children has been, in my view, a great loss in art. Instead of clinging to his own natural talent for beautiful draughtsmanship and colour, Churchill turned his back on his talent, and, like several other painters today, though they don’t realize it, was led astray by the critics. I think the wish to be modern at all costs, to alarm, to shock, to startle is the trouble, whereas great painters in the past were not thinking about startling anybody, they were just devoted to their vision and to trying to interpret it in a way others could share. I don’t believe anybody can share the vision of Picasso, or even Matisse. The political animal is something very foreign to me, though, because I have lived in a world of aesthetics, of love of the arts, which it seems to me is natural to anybody born in Europe. Although a good many Englishmen born here were not as interested in the arts as you might expect, generally speaking all the English who were here had one foot in the art world.
Did you ever live in Italy under fascism?
The atmosphere was too unpleasant for me, so that was when I went off to China. But whenever I came back in those years I could feel this rather unpleasant atmosphere of coercion, and many of my English friends sympathised with fascism, thinking it very splendid and dramatic. It’s hard to believe now, but they were taken in by the show, by the theatrical element. My parents were here under fascism. I paid them a visit and found the atmosphere very bellicose at that time. It wasn’t something that could be said of the Italians in general, because they were peace-loving and didn’t want war at all, but the people one met – journalists, writers – were all very bellicose and attracted to Nazism. The Germans had tremendous influence. My parents were both in prison for a short time before getting away to Switzerland. Eventually I felt I couldn’t sit there in Pecking any longer, enjoying life while Britain was at war. I had to do my duty in some way and so went back to England and joined the RAF. I didn’t fly because my vision and my age were against me – I was already in my thirties. They took me because of my knowledge of Chinese and things Oriental after living in China for seven years. The war was also by then being fought in the Far East, and so I was sent off there after a period at various air stations to pick up the methods. I was in Intelligence, so called. The people I met were all very brilliant, but I never give those years a thought today. Now that I’m eighty-five years old, it’s strange to think of how I was once restricted to air stations in England as an interrogating Intelligence officer, listening to the crews who had been bombing Germany when they arrived back absolutely worn out from their sorties.
Have you ever been a romantic?
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 Pecking, having my choice of friends and of girl-friends. 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 for ever. 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 love everything about 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 had 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. I never felt any regret at the lack of an heir. I’m leaving everything to the New York University. I don’t think Oxford would look after it properly, and anyway, they haven’t got the money. I offered it all to Oxford first, but met with such little response that I changed my mind. So everything goes to New York University and they will take the villa over and use it as a centre for Italian studies. My father didn’t like the idea at all. I discussed it with him before he died and he, of course, would have preferred me to marry and have children, but I never had that desire. I never had a feeling for children and family. Even my mother didn’t have much of a feeling of that kind, and I think she agreed with me fundamentally. She always preferred the place to be lived in by people who appreciated the arts.
Do you feel you had to forsake the pleasures of the flesh for the sake of the art, or can the two go together?
They can go together, of course, but the pleasures of the flesh were very small in my case. They are an important part of life, but they didn’t dominate so many people. Talking of Maughan, he was always in the hands of some dreadful creature. Gerald Hackston, for instance, who dominated him, or his wife, whom he hated. In my case I have nothing of that sort, thank God. No hatreds. I feel I have chosen wisely to be my own master and to leave everything to a university that can enjoy and use it. After all, Florence will continue to be the capital of the arts. It’s bound to be. It always has been since the Medici.
Have you ever been attracted to erotic art?
As a juvenile I was rather interested in certain Beardsley drawings and others appealed to me. I still think Beardsley is a very good draughtsman, but on the whole I think that art should rise above the erotic.
How do you see the relationship between art and morality? Presumably the two can never be separated?
Many artists have been considered deeply immoral. Art is to me beyond morality. If you start moralizing then art disappears. It becomes a sort of preaching.
Throughout your memoirs you display an irritation with the contempt of critics, especially for art critics.
I think that many art critics are would-be painters. They are disappointed and frustrated and consequently their frustration is brought out in their criticism of others. That’s my opinion, particularly in England where many of the critics I have known personally have been painters on the sly who have had no success and no chance of success and consequently have been bitter about others. I am afraid it is a weakness of human nature to be like that, but it is a sad thing that most of the critics are failed painters. Literary critics are larger, broader. I’m not capable of judging, for instance, modern poetry, because I’m rather indifferent to what I see in the way of poetry today, but on the whole I consider that our literary critics are excellent. I read the Spectator every week with pleasure for its admirable, clear, well-written criticism. It’s an excellent journal, and the New Statesman and others of high quality compare well with any publication of the past. The late Victorian publications seem rather heavy-going now if we try to look through them, but still they contain very good criticism.
Are scholarly work and critical explanations the most helpful ways of making art available?
No. I don’t think people pay much attention to the critics. The critics don’t possess much weight any longer. In the days of Ruskin, of course, it was quite different.
What about Bernard Shaw?
He was a very loud, able and brilliant critic, but I think he was sometimes deeply inhuman. I met him once at a public meeting. He had a most beautiful voice and great charm of manner, there’s no doubt about it, but I think he was fundamentally a eunuch. I don’t think he had any sex. That’s my own private view. He was married, of course, but I don’t think he was a marrying man. He was all brain and, in spite of the beard, I don’t think he was very virile. At least, that was my own personal impression. Why inhuman? Well, I think that of people entirely given to politics and the stage and boosting themselves. He was a tremendous egocentric, the best propogandist for himself that ever was.
You say of Charles Loeser: ‘He would question every object d’art until it vouchsafed an answer.; What sort of an answer, and in what way does one question an objet d’art? You go on to speak of the way Loeser would interpret a great master’s drawing. What is it to interpret a drawing?
Oh dear, very difficult. Loeser had an impeccable eye. He was one of the first people to collect Cezanne and he used to tell his servants or his ignorant cook to come in, and he would ask them, ‘Do you feel that is a landscape?’ And they’d say, ‘Si, si.’ ‘My cook knows more about it than I do,’ he would say. ‘She has the eye, she is unspoilt, untutored. I am unfortunately a Harvard graduate with too much education to be able to see properly.’ Of course, he was exaggerating, but still, there was a certain amount of truth in it. He was a very original man.
At the beginning of your memoirs you write: ‘Peace and goodwill towards men will only be brought about by individuals like myself.’ Can you elaborate?
It’s a very conceited statement. I’m rather shocked that I ever wrote it. But I think that people like us, who are only interested in culture and history, do perhaps a little more for the general public than is recognized and yet we are dismissed by journalists as decorative people on the fringe. In fact we influence people far more than they’re ready to admit. That’s my opinion.
It sometimes seems that high art must necessarily be a restricted pleasure. Do you think the taste of the connoisseur can ever really coincide with the larger, more democratic taste, if you like?
I can’t coincide, but it’s a guide. The connoisseur must guide taste and most people pay attention to the connoisseur when they know he’s genuine. They may laugh at him to begin with, but they follow. They laughed at Whistler, but his ‘Ten O’Clock Lecture’ is a wonderful piece of prose, quite apart from the fact that the message had a great influence.
What do you think an aesthetic emotion is? Is it really distinguishable form other sorts of feelings?
Oh, yes. It’s the most difficult thing to put into words. Aesthetic emotions require a Walter Pater, who wrote his book on the Renaissance with great difficulty over many years. It was a product of careful thought, and we cannot suddenly express that in a few words. Think of the aesthetic philosophers in Germany and in Italy. They are rather long winded and obscure, and it’s very difficult to tone that down to the level of popular understanding. Very difficult – though I think that the average person confronted with a great statue can tell the difference between that and, say, the sort of abstract stuff that is supposed to be a statue now. I think the average man or woman in England can respond immediately to a genuine work of art, a find Niobe or an Apollo and Marsyas. I think it is extraordinary that the public tolerates the sort of thing that I see very often being put up in London. In my day we’d have tarred and feathered those statues, but they’ve even spread to Italy. It’s a blight.
Some literary artists like Oscar Wilde and T.S Eliot have seemed to allow art to border on the trivial by saying that all art is useless, as Wilde did, or by calling it a superior entertainment, as Eliot did. What are your feelings about this?
I think they’re both very mistaken. I think art is an essential to civilized life, to our private existence. I cannot conceive of an existence without art. But alas, in many places, in industrial cities in the North of England, people manage to live without it very well, but still it’s a severe loss to them. If they had beautiful things to look at, it would inspire them to do even better work. But art in England has always been a small group of people, wealthy, old families with an interest in painting or architecture. It’s never been open to the masses, unfortunately, and we have suffered accordingly.
You quote Andrew Marvell’s lines, ‘My love is of a birth so rare/ As ‘tis for the object strange and high,/It was begotten by Despair/ Upon Impossibility.’ Why did these lines seem to you to explain the otherwise inexplicable?
Marvell was a man of profound vision and of deep spirituality which is rare in the poetry of that period. But it seems to me that these lines are modern and can convey that twilight of the consciousness which is so seldom expressed nowadays.
Over the centuries many hundreds of men and women have devoted their lives to music or painting and dance. Does such a devotion in itself give value to their art?
Certainly. It must give value to their art, if they are devoted in the real, true sense of the word. Pavlova, until she was quite old, was still dancing. I remember seeing her when she was about to retire. She was still the most graceful sylph-like figure one could possibly dream of. She was exquisite, and that’s a triumph of art.
You record in your memoirs the fate of works of art at the hands of the Germans in Florence. You describe, for example, an ‘Adoration of the Magi’ being used as a tablecloth and stabbed with a knife. At the same time you praise the Germans and say that in courage and fortitude they were certainly our peers. Why did they behave so badly, do you think?
Well, unfortunately, that’s a sort of racial thing that they have inherited: the rough, primitive instincts which have been glorified by certain great geniuses like Wagner. Wagner glorifies the coarsest instincts in The Ring. It’s a sign of strength they feel, this great love of their own strength, their own power. It’s quite a good thing in a way from the point of view of art, because that is the way good art is produced, but also, alas, bad art.
Why do you think that art seems not to affect people’s behaviour as one might hope? Both the Germans and the Japanese seem to have been capable of terrible savagery concurrently with an appreciation of the subtlest effects of art.
That’s a very strange point, yes. The Japanese can certainly be split personalities. I’ve never quite understood their Buddhism; it’s not like the Buddhism of the Indians, not contemplative. Everything that they do has got to be active in a hysterical sort of way. They are very peculiar, the Japanese, very peculiar people. The women in Japan, I should say, are superior to the men. They are people of very refined taste: the way they dress, the way they paint, the poems they write. Many of the best novels written in Japan are written by women, such as The Tale of Genji. The Japanese are full of surprises, because the women are so refined and elegant and the men fundamentally so crude and rough. They believe strongly in virility, of course, and virility is mixed up with militarism. They occupied Peking when I was there and behaved appallingly. I have no great love of the Japanese male. It’s very difficult to say anything definite about Germans because they are so different from each other. Germany’s a land of individualists. People think that they are all together, all followers of Bismark, Hitler or whatever it is, but they’re not. Germans are strongly individual characters. You can see that in their music, in their philosophy, in their works of art.
The journey to your home in Tuscany has become a kind of pilgrimage for many. Are you happy to end your days in Florence, or do you ever feel like coming home?
I was born here, so my home is here. I feel Florentine and I’m an honorary citizen of Florence, and all my life-long friends, my closest associations are with Florentines. I left for China because of fascismo and China was my next love, but of course in view of what’s happened there, its worse even that facismo was here. So I could never think of going back or living as I did in Peking in a private house, surrounded by Chinese.
What was it that drew you into China initially? You say you felt strangely at home there.
I always loved Chinese art. The Chinese written character is in itself a very beautiful thing, a work of art, and their cooking is a very important element in civilization. I think people who feed well are on the side of the angels. It’s very important that people should eat decent food, properly cooked, and the Chinese do. It’s strongly in their favour. And their poetry is sung. When I was there, they would sing their poems. The effect was so very striking. Unlike our poets. We can hardly say that they sing.
I understand that the Chinese do not distinguish between an original work of art and an exact copy. Is that the best approach?
Their tradition is so strong that they go on painting in the same style as they did in the fifteenth century. Landscape artists, for instance, continue to paint in the style of the fifteenth-century Ming Dynasty. It may be a sort of limitation to talent. I don’t think that always remaining so traditional is such a good thing. The great artists have always broken with tradition. Turner, for instance, with his billowing seas and all that, broke with the tradition of the eighteenth-century landscape in his landscapes. That’s the way art should be: alive. Start with the tradition, but then break it; rules have got to be broken.
How can we really enter into the appropriate frame of reference to allow us to respond properly to work in an alien tradition, like that of China?
I feel there’s too much emphasis on the word alien. I think it’s exaggerated. A Chinese artist can appreciate a drawing by Michelangelo and Michelangelo would appreciate a good landscape by some eighteenth-century Chinese. Art is a republic, not monarchy.
Writing about China, you say: ‘Behind the broad main streets were networks of alleys, rather slummy, with their mounds of refuse and mongrel dogs.’ Did you not find this public indifference distressing?
The back streets were full of families all living together, crowded, but not really squalid, because they had a certain dignity. The Chinese lived in a very agreeable way. I wouldn’t have minded joining one of those households.
You also record that in the average year, 29, 000 corpses, the bodies of over-worked young mill-workers, were gathered on the streets. Didn’t your knowledge of this interfere with your admiration of China?
I think all countries have something of that kind, you know. It’s not publicized, but I think it’s not so extraordinary. It happens everywhere.
Do you think there is anything left in Communist China of what originally drew you to the country?
The landscape remains, and they have protected a good many of their old monuments, I imagine, and from what I hear the Forbidden City in Peking remains the same. But the spirit perhaps has gone, as people are unified by Marxism. I can’t believe that that suits the Chinese, not the Chinese I knew, who were very independent and individual. But I never think of China now. I try not to think of it because I was extremely happy there and saw it couleur de rose.
What is it like to smoke opium?
I never became and addict, but I occasionally joined a Chinese friend and smoked a pipe and very much enjoyed it. It seemed to clear my mind and allowed me to forget about the tiresome irritations of life. I found it soothing. And I think that the danger of opium is grossly exaggerated. I have known many people who have smoked it for years who are now old, and yet in spite of their age are flourishing.
You give an account of a visit to an astrologer in Calcutta. Do you, or did you, believe in such things?
Oh, yes. I believe in these things. I don’t begin to understand it, but that it exists and that it has existed for centuries and is very strong in India there is no doubt at all. I feel that the Indians have got another sense for astrology which we lack here. Our lives are so different from theirs in that way. We can’t keep pace with that strange other-world-liness.
You wrote that a book of memoirs should concentrate on all that is vital and attempt to recapture the moments of exultation and delight. Is there no place for a recollection of sadder times?
I don’t think that sadness adds to other people’s vitality, and I’m all in favour of vitality. The sad, the gloomy, the depressing are life-diminishing, and I’m for the life-enhancing. So much is life-diminishing nowadays that we must return to the National Gallery and the Louvre to refresh ourselves. In all our lives we have had sad, not to say tragic times, especially during the world wars. One is surrounded by tragedy, but man is helpless against that sort of tragedy. I would say I have been fortunate in my own life. I’ve been privileged to live here in Florence in a fifteenth-century villa with a garden surrounded by statues by well-known sculptors. If I were unhappy it would be a crime. But I do have a horror of death, an absolute horror of it. I enjoy life so much that I would really not welcome death at all. So many friends of mine commit suicide or threaten it. I just don’t understand. Life is so wonderful, there’s so much more to discover. We’re given these blessings, and living here in Florence I’d be mad to wish to die. I don’t consider my work to be of much importance, but I don’t think I have done yet what I have it in me to do, which is to write a good short story. But if I were to live my life again, I think I would do the same thing again. I would write, I would edit magazines at Oxford. I don’t think I could have chosen another path. My only regret is that I didn’t write better, that I haven’t done more with a flow imagination. But you can’t force that. It is something you are born with. Otherwise I have nothing but thankfulness for the life I have enjoyed.
What fortifies you nowadays against life’s disappointments?
It’s a very difficult question, but with age I enjoy the beauty of landscapes, scenery and architecture more perhaps than ever, and that keeps me alert and optimistic in my outlook, but otherwise I’m afraid I don’t really enjoy the present moment. It’s only through art that I exist: through my love of the arts. I have no belief of any kind in my genius. No, that is a part of youth. In youth we’re all geniuses. When one is young one has a spirit, but it grows rather feeble as the years pass. Now I find myself rather disappointed with life. I suppose that is a part of creeping age, of getting feebler with the years and becoming mentally not quite so alert. I don’t really feel so buoyant as I used to. I used to be very active, particularly when I was at Oxford, editing Oxford Poetry and surrounded by very talented poets like Peter Quennell and Robert Graves, and a great many distinguished dons like Beazley, the greatest authority on Greek vases in the world, and Gow on the plough, famous also as a Greek scholar. It seemed like a Renaissance when I was at Oxford, but the Renaissance didn’t last.