From Acton to Sitwell in Tuscany

The second day of the Michel de Montaigne foundation’s conference on Ian Greenlees kicked off with Tony Bareham’s talk on Harold Acton entitled “No farther than the Buddha’s Hand”. This title was based on an old Buddhist parable where someone, who believes he has travelled the world and come to its end in the form of five columns, discovers that, in fact, these columns are only the fingers of Buddha’s hand, and also alludes to the fact that Acton spent the 1930’s in his beloved China. Bareham relished the sensuous almost poetical prose of Acton as best exemplified in the aesthete’s “The last of the Medici” of 1930. For Bareham, Acton, another member of Greenlees’ coterie of friends, turned out to be a great and highly delectable discovery.

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Cristiano Giometti’s “Ian Greenlees e la sua raccolta di quadri” relied largely on Greenlees’ picture inventory of 1982 to reconstruct his once extensive collection. Two points emerged. First, that the majority of pictures were purchased in the 1930’s at knock down prices because Greenlees loved the baroque which at that time was not particularly popular among collectors. Second, that his Anacapri villa housed modern art, including Morandi and Guttuso, and casa Mansi at Bagni di Lucca housed the older schools of painting. The collection was largely sold off at Greenlees’ death by his heir Robin Chanter and the prices then fetched in the auction houses reflected the changed taste in favour of the Italian sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The interesting point is that several of these paintings have now been attributed to different hands. For example a Bernini is now reckoned to be by Vouet. This in no way affects Greenlees’ original purchasing intention which was to surround himself with pictures he liked rather than pictures by particular painters.

Mark Roberts then delivered an interesting lecture on the relationships between Ian Greenlees and Norman Douglas. Despite the fact that Greenlees led an ever more sedentary life, particularly at Bagni where he eschewed physical exercise, Roberts’ description showed just how much Greenlees walked with Douglas and how close he was to him, particularly in the bohemian travel writer’s last years. There was a poignant description of the two returning to see a Calabrian Festa which Douglas had seen many years previously as a young person and Douglas, despite the almost forty year age gap, opened up Ian’s mind to many new cultural sensations.

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The amazing variety of friendships Greenlees cultivated was exemplified in Elisabetta D’Erme’s talk on “L’Amico Osbert. I Sitwell e Ian Greenlees”. Ian was fascinated by the Sitwells while still at Oxford University and founded a Sitwell society there. He established a long lasting relationship with this eccentric and highly gifted family who pioneered modernism in the traditional art milieu of the UK. This connection lasted well into the days when Ian was director of Florence’s British Institute when, in 1959, he invited Edith to recite her poems to a fascinated public who were entranced by her in spite of the fact that she was now feeble and an alcoholic. I pondered over the fact that Sir William Walton had composed the music to Edith Sitwell’s group of poems called “Façade” and that, having a house in Ischia, could have easily dropped over to Capri where Ian had a winter villa.

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Mario Curreli concluded the day’s session with a discussion of the correspondence between Mario Praz and Greenlees. This was particularly gripping as all the letters now appeared for the first time. Both philosophical and practical questions were mentioned and a part of the correspondence referred to Praz’ move from his apartment in Rome’s Via Giulia to the Palazzo Primoli where the Praz museum is now situated on the third floor (the ground floor  is occupied by the Napoleonic museum)..

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There was not a moment where I felt mental indigestion; the speakers were all of the most prepared quality and entertaining into the bargain.

In the afternoon we visited the local Corsena cemetery and flowers were placed before Ian’s tomb. Then it was off to Vico Pancellorum where a brilliant organ recital was given by Enrico Barsanti. I am sure Ian enjoyed the choice of repertoire ranging from Bach to Luccan composers from his Elysian heights.

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