SITWELL, Dame Edith (1887–1964)
Plaque erected in 1998 by English Heritage at Greenhill, Hampstead High Street, Hampstead, London, NW3 5TY, London Borough of Camden
DAME EDITH SITWELL 1887-1964 Poet lived here in Flat 42
Dame Edith Sitwell was a poet, critic and historian, and is regarded as one of the most important voices in 20th-century English poetry. She is commemorated with a blue plaque at Flat 42, Greenhill, in Hampstead, where she lived for three years towards the end of her life.
Edith Louisa Sitwell was born in Scarborough to a family whose ancestors included kings of France, the English Plantagenets, Robert Bruce and the Macbeths. It was Sitwell’s governess, Helen Rootham, however, who introduced her to poetry and specifically to the decadent 19th-century works of Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. Encouraged by Rootham, Sitwell began to compose her own poems, and her first work was published in 1913 when she was 26. In the same year the two women, who were now friends, moved to London in pursuit of creative freedom.
Sitwell published her first poetry collection, The Mother and Other Poems, in 1915, soon attracting the ire of conservative critics with her experimental style. From about 1916 she began collaborating with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, and by the early 1920s the trio had emerged as something of a London literary cult. Their modernist journal, Wheels, provided an outlet for their radical literary and aesthetic ideas, but it was Edith’s 1923 reading of her poem series, Façade, at London's Aeolian Hall, that propelled them to fame.
The composer William Walton wrote the music to accompany her lyrics, giving them a variety of rhythms including the waltz, the paso doble and traditional sailor dances. Edith, meanwhile, delivered her verses through a Sengerphone – an instrument made of compressed grasses – from behind a transparent curtain, and with her back turned to the audience. It was so eccentric that some members of the audience thought they were being hoaxed. She became, overnight, the most talked-about poet in England.
POETRY, PROSE AND FAME
Sitwell wrote prolifically, publishing over 20 volumes of poetry over the course of her career. In 1930 she turned to prose to write a biography of Alexander Pope, and followed it up with English Eccentrics (1933) and Victoria of England (1936), winning a reputation as a popular historian in the process.
The extent of her fame became clear when she and Osbert visited the United States in 1950. In Hollywood, she was enthusiastically greeted by film stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Merle Oberon and Marilyn Monroe. Esteemed for her poetry, she was also a captivating and flamboyant presence: tall and august, with an aquiline nose, she always wore a long, loose, flowing robe, a turban-like headdress and huge rings.
Her striking appearance was partly caused by Marfan syndrome – a genetic condition that can lead to a long-limbed appearance and weakness in the joints – and shortly after her return from Hollywood she started to use a wheelchair. Her pen, however, continued to flow, and she was made a dame of the British empire in 1954.
Sitwell spent three of her very last years in Flat 42 at Greenhill, Hampstead High Street, a large neo-Georgian apartment block of 1936 at the top of Rosslyn Hill. Her time at Greenhill was rather melancholy: when she arrived, in 1961, her health was failing, her reputation was beginning to be challenged, her finances were a cause of anxiety and her circle of friends was gradually passing away.
The flat was small – Sitwell described it as ‘just big enough for ghosts’ – and was shared with her nurse, Doris Farquhar. However, it was visited by many who trekked faithfully ‘to that Greenhill far away’. Sitwell’s triumphant 75th year, 1962, saw the publication of her biogaphy of Elizabeth I, The Queens and the Hive, her final collection of poetry, The Outcasts, and the reissue of Fanfare for Elizabeth (first published 1946).
In spring 1964 she moved to nearby 20 Keats Grove, and died soon after.