Friday, 9 May 2008
Lunch at La Pietra
Peter Dickinson’s latest book, Lord Berners: Composer Writer Painter will be published in September. It is a refreshingly new documentary approach to a unique personality - interviews with leading figures and contemporaries who knew Berners and his work. Here Peter Dickinson recalls visiting Harold Acton in Florence.
In 1983 I made a BBC Radio 3 documentary about Lord Berners to mark his centenary – the interviews will be printed in full in my book. I also put on concerts at the Wigmore Hall and elsewhere with my sister Meriel Dickinson singing the songs and Timothy West giving readings from Berners’ novels and autobiography. One of the most fascinating interview subjects was Sir Harold Acton and the BBC producer, Arthur Johnson, and I went to Florence to see him. We joined other guests for lunch afterwards – the waiters wore white gloves – and then looked round the formal gardens lined by box hedges and featuring sculptured figures along vistas.
Acton’s family had had connections with Italy for several generations and it was his father who bought La Pietra around 1900. The villa, approached through a long drive of cypresses, became legendary for its art collection, scrupulously maintained by Acton following the death of his father in 1953 and eventually left to New York University.
Acton’s contemporaries at Eton included Lord David Cecil (also interviewed at length in my book) and at Oxford he was of the same generation as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell. He wrote poetry, novels, a biography of The Last Medici, and studies of the Bourbons of Naples.
Acton spent most of the 1930s in China, lecturing at Peking National University and after the war he wrote Memoirs of an Aesthete and More Memoirs of an Aesthete. He was knighted in 1974 for services to the British Institute and to Anglo-Italian relations. His recreations listed in Who’s Who include ‘hunting the Philistines’. I asked him when he first encountered Lord Berners (he was the only person I met who could go back to World War I):
“I met him when I was quite a young boy really. I had just gone to Eton and I was visiting in Rome with my father who took me to see Berners’ studio, which was full of modern paintings and there were huge bowls of coloured water with tin goldfish in them, which used to stir. There were all sorts of gadgets such as marionettes and peculiar things that struck a boy as extremely unusual. He himself was never very talkative. He just waited for one’s comments. You could see he was anxious to surprise one. There were hidden jokes: something might pop out of a cushion or anything. It had a curious atmosphere of its own which he had created.
One of the most noticeable things was a large photograph of the Marchesa Casati, a very striking lady much painted by all the well-known painters of the period. She was a close friend of his, also very interested in eccentric things. She had Moorish servants feeding leopards from her house - very strange.
He was then in the British Embassy called Gerald Tyrwhitt as Honorary Attaché. That’s when I first met him. And I saw him fairly often when he came to Florence in his huge Rolls Royce with a porcelain turtle in it and a little spinet which he used to play while being driven.”
That was the legend – and legends persist because people often prefer them to the facts. But my book reveals that the instrument was a clavichord kept in a compartment under the front seat.