Unusual Commissions: Sir George Sitwell and the Green, Eckington

by Jane Brown

‘One had never seen before, and will never see again, anyone who resembled this singular and delightful man’, wrote Osbert Sitwell of Edwin Lutyens, ‘He would sit, with his bald, dome-like head lowered at a particular angle of reflection, as his very large, blue, reflective eyes contemplated a view, a work of art, or something peculiarly outrageous that he intended shortly to say…. and when he spoke his speech tumbled from his mouth, like that of an impetuous schoolboy’. This famous description from Great Morning! (1948) has burnished Lutyens’s appeal and reputation. It comes from the memory of a confidant, and rather sweet-natured, teenager recalling the architect’s many visits to his father, Sir George Sitwell at Renishaw Hall, chiefly in the years 1908-16.

Sir George, once quoted as introducing himself ‘I am Sir George Sitwell, baronet. I am four years old and the youngest baronet in England’,* hardly improved with age; by all accounts a neurotic and quarrelsome snob, a disastrous husband, at war with his children, he had a nervous breakdown and at forty-two took himself off to Italy to buy a castle and look at gardens. Gardens, as is so often the case, redeem him – his own garden at Renishaw with ‘baskets’ of flowers strewn across the lawns (in 1910) and his On the Making of Gardens (1909), describing his enchanted encounters with the Italian villa gardens, and for my money the best of the genre.

Sir George’s ‘to make a great garden one must have a great idea or a great opportunity’ chimes with Lutyens’s ‘a garden scheme should have a backbone, a central idea beautifully phrased’, and they most likely enjoyed sparring garden talk. Lutyens of course went to Renishaw in the hope of bigger things, for Sir George talked of re-building the Hall, and perhaps of restoring his medieval Tuscan castle, Montegufoni? Only the smallest crumbs (garden steps, the golf club, and an anteroom to the ballroom) rewarded Lutyens’s dancing attendances, and even Gertrude Jekyll’s submissions of planting plans were soon forgotten.

Except for The Green, Eckington. Twenty or so years ago on a visit to Renishaw I was shown a plan, the pipe ash falling out of the folds as it was opened! The plan of April 1916 from the Queen Anne’s Gate office, coloured, with pencil notes in Lutyens’s hand, shows a formal garden of stone piers and rills flanking a small lawn, and ending in wrought iron gates onto the road and opposite the main entrance to Renishaw. This intricate garden has been carefully attached, with terraces, to the front of a modest house, and it has side lawns, yew hedges and sculpted banks, these in keeping with Sir George’s own garden. The Green shouts of Lutyens’s design to those with eyes to see, it is beautifully crafted, with details reminiscent of Heathcote at Ilkley and of Gledstone Hall. Did Sir George build it to please his disappointed architect?

Not even Osbert Sitwell provides any clues to the building of The Green’s garden; it remains a delightful mystery. For years it has been neglected, the property sold by the Renishaw estate, the garden hidden behind overgrown hedges and trees. Now, the present owner has employed a brilliant young gardener, Alex Styan and her company Design & Dig* to restore it. Alex became fascinated by Lutyens & Jekyll while at Pershore College and could not believe her luck at finding this genuine, lost garden, in need of care and attention. The combination of Lutyens’s magic and Sir George’s eccentricities have won her over, wonderful to see in a young gardener.

Jane Brown

* Sarah Bradford, in The Sitwells, catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, 1994
* www.designanddig.co.uk