Wednesday, 22 October 2014

An Italian Odyssey

You may have noticed that I've had a short break from blogging.  This is because I've been away on holiday, a holiday that took me, among other places, to Italy.  Although I never heard Sassoon's name mentioned in the course of my two-week trip, I at times felt my mind being drawn to consider the significance of the visit he made to Italy with his lover Stephen Tennant, in 1928.  

It was, for Siegfried at least, a difficult journey, thanks largely to the demanding young man who accompanied him.  Stephen was used to being cosseted and waited on, and this was the role he expected Siegfried to play throughout what should have been a holiday for both of them.  They had already driven through France and Germany in Sassoon's latest acquisition, a red Packard automobile, before crossing from Austria into Italy in early September, with the aim of attending a performance of young William Walton's Facade, a collaboration with Sassoon's old friend Edith Sitwell.  (It occurs to me that Siegfried's style of driving might have suited Italian road etiquette very well.)  

The Faҫade project had been on the go since 1921, and the suite had been performed before, but two new segments had been written and were to be premièred at the Siena Festival.  As a patron of the 26-year-old composer and a close friend of the poet, Siegfried’s presence at the occasion was expected, and Siegfried himself had been looking forward to it.  Siena is not much more than 200 miles from the border, and they had allowed themselves plenty of time. However, thanks to Stephen's preferred mode of travel, involving a lot of luggage and many stops, the pair failed to reach their destination in time.  Whether Stephen caused the delays deliberately, perhaps because he wanted to demonstrate that he was more important to Siegfried than the latter's long-standing circle of friends, or simply through a lack of consideration, I am unsure.  At any rate, Siegfried was extremely angry.  His failure to attend the performance caused a falling-out between him and Edith; he would have to work hard to make it up to her. Nevertheless, he went ahead with his plan to spend the subsequent days as a visitor at the castle of Montegufoni, owned by Sir George Sitwell, Edith's father.

After Montegufoni, the couple moved on to Bologna, Padua, and eventually Venice, where their stay, according to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, marked a turning-point in their relationship.  

Siegfried had visited Venice twice before, once in 1922 with “Toronto” Prewett (on which occasion he bumped into both Osbert Sitwell and Ivor Novello), and again in 1926 in the company of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband.  The trip with the Morrells had not been an easy one.  Sassoon had found himself pig-in-the-middle as the couple quarrelled with one another, their daughter, and other members of the party.  Still at the time involved with Glen Byam Shaw, he wrote to the latter from Verona and Bologna to tell him how much he missed him.  

Sassoon had also, in 1921 and 1922, been to Rome, and commented that he was not interested in the vestiges of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance or the Baroque, but in “the physical aspect of Italy”.  He was particularly taken with the gardens of the Villa d’Este, which would be featured among the illustrations for his 1923 collection, Recreations.  It was here that he had been introduced on his first visit, by Lord Berners, to Prince Philipp of Hesse, who briefly became his lover.  Although Philipp turned out to be uninterested in a lasting relationship, he and Siegfried would remain on amicable terms.  Philipp later married Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III, and settled on the royal estate just outside Rome.

As a result of his familiarity with Venice, Siegfried was now hoping that Stephen would appreciate the great works of art to which he planned to introduce him; in this, at least, he was not disappointed, and it went some way to making up for his disappointment at not arriving at Siena in time.  On the other hand, Stephen was apparently too wrapped up in himself to be sympathetic when Siegfried recalled his mother’s experiences –  Theresa had been in Venice when she discovered her husband Alfred was having an affair with an American novelist; now she wrote to her son to tell him about a painting she had seen there.  However, it was also in Venice that the positive reviews of the newly-published Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man reached them.  
In the following year, Siegfried and Stephen returned to Italy, this time to Rappallo, where they had been invited to stay with Max Beerbohm.  Siegfried was in a state of great annoyance over the recent publication (and success) of Robert Graves’ memoir, Goodbye to All That, which included personal information about Sassoon and his family, to which he strongly objected.  Only when he met W B Yeats in Rapallo did he learn of Graves’ recent domestic problems.  Meanwhile, Sassoon was working on the second volume of his own memoirs, which would cover some of the same ground as Graves’ book.  He continued to work on it as he and Stephen travelled on to Naples and subsequently to Sicily, and also toyed with poetry, producing “Presences Perfected” and “We Shall Not All Sleep”.  Another poem, “In Sicily”, sums up his feelings about their relationship.  One of the "Ariel poems", it was printed in 1930 in a limited edition, with Stephen's own illustrations.  You can buy a second-hand edition for around £250! 

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