How an exhibition at Renishaw Hall - the Derbyshire home of the Sitwell family for almost 400 years and which is, of course, haunted - demonstrates British eccentricity at its greatest....

Bizarre exhibition at the spiritual home of British eccentricity

2nd June 2007
Daily Mail

One ancestor killed a pair of tigers in these woods - just six miles from Sheffield. Another invented a tiny revolver for shooting wasps while his wife lavished a small fortune on a psychic pig (her reckless spending would eventually land her in jail). Their children were a famously odd literary trio and the idiosyncratic streak continues through to the present incumbent of sprawling, haunted Renishaw Hall.

Not only does Sir Reresby Sitwell, 7th Baronet, devote many of his 5,000 Derbyshire acres to the production of that well-known Northern English export - sparkling white wine - but he has just opened a bizarre exhibition of wartime memorabilia.

Robert Hardman shows off Eva Braun's nightdress, which is embroidered with tiny Nazi swastikas, is one of the highlights in the latest exhibition at Renishaw Hall

Among the highlights are Field Marshal Montgomery's pyjamas, Hitler's pocket diary and various extracts from the boudoir of his mistress, Eva Braun.

You certainly can't accuse the old girl of disloyalty. As I inspect her nightdress - and I imagine one of the last people to do this was Hitler himself - I notice that it is richly embroidered with tiny Nazi swastikas.

If one were looking for the spiritual home of British eccentricity, then Renishaw Hall would have to be a prime contender. Most of the busloads of tourists who pass through this bit of England are usually bound for the Peak District or one of the area's big stately homes such as Chatsworth.

The Duke of Devonshire's pile does heritage on an industrial scale and pops up in more period dramas than Helena Bonham-Carter. Not so many people, though, will be familiar with another, less obtrusive mansion just three miles off the M1 near Chesterfield.

Once upon a time, Renishaw Hall was famous - or infamous - as the setting for DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and as the home of the literary trio of Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell. In recent times, however, it has retreated to the edges of the ancestor worship game. "Derbyshire's best-kept secret," says the Sitwell family website - with some justification.

There are no punters at all as I arrive at the faintly foreboding north front. This is because Sir Reresby and his wife, Penelope, only open the gates from Thursdays to Sundays (and, then, solely during the spring and summer months) but I have turned up on a Wednesday.

Stunning Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire - home to the Sitwell family and a collection of ghosts - one of which includes the spook of young Henry Sacheverell. Drowned in his teens, he is one of the busiest of the Renishaw ghosts and is said to "waken ladies with cold kisses from beyond the grave".

Furthermore, visitors can see the grounds and the exhibitions in the stable block but the house is open to the public only on request - "by written application", says Sir Reresby sternly. Luckily, I have been invited to lunch.

It was the announcement of a curious new collection of wartime ephemera which first drew my attention to this place. Why on earth are Goering's cufflinks and Mussolini's cigarette case suddenly on display in rural Derbyshire?

But then I realised that this is entirely in keeping with a long and glorious tradition. Renishaw Hall has been dotty for years. "I can't remember how those got there, but that is where they live," Sir Reresby tells me as I walk through the front door and see a pair of spectacles sitting on the head of a ferocious, life-size medieval warrior brandishing a spear.

Now 80 and the victim of a stroke two years ago, Sir Reresby can still rattle through the history of his 65-room home and his labyrinthine family tree without drawing breath. His first name, he explains, is his second name although all three of his names - Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell - are actually surnames, each being a family whose fortunes are entwined with Renishaw.

He takes me into the Smoke Room where various ancestral portraits hang above a case containing what is said to be Robin Hood's bow.

Sir Reresby points out the dubious provenance of this claim, an ancient manuscript explaining that the bow comes from Kirklees Abbey where an ailing Robin Hood was murdered by the scheming abbess. It sounds like nonsense, but it's still a good yarn.

In the vast Ballroom, there are the relics of many a grand tour of Europe. It was in here that the unimaginatively named Sitwell Sitwell held a ball for the Prince of Wales in 1808 and was made a baronet by way of a thank-you (hence Sir Reresby's title).

Clearly a gung-ho young blade, the same Sitwell Sitwell used his hounds to track down a pair of Bengal tigers after they had escaped from a Sheffield menagerie in 1793 and gobbled up a local child.

Sir Reresby takes me through to the airy, pink dining room where the portraits include The Boy In Pink, a young Henry Sacheverell. Drowned in his teens, he is one of the busiest of the Renishaw ghosts and is said to "waken ladies with cold kisses from beyond the grave".

Lady Sitwell has never been troubled by him, although David, the resident butler, thinks he heard something odd a few weeks ago in a first-floor wing which the family call Ghost Passage.

"I've never seen them, but they can worry the guests," says Sir Reresby. "We've had the place exorcised several times. The first was done by a Catholic, Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, and the next by a rabbi friend of mine."

He throws a handkerchief over his head and imitates the scene. "But I don't think it did any good."

Perhaps the "Boy in Pink" haunts animals too. As we walk down Ghost Passage, it is all too much for Sophie, the family dachshund, who makes various deposits on the carpet.

What really sets Renishaw apart from the bog-standard stately, though, are the more recent occupants, starting with Sir Reresby's grandfather. Sir George Sitwell, the fourth baronet, inherited the title and the fortune - much of which was made in iron nails - at the age of two.

He went on to spend most of his life immersed in the study of the profoundly obscure, producing epic works such as The History Of The Fork, Acorns As An Article Of Medieval Diet and Lepers' Squints (none, sadly, found a publisher).

He lived on a diet of roast chicken which he liked to eat alone, despite always donning full evening dress for the purpose. Guests were kept at arm's length.

"I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way," he would inform them, "as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night."

As well as inventing a revolver for shooting wasps, he created a musical toothbrush and a synthetic egg made of smoked meat and rice. In all his endeavours, he was supported by Henry Moat, the faithful family butler who would follow his master all over Europe with a ready supply of roast chicken and a Jeeves-like forbearance in the face of every barmy idea.

When Sir George declared he had discovered a new way of making knife handles from condensed milk, Moat said: "Yes, Sir George. But what if the cat gets 'em?"

On one occasion, Moat even brought a tame seal on the train from his home town of Whitby to play with the Sitwell children.

Sir George's lasting contributions to Renishaw are the superb gardens and a 17-acre lake built by unemployed constituents during his spell as (a very idle) MP for Scarborough.

Sadly, his studies left little time for his young wife, Lady Ida, daughter of the equally eccentric Earl of Londesborough (he had a mile of red carpet laid from his villa to the sea at Scarborough while his son and heir would spend hours in a locked room conducting imaginary orchestras).

Hopelessly extravagant - she once spent 8 (a huge sum back then) on a "lucky" piece of hangman's rope (in those days, rope used after a hanging was thought to bring good luck and people would crowd the scaffolf after the body had been taken down to get piece of it) which she attached to her bed - Lady Ida fell into debt and the claws of a blackmailer.

Her efforts to extricate herself from the situation resulted in a three-month sentence for fraud in 1915. Sir George could have bailed her out but did not, a decision which appalled their three children, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell.

The trio went on to become selfstyled artistic warriors against "The Philistine" and were regarded as a Society institution, not unlike the Mitford sisters.

Their louche poses, captured by Cecil Beaton, enhanced their reputations as some of the brightest of the "bright young things". Rex Whistler and John Piper were among the artists they brought under their wing. But their lives were as unworldly as those of their parents.

Osbert, a friend of the late Queen Mother, inherited the title and Renishaw - where he lived with a male companion before decamping to a Tuscan castle. Sir Mick Jagger's family lived in the local village of Eckington at the time.

The singer's father, Joe, played cricket in the same team as Sir Osbert, who had an annoying habit of running only if he "felt like it", on the grounds that it was his own pitch. One of the most successful writers of his generation, Sir Osbert devoted many books to lampooning his father.

Edith, later a dame, was a prolific poet whose works endure to this day, although many remember her for her haughty remarks. "A great many people now reading and writing would be better employed keeping rabbits," she wrote.

A fantastic snob, she once observed: "The man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd."

Only the youngest, Sacheverell, married. A noted art critic, he produced 135 books and the eldest of his two sons is Sir Reresby who married Penelope Forbes, an Earl's granddaughter, in 1952.

In due course, they will pass the house and estate to their only child, Alexandra, and her young family (the title will go to a nephew).

After lunch - roast chicken as it happens - Sir Reresby retires for a rest and Lady Sitwell takes me on a tour of the grounds. Unlike the north front, where I came in, the south front is enchanting.

An energetic gardener with a flair for gilding, Lady Sitwell has done much to turn Sir George's original gardens into a dazzling landscape of bold, ordered spaces and wild woodland. A dog cemetery, neatly divided between dachshunds and alsatians, and Britain's only "yuccary", a temple to the yucca plant, have also been built.

"We moved in after Osbert. He didn't like gardening much and there was no central heating and no electricity," she recalls. "I often wonder how we did it."

The couple have also turned the old stable block into a series of museums. They are wonderfully random.

One houses a display of opera and ballet posters alongside cabinets full of hand grenades and old machine-guns. Another is dedicated to oddities from World War II, hence the display of Eva Braun's nightie, curlers and other curios borrowed from a private collector in Jersey.

"Apparently, the war is very popular at the moment," explains Lady Sitwell.

I am struck by the fact that Field Marshal Montgomery's pyjamas appear to be pink. "I suppose they must have run in the wash," she surmises.

Next door is a museum dedicated to the Sitwells. There are old books, poems, Osbert's dressing gown, cards from the Queen Mother, pictures of Edith posing as a corpse.

Sadly, no one has been able to track down the anti-wasp revolver. "We're still looking for it," says Lady Sitwell.

Who needs Nazi underwear to pull in the crowds when you have a family like this?

Last edited by Blackleaf; Jun 2nd, 2007 at 06:04 AM..