Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton, CBE (5 July 1904 – 27 February 1994) was a British writer, scholar, and aesthete. He wrote fiction, biography, and autobiography. During his stay in China, he studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry, some of which he translated.
He was born near Florence, Italy, to a prominent Anglo-Italian family. At Eton College, he was a founding member of the Eton Arts Society before going up to Oxford to read Modern Greats at Christ Church. He co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom and mixed with many intellectual and literary figures of the age, including Evelyn Waugh, who based the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited partly on him. Between the wars, Acton lived in Paris, London, and Florence, proving most successful as a historian, his magnum opus being a 3-volume study of the Medicis and the Bourbons.
After serving as an RAF liaison officer in the Mediterranean, he returned to Florence, restoring his childhood home, Villa La Pietra, to its earlier glory. Acton was knighted in 1974 and died in Florence, leaving La Pietra to New York University.
Robert Byron with Harold Acton at Oxford around 1922
|Born||5 July 1904|
Villa La Pietra, near Florence, Italy
|Died||27 February 1994 (aged 89)|
Villa La Pietra
|Occupation||poet, historical writer|
|Language||English, Italian, French|
|Alma mater||Oxford University|
|Notable works||The Last of the Medici (1930, 1932), Modern Chinese Poetry (with S.-H. Ch'en, 1936), Peonies and Ponies (1941, 1983), Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948), The [Last] Bourbons of Naples (1956, 1961), Ferdinando Galiani (1960), Florence (with M. Huerlimann, 1960), Nancy Mitford (1975), The Peach Blossom Fan (with S.-H. Ch'en, 1976)|
|Notable awards||CBE (1965), knighted (1974)|
|Relatives||John Dalberg-Acton, Sir John Acton|
Acton was born to a prominent Anglo-Italian-American family of baronets, later raised to the peerage as Barons Acton of Aldenham at Villa La Pietra, his parents' house one mile outside the walls of Florence, Italy. He claimed that his great-great-grandfather was Commodore Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet (1736–1811), who married his niece, Mary Anne Acton, and who was prime minister of Naples under Ferdinand IV and grandfather of the Roman Catholic historian Lord Acton. This relationship has been disproven; Harold Acton in fact descends from Sir John Acton's brother, General Joseph Edward Acton (1737–1830). Both of these brothers served in Italy, and are from the Shropshire family of Actons.
His father was the successful art collector and dealer Arthur Acton (1873–1953), the illegitimate son of Eugene Arthur Roger Acton (1836–1895), counsellor to the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. His mother, Hortense Lenore Mitchell (1871–1962), was the heiress of John J. Mitchell, a president of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank and an appointed member of the Federal Advisory Council, and a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago (1908–1909). Arthur Acton met Hortense in Chicago while helping to design the Italianate features of the bank's new building in 1896, and the Mitchell fortune allowed Arthur Acton to buy the remarkable Villa La Pietra on the hills of Florence, where Harold Acton lived for much of his life. The only modern furniture in the villa was in the nurseries, and that was disposed of when the children got older (Harold's younger brother William Acton was born in 1906).
His early schooling was at Miss Penrose's private school in Florence. In 1913, his parents sent him to Wixenford Preparatory School near Reading in southern England,:17 where Kenneth Clark was a fellow-pupil. By 1916 submarine attacks on shipping had made the journey to England unsafe and so Harold and his brother were sent in September to Chateau de Lancy, an international school near Geneva. In the autumn of 1917, he went to a 'crammers' at Ashlawn in Kent to be prepared for Eton, which he entered on 1 May 1918. Among his contemporaries at Eton were Eric Blair (the writer George Orwell), Cyril Connolly, Robert Byron, Alec Douglas-Home, Ian Fleming, Brian Howard, Oliver Messel, Anthony Powell, Steven Runciman, and Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green). In his final years at school, Acton became a founding member of the Eton Arts Society, and eleven of his poems appeared in The Eton Candle, edited by his friend Brian Howard.
In October 1923, Acton went up to Oxford to read Modern Greats at Christ Church. It was from the balcony of his rooms in Meadow Buildings that he declaimed passages from The Waste Land through a megaphone (an episode recounted in Brideshead Revisited, through the character Anthony Blanche). While at Oxford, he co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom, and published his first book of poems, Aquarium (1923). Acton was regarded as a leading figure of his day and would often receive more attention in memoirs of the period than men who were much more successful in later life; for example, the Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams described this encounter with Acton in his autobiography George (1961):
"Bowing with the courtesy of another age and clime, he spoke, an English flawlessly italianated [sic]. 'I do most dreadfully beg your pardons this inclement night – though I have been resident a year, I find it too idiotically difficult to find my way about, I have been round Tom like a tee-toe-tum, too too madd-ening – where does our dear Dean hang out?' He thanked me profusely, raised the bowler with a dazzling smile, and propelled himself Deanward, an Oriental diplomat off to leave a jewelled carte de visite. 'Jesus,' said Evvers, 'what's that?' 'He's the Oxford aesthete,' I informed him, 'a Victorian, his rooms in Meadow are in lemon yellow and he stands on his balcony and reads his poems through a megaphone to people passing, and he belongs to the Hypocrites' Club with Brian Howard and Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh and all that set, they call themselves the Post-War Generation and wear Hearts on their lapels as opposed to the pre-war Rupert Brooke lot who called themselves Souls. They're supposed to eat new-born babies cooked in wine.'":260f
Williams also described Acton's review of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the Oxford student newspaper Cherwell: "a charming boy's book, we would suggest a cheap edition to fit comfortably into the pocket of a school blazer"; and summarised Acton's modernist approach to literature: "But if one finds the words, my dears, there is beauty in a black-pudding.":314
At Oxford Acton dominated the Railway Club, which included: Henry Yorke, Roy Harrod, Henry Thynne, 6th Marquess of Bath, David Plunket Greene, Edward Henry Charles James Fox-Strangways, 7th Earl of Ilchester, Brian Howard, Michael Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse, John Sutro, Hugh Lygon, Harold Acton, Bryan Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne, Patrick Balfour, 3rd Baron Kinross, Mark Ogilvie-Grant, John Drury-Lowe.
Evelyn Waugh peopled his novels with composite characters based upon individuals he personally knew. Harold Acton is reputed to have inspired, at least in part, the character of "Anthony Blanche" in Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). In a letter to Lord Baldwin, Waugh wrote, "There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names – that was 2/3 Brian [Howard] and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man [than Howard].":505 However, Waugh also wrote, "The characters in my novels often wrongly identified with Harold Acton were to a great extent drawn from Brian Howard".
In 1926 Acton acted as a special constable during the general strike, apolitical as he was, and took his degree. In October he took an apartment in Paris, at 29 Quai de Bourbon, and had his portrait painted by Pavel Tchelitcheff. Moving between Paris and London in the next few years, Acton sought to find his voice as a writer. In 1927 he began work on a novel, and a third book of poems, Five Saints and an Appendix, came out early the following year. This was followed by a prose fable, Cornelian, in March. In July Acton acted as Best Man at the wedding of Evelyn Waugh to the Honourable Evelyn Gardner. Waugh's Decline and Fall bore a dedication to Acton 'in Homage and Affection', but when Acton's own novel – disastrously entitled Humdrum – appeared in October 1928, it was slated in comparison with Decline and Fall by critics such as Cyril Connolly.
In the later 1920s Harold frequented the London salon of Lady Cunard, where at various times he encountered Ezra Pound, Joseph Duveen and the Irish novelist George Moore. On visits to Florence he cemented his friendship with Norman Douglas, who wrote an introduction to Acton's translation of a lubricious 18th-century memoir of Giangastone de' Medici, The Last of the Medici, privately printed in Florence in 1930 as part of the Lungarno Series. A fourth collection of poems, This Chaos, was published in Paris by Acton's friend Nancy Cunard, though the Giangastone translation pointed in a more promising direction. History was indeed to prove far more congenial to Acton than poetry. His The Last Medici (not to be confused with the earlier book of similar title) was published by Faber in 1932, the first of a series of distinguished contributions to Italian historical studies.
One close observer, Alan Pryce-Jones, felt that life in Florence weighed upon Acton with its triviality, for, like his father, he was a hard worker and a careful scholar. The East was an escape. He took up residence in Peking, as Beijing was then known, which he found congenial. He studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry. Between his arrival in 1932 and 1939 he published respected translations of Peach Blossom Fan and Modern Chinese Poetry (1936), both in collaboration with Ch'en Shih-hsiang (陳世驤), and Famous Chinese Plays (1937) in collaboration with L.C. Arlington. His novel Peonies and Ponies (1941) is a sharp portrait of expatriate life. He translated Glue and Lacquer (1941), selected from the 17th century writer Feng Menglong's Tales to Rouse the World, with a preface by Arthur Waley, the leading scholar-translator and member of the Bloomsbury Group.
The Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, but Acton did not leave until 1939, when he returned to England and joined the Royal Air Force as a liaison officer. He served in India and what was then Ceylon, and then after the Liberation in Paris. When the war was over, he returned to Florence. La Pietra had been occupied by German soldiers, but he expeditiously restored it to its proper glory.
Acton's non-historical works include four volumes of poetry, three novels, two novellas, two volumes of short stories, two volumes of autobiography and a memoir of his friend Nancy Mitford, who was his exact contemporary. His historical works include The Last Medici, a study of the later Medici Grand Dukes, and two large volumes on the House of Bourbon, rulers of the Kingdom of Naples in the 18th and earlier 19th century, which together may be said to constitute his magnum opus.
Acton was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1965 and knighted in 1974. The British Institute in Florence, an important centre for Anglo-Florentine cultural life since 1917, renamed its collections the Harold Acton Library.
Acton was Catholic;:151f  his cultural and historical commitment to the Church remained unchanged throughout his life. Acton's name was first on a petition submitted to Rome in 1971 by British cultural élite, requesting that the traditional Latin rite of the Mass not be abrogated in England.:359  His mother, the heiress Hortense Lenore Mitchell, a dominating personality in his life who lived on until the age of 90, did not make life easy for him but he still remained the devoted and admiring son.
After Acton's death, in reply to a magazine article that speculated both about the probable suicide of Acton's brother and about Acton's homosexuality, author A. N. Wilson remarked, "To call him homosexual would be to misunderstand the whole essence of his being" and that "He was more asexual than anything else". The article, by American writer David Plante, described Acton's time at Oxford as a "virile aesthete-dandy," but noted that while in China during the 1930s Acton's predilection for boys led to a classified government document describing him as a "scandalous debauchee," and prevented the possibility of his serving in the intelligence services there, when war broke out. Plante also described the young men whom Acton welcomed to La Pietra, including Alexander Zielcke, a German photographer and artist who was Acton's lover for the last twenty-five years of his life.
When Acton died he left Villa La Pietra to New York University. In leaving his family’s property and collection to New York University, Acton expressed his desire that the estate be used as a meeting place for students, faculty, and guests who might study, teach, write and do research, and as a centre for international programs. Following his death, DNA testing confirmed the existence of a half-sister born out of wedlock, whose heirs have gone to court to challenge Acton's $500 million bequest to New York University.
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Brian Christian de Claiborne Howard (13 March 1905 – 15 January 1958) was an English poet and later a writer for the New Statesman.British Institute of Florence
The British Institute of Florence is a cultural institute founded in 1917 in Florence, Italy, with the aim of promoting Anglo-Italian cultural relations, teaching English and Italian languages, and running a Library of English books to illustrate British and Italian literature, art, history and music. It is the oldest overseas British cultural institute in the world.Cimitero degli Allori
The Cimitero Evangelico agli Allori ("The Evangelical Cemetery at Laurels") is located in Florence, Italy, between 'Due Strade' and Galluzzo.David Plunket Greene
David Plunket Greene (19 November 1904 – 24 February 1941), together with his brother Richard and sister Olivia, was part of the Bright Young Things who inspired the novel Vile Bodies to Evelyn Waugh, a family friend.Desmond Parsons
Hon. Desmond Edward Parsons (13 December 1910 – 4 July 1937) was an aristocratic aesthete, regarded as "one of the most magnetic men of his generation." He had a passionate friendship with James Lees-Milne, was the one true love of Harold Acton and the unrequited love of Robert Byron.Edward Henry Charles James Fox-Strangways, 7th Earl of Ilchester
Edward Henry Charles James, 7th Earl of Ilchester (1 October 1905 – 21 August 1964), was a British peer and philanthropist. He also held the subsidiary titles and styles of Baron of Woodford Strangways of Dorset and Baron of Redlynch of Dorset.Evelyn Gardner
The Hon. Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred Gardner (27 September 1903 - 11 March 1994) was the youngest child of Herbert Gardner, 1st Baron Burghclere, and the first wife of Evelyn Waugh. She was one of the Bright Young Things.Gary Conklin
Gary Conklin is an independent American filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.
Conklin works predominantly in the documentary genre. His films focus on cultural icons of the 20th century. Subjects have included the late American writer and composer Paul Bowles, in Paul Bowles in Morocco, which is as much about the North African country as it is about Bowles; Gore Vidal while running for U.S. Senate in 1982; the American painter Edward Ruscha, and the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo.
Conklin produced and directed Memories of Berlin: The Twilight of Weimar Culture. The film features interviews with Christopher Isherwood, Louise Brooks, and Arthur Koestler, among others, discussing the culturally significant period of the 1920s in Berlin, during the Weimar Republic. He also has produced and directed a documentary about English literary society during the period after World War I until World War II, which includes Stephen Spender, Anthony Powell, Harold Acton, James Lees-Milne, Peter Quennell, Christopher Isherwood, and Diana Mosley. Conklin also made Notes from Under the Volcano about John Huston's making of the film Under the Volcano.Hugh Lygon
Hugh Patrick Lygon (2 November 1904 – 19 August 1936 Rothenburg, Bavaria) was the second son of William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, and is often believed to be the inspiration for Lord Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. He was a friend of Waugh's at Oxford (A. L. Rowse believed the two to be lovers), where both were members of the Hypocrites' Club (Lygon was also the president of the club), along with their contemporary Murray Andrew McLean and the Plunket Greene's brothers, Richard and David. David Plunket Greene was a good friend of Hugh Lygon.Hypocrites' Club
The Hypocrites' Club was one of the student clubs at Oxford University. Its motto in Greek, from a Pindar's Olympian Ode, was Water is best. This led to the members being called Hypocrites, due to the fact that beer, wine and spirits were indeed the chosen drinks.John Drury-Lowe
Major John Drury Boteler Packe-Drury-Lowe (16 October 1905 - 1 June 1960) was an English aristocrat, part of the Bright Young Things crowd of the 1920s.Mark Ogilvie-Grant
Charles Randolph Mark Ogilvie-Grant (15 March 1905 – 13 February 1969) was a diplomat and a botanist and one of the earliest member of the Bright Young Things. Despite his earliest frivolous past, he became a hero during the 1940–1941 Greek campaign.Michael Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse
Lawrence Michael Harvey Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse (28 September 1906 – 5 July 1979) was an Irish peer. He was the son of William Edward Parsons, 5th Earl of Rosse, whom he succeeded in 1918, and Frances Lois Lister-Kaye. He was educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford.NYU Florence
NYU Florence is an academic centre of New York University located at Villa La Pietra, near Florence, Italy. It is one of NYU's 14 global academic centers.Oxford Wits
The Oxford Wits, a term coined later, were an identifiable group of literary and intellectual aesthetes and dandies, present as undergraduates at the University of Oxford in England in the first half of the 1920s.
Their leader in fashion was Harold Acton, but their later leader in intellectual matters was more noticeably Maurice Bowra. Their attitudes were those portrayed and parodied in the nostalgic Brideshead Revisited of Evelyn Waugh, the most important literary figure to emerge from the group.
Others who are cited as Oxford Wits are John Betjeman, Robert Byron, Cyril Connolly, Brian Howard, Alan Pryce-Jones, John Sparrow, John Sutro, and Christopher Sykes.Patrick Balfour, 3rd Baron Kinross
John Patrick Douglas Balfour, 3rd Baron Kinross (1904–1976) was a Scottish historian and writer noted for his biography of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and other works on Islamic history.He was educated at Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford. He then became a journalist and writer.
At Oxford Balfour was part of the Railway Club, which included: Henry Yorke, Roy Harrod, Henry Thynne, 6th Marquess of Bath, David Plunket Greene, Edward Henry Charles James Fox-Strangways, 7th Earl of Ilchester, Brian Howard, Michael Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse, John Sutro, Hugh Lygon, Harold Acton, Bryan Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne, Patrick Balfour, Mark Ogilvie-Grant, John Drury-Lowe.During the Second World War he served with the Royal Air Force and from 1944-47 was First Secretary at the British Embassy at Cairo.In 1938, he married Angela Mary Culme-Seymour (1912-2012), daughter of George Culme-Seymour and Janet (née Orr-Ewing) and former wife of the artist John Spencer-Churchill. Having been separated by World War II when Balfour was posted to Cairo, she started a five-year relationship with Major Robert Hewer-Hewitt by whom she had two sons, Mark and Johnny. Patrick and Angela were divorced in 1942.Despite the brief marriage, Lord Kinross was homosexual; he had no issue and was succeeded by his brother David Andrew Balfour, 4th Baron Kinross.He is buried in "Lords Row" in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh with all previous ancestors of the title Baron Kinross.The Peach Blossom Fan
The Peach Blossom Fan (Chinese: 桃花扇; pinyin: Táohuā shàn; Wade–Giles: T'ao-hua shan) is a musical play and historical drama in 44 scenes that was completed in 1699 by the early Qing dynasty playwright Kong Shangren after more than 10 years of effort.The play depicts the drama that resulted in the 1644 collapse of the Ming dynasty. The play recounts the death of the Ming dynasty through the love story of its two main characters, young scholar Hou Fangyu (侯方域) and a courtesan named Li Xiangjun. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature has called it "China's greatest historical drama."An English translation published by the University of California Press was translated by Chen Shih-hsiang and Harold Acton, K.B.E. with Cyril Birch collaborating.The Temple at Thatch
The Temple at Thatch was an unpublished novel by the British author Evelyn Waugh, his first adult attempt at full-length fiction. He began writing it in 1924 at the end of his final year as an undergraduate at Hertford College, Oxford, and continued to work on it intermittently in the following 12 months. After his friend Harold Acton commented unfavourably on the draft in June 1925, Waugh burned the manuscript. In a fit of despondency from this and other personal disappointments he began a suicide attempt before experiencing what he termed "a sharp return to good sense".In the absence of a manuscript or printed text, most information on the novel's subject comes from Waugh's diary entries and later reminiscences. The story was evidently semi-autobiographical, based on Waugh's Oxford experiences. The protagonist was an undergraduate and the work's main themes were madness and black magic. Some of the novel's ideas may have been incorporated into Waugh's first commercially published work of fiction, his 1925 short story "The Balance", which includes several references to a country house called "Thatch" and is partly structured as a film script, as apparently was the lost novel. "The Balance" contains characters, perhaps carried over from The Temple at Thatch, who appear by name in Waugh's later fiction.
Acton's severe judgement did not deter Waugh from his intention to be a writer, but it affected his belief that he could succeed as a novelist. For a time he turned his attention away from fiction, but with the gradual recovery of his self-confidence he was able to complete his first novel, Decline and Fall, which was published with great success in 1928.Villa La Pietra
Villa La Pietra is a renaissance villa in the hills outside Florence, in Tuscany in central Italy. It was formerly the home of Arthur Acton and later of his son Harold Acton, on whose death in 1994 it was bequeathed to New York University.:18 The villa is now home to NYU Florence.