West Dean College Visual Arts Research Project: Dame Edith Sitwell

The first time I entered the Old Music Room at West Dean College, the portrait of the poet, Dame Edith Sitwell, also known as Sibyl, (1936-7), painted by Pavel Tchelitchew, struck me immediately, not least because her larger than life figure loomed ominously out of the darkness, but because she was instantly recognisable from her distinctive elegant hands and long Plantagenet nose. While renowned for her statuesque appearance and sharp wit, she was perhaps best known for her collaborative work, Facade, (1922) with the composer, Sir William Walton, which married her dissonant, so-called cubist poetry and his music in a response to the mechanisation and noise of the modern world.

When, as part of my Master of Fine Art assessment, the opportunity arose to research and respond to items from the Edward James Archive, a rich and eclectic source of insights into the art and literary interests of the founder of West Dean College, Edward James, there was no debate. It had to be the letters that passed between Edward James and Edith Sitwell from the 1930s onwards. Edith Sitwell was exactly the kind of person towards whom Edward James would gravitate. An acclaimed poet, editor of her own successful literary magazine, "Wheels", mentor to Wilfred Owen and Dylan Thomas, with three Doctorates of Literature, and ultimately "Dame" Edith, the letters reveal that she gently critiqued his poems, provided moral support during his scandalous divorce and shared his obsession with Pavel Tchelitchew, her portraitist, whom they affectionately called "Pavlik".

Extending my research beyond the archive, I also explored Edith Sitwell's interest in the Commedia dell'Arte masked "personality" and her World War II poetry, in particular, the poem, Serenade: Any Man to Any Woman, (1941). Loaded with irony, the poem explores the last words of a soldier dying in battle who will only be reunited with his love if she joins him in death.

My response was an assemblage of two heads; one of Sitwell, the other of a masked man (perhaps her darling, Pavlik), alongside a series of four copper etchings evoking darkness and death. The etchings were created from collaged images of Sitwell and objects from the West Dean Collection, Church and Estate. The Sitwell poem, Serenade: Any Man to Any Woman, (1941), was printed alongside the etchings.

During my research I made contact with a writer and actor from Brighton, Jules Craig, who bears a striking resemblance to Edith Sitwell and has written and performed a show based on Sitwell's life. Jules visited me at West Dean College and it was decided that she should perform her one-woman-show which explores the life and identity of Edith Sitwell, Edith, Elizabeth and I, in the Old Library at West Dean College on Wednesday 2nd November 2016, 7:30pm.

Sarah Cliff is currently studying towards an MFA (Master of Fine Art) at West Dean College. Her work can be see here

Serenade: Any Man to Any Woman

Dark angel who art clear and straight

As cannon shining in the air,

Your blackness doth invade my mind

And thunderous as the armoured wind

That rained on Europe is your hair;

And so I love you till I die-

(Unfaithful I, the cannon's mate):

Forgive my love of such brief span,

But fickle is the flesh of man,

And death's cold puts the passion out.

I'll woo you with a serenade-

The wolfish howls the starving made;

And lies shall be your canopy

To shield you from the freezing sky.

Yet when I clasp you in my arms-

Who are my sleep, the zero hour

That clothes, instead of flesh, my heart,-

You in my heaven have no part,

For you, my mirage, broken in flower,

Can never see what dead men know!

Then die with me and be my love:

The grave shall be your shady grove

And in your pleasaunce rivers flow

(To ripen this new Paradise)

From a more universal Flood

Yet still you will imperfect be

That in my heart like death's chill grows,

-A rainbow shining in the night,

Born of my tears…your lips, the bright

Summer-old folly of the rose.

Edith Sitwell, 1941