Picasso? It looks like something a tractor engine did

Sachie and Osbert  Sitwell .
Sachie and Osbert Sitwell .
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In the new world being forged from the cauldron of conflict, an eccentric and partly forgotten trio of Yorkshire art patrons brought Britain face to face with the modernist movement emerging from a weary Europe.

A century on, an exhibition reveals the extent to which the shock of the new engendered hate at first sight.

Renishaw Hall c1900

Renishaw Hall c1900

The Sitwell trio – described by the critic Cyril Connolly as “a dazzling monument to the English scene” but by Noel Coward as “two wiseacres and a cow” – were titled and wealthy siblings whose family seat was at Renishaw Hall, near Sheffield.

But it was at the fashionable West End store, Heals, in 1919, that they attempted to introduce the nation to Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and other artists of the new wave whose work was captivating the continent.

The art world was at once entranced and scandalised, but rarely-seen cuttings suggest that others were merely appalled.

Picasso’s work was compared by one viewer to “the marks that the wheel of a tractor engine makes in mud”.

Others refer to “indecent distortions” and “obscene colourings”, and a correspondent to one of the London papers remarks that “obscenity pervades the simplest subjects”.

He adds: “I felt the whole show to be a glorying in prostitution.”

Another affronted spectator said of the new style of artist: “He strips everything he touches of its clothing in beauty.”

The clippings are being shown during three guided tours of Renishaw Hall’s Sitwell Museum, which accompany an exhibition opening on May 23.

“The Sitwells were on a crusade against Philistines who didn’t understand art,” said Christine Beevers, who is curating the event.

“The artistic community was hungry for the work they were showing at Heals, but the conservative British public had never seen such art before.”

The Sitwells – Dame Edith, Sir “Sachie” Sacheverell and Sir Osbert, his “brother in art”– were writers and poets in their own right but were better known in their day for feuding with the more famous Bloomsbury Set of writers, philosophers and artists whose number included Virginia Woolf. Only Dame Edith, who died a virgin at 77 in 1964, is well remembered. She and Sachie had been born in Scarborough, where their eccentric father, Sir George Sitwell, also had a home.

In 1920, Sachie commissioned Picasso to paint murals at the family villa in Tuscany – though Sir George reportedly refused to pay.

Ms Beevers said: “The Sitwells were at their pinnacle as representatives of the new world after the First World War. They had their own movement, Sitwellism, embracing anything that was different and avant-garde.”

Some of Edith’s verse was set to music by Sir William Walton, and she recited it through a megaphone at London’s Aeolian Hall. “Drivel they paid to hear” was the headline on one review, and Osbert later remarked that “for several weeks subsequently we were obliged to go about London feeling as if we had committed a murder”.

Noel Coward ostentatiously walked out of the performance but apologised later with the gift to Edith of a large sofa.

The siblings’ great niece, Alexandra Sitwell, the current owner of Renishaw Hall, said the legacy of her ancestors, and their passion for the arts, was “huge”.