Memoirs of an Aesthete by Harold Acton

These memoirs given an account of the author’s early life and they end just before the outbreak of World War II. So they cover a period I find fascinating: the end of the old order in Europe, signalled by the catastrophic First World War; the advent of rapid technological and social change; and the strange, almost eerie period of exaggerated consciousness that was the 1920s and early 1930s.

The author was, well, as it says on the cover of the book, an aesthete, and proud to be so. He deals extensively with his appreciations of art, poetry and literature and it is striking to see how many of the names he mentions as creators of masterpieces are, today, relatively unknown. Norman Douglas, for example.

Quite a lot of his commentary on society figures of the day, in Florence, Oxford and London is waspish but in a very restrained way. He is a discreet observer of the scene, hinting at the poor judgements and qualities of others rather than ranting about them. Which is quite powerful, in context.

He moves to China during the 1930s and becomes a rather idealistic and faintly patronising Sinophile. He buys a huge house in Peking (as it was then called) and devotes himself to the study and acqusition of Chinese art. I don’t agree with him about how wonderful it all is, I am afraid. To my untutored eye, Chinese art of the classical kind is derivative and hard to enjoy, not least because it deals with only a limited and prescribed set of subjects. Usually, conformity to ancient principles one of the chief critieria against which quality is judged so, by definition, there is not that much room for imagination and innovation. Acton would disagree, I think, and say that this disciplined control of form and content has the same effect as the sonnet form in English poetry – it forces the painter or writer to ever greater heights of artistic success. But that is the beauty of art – it is in the eye of the beholder.

This is quite a long book and, at times, it drags a little. But I am glad to have read it. It has the feel of reportage – the writer was actually part of the social scene he describes and that carries you through the duller bits.

Not everyone’s cup of tea but if you are interested in the Belle Epoque and the years that followed, it is an excellent journey with an entertaining guide.


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