Francis Sitwell
(Filed: 22/01/2004)
 

Francis Sitwell, who has died aged 68, made a very good fist of a difficult birthright.

Being born into one of England's most eccentric literary families was never going to be easy. The younger generation of Sitwells lived in the shadow of numinous ancestral figures: the brilliant eccentric Sir George (author of the definitive work on the fork); his beautiful, irresponsible wife, Lady Ida (imprisoned for fraud in 1915); and their children, the trio of poets and writers, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell.

Francis Trajan Sitwell was born in London on September 17 1935, the youngest son of Sacheverell ("Sachie") Sitwell and his wife Georgia (née Doble), a beautiful, tempestuous Canadian. Neither parent was particularly interested in children and, although they welcomed the birth of their son, he remained nameless for months, being referred to simply as "Baby".

The first name to be suggested was Niccolo, which his mother hoped would please his grandfather, Sir George (always referred to - although not to his face - as "Ginger"). Sachie and Georgia were perennially short of money, and the appearance of their son was seen as an opportunity to extract more funds from the suspicious old man. "Niccolo" was supposed to be a tribute to Sir George's Italian interests, expressed in his purchase years earlier of the huge Tuscan castle of Montegufoni.

But Sir George rejected the name, and in the summer of 1936 Baby/Niccolo began to be referred to by the equally unlikely name of Trajan; and it was as Trajan that he appeared in the dedication of his father's next major book, Dance of the Quick and the Dead, published in October of that year. Trajan was a common name in Romania - in honour of the Emperor Trajan, conqueror of the Dacians - and it appears that Sachie had already conceived the idea of a Romanian journey, which he undertook the following year and made the subject of one of his best travel books.

By the end of 1936, however, Trajan had been demoted to second place after Francis, the name of the 2nd Earl of Londesborough, the baby's great uncle. Francis's aunt, Edith Sitwell, stood as one godmother; the other was Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, then wife of Sachie's great friend, the fabulously rich Bendor.

Francis spent most of his early years at Weston Hall, the beautiful 18th-century house which Sachie had inherited in 1927. It was a somewhat isolated childhood, spent in the care of servants; his elder brother, Reresby, the future 7th baronet, was almost eight years older than Francis, and already away at prep school or spending time in the holidays with his Sitwell grandparents in Italy. "The pledge of our affection", as Sachie had described Francis to Georgia on the day of his birth, was often left behind as his parents pursued their own interests, social and sexual. As Sachie was in a travel-writing phase of his career, they spent much time out of England. "Shall miss him [Francis] terribly but long to get away," Georgia noted in her diary in March 1937.

Georgia, Reresby and Francis - with his nanny Eileen - were staying in Deauville when intimations of the coming war prompted Georgia to return to England with Reresby, leaving Francis and the nanny to fend for themselves. "Georgia has managed to lose Francis . . . last seen at Deauville," Osbert reported acidly. It was not until September 3 1939 that Francis's parents received news from Eileen that she and her charge were on board the liner Ile de France, bound for Southampton. In the summer of 1940 Georgia decided to send Francis, for his safety, to her aunt in Canada. He remained there for more than five years, until Georgia came to take him home in November 1945. "I wondered once," Francis later remembered, "whether my parents had actually forgotten about me."

Sachie was intrigued by the idea of Francis, writing before his return: "I feel he may be a remarkable and interesting child and that it would be terrible for him never to see us, or be able to learn anything from me. I am sure I can make something wonderful of him, if I have the chance."

It was hoped that Francis would be the poet of the next Sitwell generation. When this did not materialise, Sachie lost interest. Francis was dispatched to boarding school, and then to Eton. Later Francis recalled: "I didn't have an easy childhood in this lovely house. My father was a terrible bully, very selfish and mean. Highly unpredictable, like many writers, he and my mother would bicker incessantly over silly things like who had eaten more cheese. Their income had decreased during the war . . . but they still kept servants. My father never so much as polished a shoe in his life."

Despite everything, Francis grew up to be amusing, outgoing and social, remembered by a fellow Etonian as "always funny, always jolly and always optimistic". From 1956 to 1966 he worked for Shell, then entered public relations, in which, according to the chairman of one of his former client's companies, he achieved the feat, almost unknown in PR, of not making an enemy in 20 years.

Colleagues remembered his infectious laugh and penchant for small practical jokes. He once surreptitiously placed an item of ladies' underwear in his colleague Simon Preston's breast pocket; Preston produced it in the middle of a serious business meeting under the impression that it was his handkerchief.

Sitwell had inherited the family interest in the arts. In the late 1960s he founded the Sunday Ballet Club, funding works for new choreographers. With the Park Lane Group, he raised funds for young musicians, and in 1995 Princess Margaret unveiled a statue of Mozart which Sitwell had commissioned.

He also acted as a council member of the Byam Shaw School of Art between 1975 and 1991; as PR adviser to the National Art Collections Fund; and for Christie's in the late 1970s and 1980s. He then founded his own public relations firm.

He became close to Edith Sitwell in her later years, and was appointed her executor and principal legatee. He lectured on the Sitwells in Britain, America and Australia and was zealous in promoting Edith and her work. In 1962 Francis Sitwell organised a celebratory concert for her 75th birthday. Edith, splendid in red velvet, medieval hat and knuckleduster jewellery, read a selection of her poems from her wheelchair, while Peter Pears sang Britten's setting of Still Falls the Rain, and William Walton himself conducted Faade.

Francis Sitwell died on January 14. In 1966 he married Susanna Cross, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.