I cannot remember thinking of myself as a child.

Harold Acton, Memoirs of An Aesthete, 1948, p.9


Even as a child, Harold Acton had his eyes on adulthood. Profoundly influenced by his encounters with adults, the residents and visitors of Villa La Pietra emerged as ‘role models’ in Harold’s youth. These early encounters at the Villa shaped his value of education, which prompted him to leave his family’s vast estate go to Oxford University, and his artistic taste, which we see reflected by the Acton Collection today.

The social standing of the Acton family attracted guests of many different nationalities to the Villa. This was especially true during the onset of World War I. As Sir Harold writes in his Memoirs “the war drove royal refugees to the villa” (Acton 1948, 53). During World War I, the Acton family hosted many members of the Serbian royal family, including Prince Alexis Karageorgevitch of Serbia, who stayed in the Acton’s Villa Sassetti, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, Comtesse d’Orsay of Sicily, and many members of the Greek royal family. Harold writes in his Memoirs about the impression that these individuals made on him as a young boy, charming him with their “courtesy and appreciation of Florentine art” (Acton 1948, 53).  While many children draw pictures of princesses from fairy tales, as he himself drew in his recently found hand written and illustrated book of poems, few children have the privilege of dining with real ones. He was photographed as a young boy standing with Princess Daria Karageorgevitch in front of Villa La Pietra. Perhaps his early relationship with royals anticipate his later friendship with Princess Margaret, daughter of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and sister of Queen Elizabeth II. Certainly, these royal visitors made a lasting impression on Sir Harold’s life, as we see reflected today in his memoirs and cherished keepsakes.

Even when the Villa was not hosting special guests, Harold’s relationship with his parents, Arthur Acton and Hortense Mitchell Acton, and his nurse helped shape his artistic taste now reflected in the Acton collection. Aside from his immediate family, little Harold likely spent the most time with his nurse. He writes of her frequently in his Memoirs, although not always in the most positive light. Harold writes in his Memoirs that his nurse made a point of sharing with him her disapproval of the partially-nude sculptures that his family displayed throughout the gardens at the Villa. Harold recounted this to his parents who promptly sat him down for “a lecture on primary aesthetics”, sparking his life-long “admiration on the beauty of the human form” (Acton 1948, 14).

Harold’s parents, Arthur himself an artist and both amateur art collectors, took great care in shaping the artistic interests of their children. There are many photographs today in the Acton Photograph Archive that show the two brothers posing proudly in front of classical sculpture and architecture in Pompei and the Roman Forum. This is also reflected by the Actons’ collection of postcards, which feature thousands of souvenir postcards of artwork. We may, then, consider artists among the boys’ role models. Harold’s passion for Botticelli pervades his childhood interests. As a boy he collected postcards of Botticelli’s paintings in his photo album, and he writes in his Memoirs that he chastised Savonarola for reportedly forcing him to burn many of his paintings.

Harold’s value for art emerged early in his childhood. This was in no small part aided by Arthur and Hortense, who brought important artists of the time into their lives. Harold writes that he bonded with several of his friends over their shared admiration for the artist Giovanni Boldini, who painted beautiful portraits of their mothers and Hortense’s female friends. However, perhaps the greatest artist-role model at the Villa was Umberto Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi, an Italian artist, was a close family friend of the Actons, designing the children’s Ex libris (bookplates) and costumes for the family. Brunelleschi designed the costumes for “Un Po’ di Colore”, a charity theater production in favor of the Red Cross, documented in the Acton Collection by photographs by Mario Nunes Vais, paintings, and Florentine magazine articles. Hortense, William, and the inspiring muse Cora Antinori, a close family friend, are photographed in elaborate costumes that Harold admired. This marks a theme in Harold’s memoirs: always campaigning for the value of art, even during war-time.

“Since war had to be fought, why could it not be fought with inspiring words and museum, and with rapiers of wit as well as machines? … I proposed that the War Office should employ Bakst to design uniforms. We should have patriotic marches by Stravinsky and chants by Debussy, and a choir of Grenadier Guards like the Don Cossacks” (Acton 1948, 48)

– Phoebe Price

In their Shadow: The Influence of Role Models