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Who was Harold Acton?
The Library was named after Harold Acton in 1989. Harold was for many years associated with the British Institute; he joined the governing board in 1950 and made available his apartments in the Palazzo Lanfredini for the Library of the British Institute in 1966.
Harold’s father, Arthur Acton, was from the Italian branch of the English Acton family, originally from Shropshire. His mother, Hortense Lenore Mitchell (1871-1962), was a rich heiress from Chicago, whose father was the founder of the Illinois Trust and Savings bank. When Hortense married Arthur in 1903 they moved into the Villa La Pietra, on the via Bolognese in Florence and shortly afterwards she bought it for him.
Harold was born in the Villa La Pietra in 1904, and grew up in the cultured and cosmopolitan Anglo-Florentine society before the First World War. He was sent to Eton and then to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was the most celebrated undergraduate of his generation. His contemporaries included Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, Brian Howard.
A book of poems, Aquarium (1923), was published to national acclaim when Harold was only eighteen. Later volumes of poetry were less succesful, and after a failed novel, unfortunately entitled Humdrum (1928), he found his true métier as a writer of historical narrative. The Last Medici, a study of the Grand Dukes Cosimo III and Giangastone, came out in 1932. In that year Harold set out for the Far East, and having toured South-East Asia he settled in Peking (Beijing), where he taught English at the University for seven years. In this period he learned the language and studied the classical Chinese theatre. He made a number of translations from the Chinese and collected works of art, but the political situation both in China and in Europe was rapidly deteriorating, and in 1939 he returned to Europe to fight against Hitler. After a quixotic lecture tour of Italy, hoping to persuade Mussolini’s Fascist government not to declare war on Britain, he joined the Royal Air Force and served in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). His parents escaped to Switzerland, and the Villa was sequestered. Harold was in Paris after the Liberation as an intelligence officer, and saw many old friends such as Gertrude Stein, George Orwell and Jean Cocteau. A few years after the war he published Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948), expounding his personal creed of artistic and natural beauty. In the 1950s he spent much time in Naples, where his archival researches eventually bore fruit in the form of two massive historical studies, The Bourbons of Naples (1956) and The Last Bourbons of Naples (1961). After the deaths of his parents he became sole owner of Villa La Pietra, where he spent the rest of his life. A second volume of autobiography, More Memoirs of an Aesthete, came out in 1970. An attractive coffee-table book called Tuscan villas, illustrated with photographs by Alexander Zielcke, appeared in 1973, and two years later Harold published his biography of an old friend, Nancy Mitford: a Memoir. Another old friend, Anne Rosse, was the mother-in-law of Princess Margaret and because of this connection many members of the royal family came to stay as Harold’s guests at La Pietra. He was always generous in allowing visitors to Florence to look round his house and garden.
In February 1994 Harold died in his bed at La Pietra, in the house where he had been born ninety years previously. He is buried beside his parents and younger brother, who died during the Second World War, in the Allori cemetery on the via Senese. He left his portion of the Palazzo Lanfredini, which already housed our library, to the British Institute and the Villa and its surrounding properties to New York University, which now uses La Pietra as its principal European campus.
For more on the history of the British Institute and the Harold Acton Library see Brief History