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MS 451

Reference code

MS 451


Harold Acton collection



Administrative / Biographical history

Harold Acton, British author and member of the Bright Young Things, was born on 5th July 1904 in Florence. His father, Arthur Acton, was an art collector and dealer; his mother, Hortense Lenore Mitchell, was the heiress of John J. Mitchell.

Acton’s early education was delivered in Florence. In 1913 he was sent to Wixenford Preparatory School in Berkshire. Acton entered Eton in May 1918; his younger brother joined him a year later. Acton became a founding member of the Eton Arts Society, and contributed poetry to the Eton Candle, a literary magazine. It was during his years at Eton that Acton developed his identity as an aesthete. By the time that he went up to Christ Church, Oxford in 1922, his mode of dress – bowler hat, wide lapelled jacket and “Oxford bags” – was established, as was his circle of literary contacts.

During that time Acton established himself as an influential literary critic, all the while continuing to write poetry. After graduating Oxford Acton relocated to Paris, where he turned his hand to fiction. His first two novels made little impact, so a disappointed Acton turned to non-fiction; The Last Medici was published in 1932.

In the mid-1930s Acton moved once again, this time to China, where he taught English at Peking University. During this period he wrote Peonies and Ponies, of all his novels the best received. In 1939, after the Japanese invasion, Acton left Peking. By 1940 he was serving in RAF intelligence in India. Shortly after the conclusion of the war in which his brother William died, Acton wrote Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948).

In 1962 Acton inherited La Pietra and other properties in Florence, and began to host in earnest, entertaining well-known guests with his conversation. In 1965 he was appointed CBE, with a knighthood following in 1974. Harold Acton died at La Pietra in 1994, and was buried in the Gli Allori cemetery.



Extent & medium

2 boxes

Content description

Correspondence and writings by Sir Harold Acton.


An ongoing collection acquired by gift and purchase from various sources. Source information, where known, is recorded on individual folders.
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