Under the volcano

It was an aesthetes' salon in the sun, where DH Lawrence stopped by for tea and Bertrand Russell took a room.

Robert Teed marvels at an Englishman's home in Sicily

"The finest house in Taormina," they called Casa Cuseni when it was finished; a house of honeyed stucco, built by English artist Robert Kitson in an impossibly romantic Sicilian location, its grandeur hardly fading with the passing century. Kitson said: "It was the sun - the sun and the place itself that inspired me."

The painter lived happily in Casa Cuseni for more than 40 years. When he died, in 1947, he passed it to his niece, Daphne Phelps, who has lived there since. In Kitson's day, the house was a hub of Taormina society, probably the nearest the town had to a literary and artistic salon. Phelps somewhat inadvertently continued this tradition, since the only way she could afford to keep the house was by taking paying guests, among them Bertrand Russell, Henry Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Roald Dahl. Now, the house is awaiting its third era, its future in limbo. Phelps's health is declining - she no longer has the strength to run a pensione. It's likely that, eventually, the house and gardens will become a museum, in the care of the Sicilian authorities.

Visiting the house today, Concetta, Phelps's housekeeper for 30 years, comes to the door. As she throws back the shutters and lets the Sicilian light flood the elegant spaces, the house seems stopped in time. There are small clues of recent habitation - a telephone, hi-fi, a small pile of magazines - but the feeling persists that these rooms haven't changed since Kitson completed them in 1906.

He had been drawn to Taormina, not just by the sun, but by its reputation. Ever since Goethe, in the 1780s, hailed the town as "insuperable. A patch of paradise", the Sicilian resort had been on the Grand Tour of every aristocratic European. Its virtues had been extolled during the 19th century by, among others, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, Gustav Klimt, Edward Lear and Walter Swinburne. But while they liked to visit, Kitson could afford to build a home there.

He arrived in the town in 1900, at the age of 27. With his pale skin, careful coiffure and penetrating blue eyes, he looked every inch the fin de siècle English aesthete. Taormina, he quickly realised, could satisfy his needs: its light, beauty and sublime landscape would inspire his painting; its climate could benefit his rheumatic fever; and he could escape the sexual repression of his native England, epitomised by Oscar Wilde's recent trial and detention.

Almost immediately, the young Englishman began work on Casa Cuseni. He chose a site on the very outskirts of Taormina, becoming the first foreigner to build outside the medieval walls and earning himself the nickname " il pazzo inglese " - the mad Englishman. Kitson, who came from an engineering family, planned and supervised every detail of his project, ensuring his home would have a stunning view of the Bay of Naxos and Mount Etna.

He was architect, draughtsman, surveyor, engineer, landscape gardener and interior designer, although he enlisted some help with the latter from an old friend and mentor, the artist Frank Brangwyn. (Ironically, Kitson was to be remembered more for this act of artistic patronage than for any of his paintings.) Brangwyn had been apprenticed to William Morris, and by the time he received Kitson's commission, he was working closely with art nouveau pioneers in Paris, Munich and Vienna. Brangwyn was responsible for Casa Cuseni's dining room interior: furniture, panelling, detailing and murals.

By the time the house was complete, the locals had taken Kitson to their hearts. "Il pazzo inglese" gave way to "Don Roberto": respect was due to the Englishman who showed such commitment to his adoptive home. He was popular, too, for the innovations he introduced to Taormina: the first private swimming pool, for instance, sited (with an artist's sensibility and engineer's precision) to reflect Etna's moonlit slopes; and the first motor car, in which he helped to ferry the injured during the earthquake of 1908.

Casa Cuseni rapidly became a nexus for society, with Don Roberto playing host to the great and the good: both local and visiting. DH Lawrence, who stayed in Taormina in the early 1920s, wrote how, after taking tea with Kitson, he had been "suddenly dashed into society". This role of patron of the arts was one Kitson relished throughout his time at the house.

Today, the narrow road outside the boundary wall of Casa Cuseni is jammed with traffic. But step through the gate into the lush, terraced garden and you step into timeless calm. Steep pathways take you up past neoclassical fountains and follies, and offer tantalising glimpses of golden stucco through papyrus, hibiscus and orange trees. Finally, you arrive at the terrace, high above the rooftops of Taormina (they weren't there in Kitson's day), and can marvel at the panorama of sea, shimmering plains and snow-capped Etna.

The facade of Casa Cuseni is essentially neoclassical, but it is also unadorned - unlike an English Palladian mansion, it is outward looking, rather than self-regarding. Five sets of french windows punctuate the ground and first floors; two thick-set Corinthian columns support the upper balcony. The east and west "wings" make the house look, from a distance, as if it has two squat turrets.

If the exterior of Casa Cuseni is an exercise in understatement, the ground floor interior revels in being looked at. It is dominated by an enormous, elegant drawing room, whose three sets of high french windows bring the terrace and panorama into the house. Interestingly for an artist's chief entertainment space, the walls are bare. Decoration comes instead from the many antiques and relics that Kitson collected: 18th-century chests, rococo tables, Hellenic fragments, Venetian glass, gilded mirrors with filigreed candelabra, baroque altar pieces, a bishop's throne. Kitson's achievement here is to combine the conventional English drawing room with Italianate elegance and high camp.
Brangwyn's dining room, in contrast, showcases design of the time and provides an important example of the arts and crafts movement: a vision of Englishness that might have been plucked from the Sussex countryside. Brangwyn chose American pecan wood for the panelling and furniture - a wood that glows in the sunshine, and gives a tonal uniformity to the room. The designer also painted a series of frescoes of nymphs and maidens, who look down from above the panelling at the diners below: very à la mode for 1906.

On the same floor lies Kitson's library. Still painted in soothing, sage-green tones, with its books and comfy chairs, this room emanates donnish seclusion. Many of the writers who have stayed in Casa Cuseni over the years left their own volumes, dedicated to Robert or Daphne.

It's 100 years since Kitson started work on Casa Cuseni, yet the house stands as a testament to his vision and aesthetic. And it remains, for many, the finest house in Taormina.

The Guardian
Saturday July 19, 2003