Thursday, 23 October 2014

Pink pigeons, the Mad Boy and a horse at the tea table

Lord Berners by Bill Brandt

With Gertude Stein

Caricature by Max Beerbohm

"Here lies Lord Berners
One of the learners
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning
But praise to the lord
He seldom was bored."

[His self-penned epitaph.]

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, also known as Gerald Tyrwhitt, made Faringdon House (in the Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire) the centre of a glittering social circle, entertaining some of the most diverse, creative and influential people during the 1920s and 30s. His typical weekend guest list might have included: Aldous Huxley, HG Wells, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Edith and all the Sitwells, Nancy Mitford, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Siegfried Sassoon, Diana Mosley, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Frederick Ashton, Duff and Diana Cooper, Stephen Tennant, Chips Channon, Max Beerbohm, Lord Beaverbrook, John and Penelope Betjeman ["I don't mind Penelope as long as we don't have any of that God nonsense," he apparently told a friend], Tom Driberg, Beverley Nichols, Elsa Schiaparelli and many more of the great and the not-so-good.

Lord Berners and party guests including Sir Robert and Lady Diane Abdy, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Robert Heber-Percy is seated at the centre

With Elsa Schiaparelli

"I can always tell when Gerald's weekend guests arrive," said a friend, discussing his music. "There's a sudden clash of cymbals." [Read more about Lord Berners' musical legacy in an essay by composer Gavin Bryars.]

His themed parties were legendary, as was his avowed eccentricity. From an article by Joseph Epstein:
He dyed the pigeons around Faringdon bright colours (using a dye that did them no harm). He had an occasional penchant for monochromatic meals. Stravinsky recalled that "if Lord Berners's mood was pink, lunch might consist of beet soup, lobster, tomatoes, strawberries," with pink pigeons flying outside; Stravinsky's wife sent Berners a powder that allowed him to make blue mayonnaise. He built a so-called "folly," an isolated tower with no reason for being other than his desire to have it built, and to it he appended the notice: "Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk." He allowed Penelope Betjeman's horse Moti into his drawing-room for tea, [and] he installed a portable piano in the back of his Rolls-Royce.

Gerald was popular with this dilettante inter-war generation as much for his wit as his largesse. When an Australian newspaper claimed that it was sad to see the once noble city of Venice full of beggars, he suggested that it was a misprint and supposed to read "buggers." He referred to Vita Sackville-West as "Wry Vita", and described T E Lawrence as "always backing into the limelight". When the Marchesa Casati arrived at Faringdon in tight satin trousers with a live boa constrictor, Berners entertained her at dinner by wearing a false nose.

When he was nearly 50, he fell in love with Robert Heber-Percy. The young man of 20 was handsome and gentle-eyed, but he was also possessed, says Berners's biographer, Mark Amory, of "an electrifying wildness, the suggestion of danger, the dash that earned him the nickname of 'the Mad Boy'." In the days when homosexuality was illegal, the couple lived openly together in Faringdon, London and Rome, and delighted in defying conventions: the Mad Boy rode naked on his horse and Berners wore masks in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.

"The Horrid Mad Boy" by Cecil Beaton

The Mad Boy's granddaughter - product of Robert's brief, unexpected and passionless marriage (to Jennifer) during his residency with Lord Berners - Sofka Zinovieff, who inherited the Faringdon estate, has published a new book about the affair, titled The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me. From the review by Rachel Cooke in The Observer:
At its heart, though, is a riddle: what kind of man was Heber-Percy, and why did he act as he did? Zinovieff did not meet her grandfather until she was 17, by which time Gerald Berners had long since passed into legend (He died in 1950, and was widely memorialised, most notably by Nancy Mitford, who wrote him, in the form of Lord Merlin, into her novel The Pursuit of Love). Was their relationship a love affair? Zinovieff believes it was. But relationships, at least among the upper classes, were then more flexible than now, and theirs stretchier than most. If Gerald’s friends were astounded when he took up with Heber-Percy, who at 20 was almost three decades his junior, they were even more amazed when this handsome “ape” brought home a wife. What had happened? Had the couple taken too much champagne at the Gargoyle Club? Gerald, on the other hand, took in his stride both the marriage and the baby that arrived nine months later. If Penelope Betjeman could bring her horse to tea, why shouldn’t Robert install a child?
Miss Zinovieff describes how the Mad Boy, in the end, adopted almost as many of his lover Gerald's foibles as his marriage had appeared to be an effort to reject:
...determined to keep Faringdon’s spirit alive, the entertaining continue[d], and he install[ed] a preposterous pink bathroom, with tropical mural. Emerging from grief, his love life [was] as muddy as ever. There [were] two men, Hughie and Garth, and another baffling marriage, to the elderly Coote Lygon, who grew up at Madresfield, the house that inspired Brideshead Revisited. (“A Darby and Joan engagement just announced in the Times has led to much chuckling on the grouse moors this week,” said the Daily Express.) Coote was girlishly excited to be a bride - and crushed to be banished to a nearby bungalow soon afterwards.
Robert Heber Percy remained somewhat of a brute, it seems - he physically attacked Cecil Beaton (who always hated him, calling him "Horrid Madboy"), an act of revenge which some say prompted the Grand Old Man of Photography to finally go into retirement.

Inevitably, even in a biography of the lover, it is the legend of Lord Berners and those decadent days at Faringdon that, for me at least, cast the lasting spell...

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff is available from Random House Publishing.

Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric by Mark Amory is available on Amazon.

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