Lord Berners

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Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners[1] (18 September 1883 – 19 April 1950), also known as Gerald Tyrwhitt, was a British composer of classical music, novelist, painter and aesthete. He is usually referred to as Lord Berners.

Life[edit]

Berners was born in Apley Hall, Shropshire, in 1883.

His father, a naval officer, was rarely home. He was raised by a grandmother who was extremely religious and self-righteous, and a mother who had little intellect and many prejudices. His mother ignored his musical interests and instead focused on developing his masculinity, a trait Berners found to be inherently unnatural.

The eccentricities Berners displayed started early in life. Once, upon hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing him into water, the young Gerald promptly decided that by throwing his mother's dog out the window, he could teach it to fly. The dog was unharmed, though the act earned Berners a beating.

After devising several inappropriate booby traps, Berners was sent off to a boarding school in Cheam at the age of nine. It was here that he would first explore his homosexuality; for a short time, he was romantically involved with an older student. The relationship was abruptly ended after Berners vomited on the other boy.

After he left prep school, Gerald continued his education at Eton College. Later, in his autobiographies, Berners would reflect on his experiences at Eton, claiming that he had learned nothing while there, and that the school was more concerned with shaping the young men's characters than supplying them with an education.

As well as being a talented musician, Berners was a skilled artist and writer. He appears in many books and biographies of the period, notably portrayed as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.[2] He was a friend of the Mitford family and close to Diana Guinness.

Berners was notorious for his eccentricity,[3] dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colours and at one point entertaining Penelope Betjeman's horse to tea. There were paper flowers in the garden and the interior of the house was adorned with joke books and joke notices, such as "Mangling Done Here". As visitor Patrick Leigh Fermor recalled:

"No dogs admitted" at the top of the stairs and "Prepare to meet thy God" painted inside a wardrobe. When people complimented him on his delicious peaches he would say "Yes, they are ham-fed". And he used to put Woolworth pearl necklaces round his dogs' necks [Berners had a dalmatian, Heber Percy the retriever, Pansy Lamb] and when a guest, rather perturbed, ran up saying "Fido has lost his necklace", G said, "Oh dear, I'll have to get another out of the safe."[3]

His Rolls-Royce automobile contained a small clavichord keyboard which could be stored beneath the front seat. Near his house he had a 100-foot viewing tower constructed, Faringdon Folly, a notice at the entrance reading: "Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk".[4] Berners also drove around his estate wearing a pig's-head mask to frighten the locals.[5][6]

He was also subject throughout his life to periods of depression. These became more pronounced during the war.

He died in 1950 at Faringdon House, bequeathing his estate to his companion Robert ('Mad Boy') Heber Percy, who lived at Faringdon until his own death in 1987.

His epitaph on his gravestone reads:

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

Music[edit]

Berners' musical works included Trois morceaux, Fantasie espagnole (1919), Fugue in C minor (1924), and several ballets, including The Triumph of Neptune (1926) (based on a story by Sacheverell Sitwell) and Luna Park (1930). In his period at the British embassy in Rome during World War I he composed avant-garde piano music and several song cycles and later ballets and film scores, notably the 1947 feature Nicholas Nickleby.

His friends included the composers Constant Lambert and William Walton and he worked with Frederick Ashton. Walton dedicated Belshazzar's Feast to Berners, and Lambert arranged a Caprice péruvien for orchestra, from Lord Berners' opera Le carrosse du St Sacrement.

Berners himself once said that he would have been a better composer if he had accepted fewer lunch invitations. But English composer Gavin Bryers, quoted in Peter Dickinson’s biography of Berners, disagrees saying: "If he had spent more time on his music he could have become a duller composer".[7] Dinah Birch, reviewing The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, a biography of Berners written by his granddaughter, Sofka Zinovieff, concurs saying: "Had he committed himself to composition as his life's work, perhaps his legacy would have been more substantial. But his music might have been less innovative, for its amateur quality - 'amateur in the best sense', as Stravinsky insisted - is inseparable from its distinctive flair".[8]

Literature[edit]

Berners wrote four autobiographical works and some novels, mostly of a humorous nature. All were published and some went into translations. His autobiographies First Childhood (1934), A Distant Prospect(1945), Resenlieu and Dresden are both witty and affectionate.

Berners obtained some notoriety for his roman à clef The Girls of Radcliff Hall (punning on the name of the famous lesbian writer), initially published privately under the pseudonym "Adela Quebec",[3][9][10] in which he depicts himself and his circle of friends, such as Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel, as members of a girls school. This frivolous satire, which was privately published and distributed, had a modish success in the 1930s. The original edition is rare; rumour has it that Beaton was responsible for gathering most of the already scarce copies of the book and destroying them.[11] However, the book was reprinted in 2000.

His other novels, including Romance of a Nose, Count Omega and The Camel are a mixture of whimsy and gentle satire.

Bibliography[edit]

Fiction[edit]

  • 1936 – The Camel
  • 1937 – The Girls of Radcliff Hall
  • 1941 – Far From the Madding War
  • 1941 – Count Omega
  • 1941 – Percy Wallingford and Mr. Pidger
  • 1941 – The Romance of a Nose

[See Collected Tales and Fantasies, New York, 1999]

Non-fiction[edit]

  • 1934 – First Childhood
  • 1945 – A Distant Prospect

The Chateau de Resenlieu (2000); Dresden (2008)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson at the National Portrait Gallery
  2. ^ Birch, Dinah (11 October 2014). "Composer, novelist, poet, painter and hedonistic host – the real Lord Merlin and his glamorous, desperate world". The Guardian (London). 
  3. ^ a b c Mark Amory, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric, London, 1998 ISBN 978-0-7126-6578-0
  4. ^ Wilkes, Roger. "Cultured country house". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2 July 2013. 
  5. ^ Thompson, Damian (20 September 2008). "Review: Lord Berners by Peter Dickinson". Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 14 October 2014. 
  6. ^ Birch, Dinah (11 October 2014). "Composer, novelist, poet, painter and hedonistic host – the real Lord Merlin and his glamorous, desperate world". The Guardian (London). 
  7. ^ Thompson, Damian (20 September 2008). "Review: Lord Berners by Peter Dickinson". Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 14 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Birch, Dinah (11 October 2014). "Composer, novelist, poet, painter and hedonistic host – the real Lord Merlin and his glamorous, desperate world". The Guardian (London). 
  9. ^ Bryony Jones, The music of Lord Berners (1883–1950): the versatile peer, Ashgate Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-7546-0852-2, pp.9,101,143
  10. ^ Beverly Lyon Clark, Regendering the school story: sassy sissies and tattling tomboys, Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0-415-92891-5, p.143
  11. ^ Florence Tamagne, History of Homosexuality in Europe, 1919–1939, Algora Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-87586-356-6, p.124
Peerage of England
Preceded by
Raymond Robert Tyrwhitt-Wilson
Baron Berners
1918–1950
Succeeded by
Vera Ruby Williams