Oliver Percy Bernard

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Bernard in the Boston Globe

Oliver Percy Bernard OBE MC (8 April 1881 – 15 April 1939) was an English architect, and scenic, graphic and industrial designer. He was instrumental in developing conservative Victorian British taste in a modernist European direction and much of his work is frequently characterised as art deco.

Early life[edit]

Born in Camberwell, London, Bernard was the son of Charles Bernard, (d.1894), a theatre manager, and his wife Annie Allen, an actress. Oliver Bernard experienced an unhappy childhood in London and, on the death of his father in 1894, left for Manchester to take a job as a stage hand in a theatre. He took on his own education by reading John Locke, John Ruskin and others. He ultimately took a series of menial jobs at sea, before returning to London to take up scene painting with Walter Hann. Bernard filled his recreation with boxing and billiards. In 1905, he went to New York to work for Klaw & Erlanger before returning to London to work at Covent Garden.[1] In 1912 he was scenic director of the Quinlan Opera Company during their tour of Australia.[2]

At the beginning of World War I in 1914, Bernard was rejected for active military service on the grounds of his deafness. Now frustrated by the conservatism of the London theatre,[1] and ashamed at his inability to serve in the war,[3] he travelled back to the Americas before returning on the RMS Lusitania in 1915, surviving its sinking.[1] As the ship went down, Bernard made sketches which were published in the Illustrated London News.[4] In 1916, he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers as a camouflage officer, serving in France, Italy and Belgium, reaching the rank of captain, and being awarded the Military Cross and OBE.[1]


In 1919, Bernard continued his theatrical work, designing sets for Sir Thomas Beecham's Ring Cycle at Covent Garden. He also overhauled the lighting and stage management at the Admiralty Theatre.[1] By the 1920s, Bernard began to display an interest in trade and industry, new materials and techniques and a populist approach to decoration. He acted as a consultant to the Board of Overseas Trade and worked on designing displays for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. He was a consultant again to the British government for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.[1]

J. Lyons and Co.[edit]

He was consultant artistic director to J. Lyons and Co., defining much of their later house style and designing interiors for their Oxford Street, Coventry Street, and Strand Corner Houses.[1]

In 1929, he designed a spectacular art deco entrance to the Strand Palace Hotel and worked on the Cumberland Hotel in 1932.[1]

Later work[edit]

Bernard also wrote on design and architecture and championed the exploitation of engineering expertise. He worked on furniture design and, from the late 1930s designed a number of industrial buildings, most notably the Supermarine works in Southampton[1] and the (until recently overlooked) IMCO building on Dublin's south coast.[5] He was involved in founding PEL (Practical Equipment Ltd) and designed the S.P.4 chair for them.[6][7]

In print[edit]

Bernard's work and writing feature in a small number of anthology publications on architecture and design including Benton, Charlotte et al. Art Deco 1910–1939, (V&A Publications, 2003) and Le Corbusier and Britain: An Anthology, edited by Irena Murray and Julian Osley (Routledge, 2009). His IMCO building was the subject of a 2012 film by the Irish artist Gavin Murphy, and formed part of a subsequent publication On Seeing Only Totally New Things, that also includes the first comprehensive and illustrated account of Bernard's life and work.[8]

Personality and family[edit]

Bernard was "short in stature with a large head." His former secretary described him as "amusing, utterly impossible, kind, and a bully".[1] He was a cousin to the actor Stanley Holloway (Bernard's father Charles was a brother to Holloway's maternal grandmother), to Holloway's son, the actor Julian Holloway and Julian's daughter, the author and former model Sophie Dahl.[9]

Bernard was married twice; first to the singer Muriel Theresa Lightfoot in 1911 (the marriage dissolved in 1924) and then to Dora Hodges, an opera singer whose stage name was Fedora Roselli, in 1924.[1] From this relationship, the couple had two daughters and three sons including the poet and translator Oliver Bernard who attended the Westminster School and later published a book of memoirs.[10][11] Bernard's two other sons were Bruce Bonus Bernard, a photographer and art critic and Jeffrey Bernard who became a noted journalist.[1]

Oliver Bernard died unexpectedly of peritonitis in London. His estate was worth £2,950 at his death[1] but he left his wife with heavy debts.[11] Nevertheless, she managed to send the three sons to independent schools.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Powers (2004)
  2. ^ Gyger
  3. ^ Wang (2003–2005)
  4. ^ Reproduced in Sauder & Marschall (1993) pp46–47
  5. ^ "Dictionary of Irish Architects". http://www.dia.ie/. Irish Architectural Archive. Retrieved 24 June 2014. 
  6. ^ Powers (2007)
  7. ^ Parker (1984)
  8. ^ Riba Library http://riba.sirsidynix.net.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/?ps=GgTIap1HJD/MAIN_CAT/81170087/2/1000 |url= missing title (help). 
  9. ^ Holloway and Richards, pp. 74–75
  10. ^ Bernard (1992)
  11. ^ a b c May, A. (2004) "Bernard, Bruce Bonus (1928–2000)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 22 August 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required)


  • Bernard, O. (1936). Cock Sparrow: A True Chronicle. London. 
  • Bernard, O. [junior] (1992). Getting Over It: Recollections. London: Peter Owen. ISBN 0-7206-0865-1. 
  • Gyger, Alison (1990). Opera for the Antipodes (Opera in Australia 1881–1939). Sydney: Currency Press and Pellinor Pty Ltd. ISBN 0-86819-268-6. 
  • Holloway, Stanley; Richards, Dick (1967). Wiv a little bit o' luck: The life story of Stanley Holloway. London: Frewin. OCLC 3647363. 
  • Links, J. G. (1985). "Oliver Bernard, the Barbican and me". 30s Society Journal 5: 2–7. 
  • Murphy, Gavin (2013). On Seeing Only Totally New Things. Dublin: Royal Hibernian Academy. pp. 99–126. ISBN 1-903875-68-4. 
  • Parker, E. (1984). "Working for Oliver Bernard and the early days of PEL Ltd". Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 8: 50–57. 
  • Powers, A. (2004) "Bernard, Oliver Percy (1881–1939)", rev., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 22 August 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  • — (2007) "Bernard, Oliver (Percy)", Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, accessed 22 August 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  • Sauder, E. & Marschall, K. (1993). R. M. S. Lusitania: Triumph of the Edwardian Age. Shipping Books Press. pp. pp46–47. ISBN 0-946184-80-1. 
  • Wang, R. J. (2003–2005). "Mr. Oliver Percy Bernard, Saloon Class Passenger". The Lusitania Resource. Retrieved 22 August 2007. 

External links[edit]