Lord Berners
[ Issue 33 ]

Emily Bronto clearly approves of Lord Berners

Bikwil salutes Lord Berners

Lord Berners

Gerald Tyrwhitt was one of his names.  According to Tony Rogers, if that intrigues you, wait till you read about Lord Berners' even odder life.

While he loved his mother dearly and provided well for her in her later years, Gerald viewed her as conventional and lacking imagination. The idea that he should become an artist or writer, or even worse, a musician, filled her with revulsion. At the age of 17 he wrote a play under the influence of Ibsen. His mother condemned it as morbid, asking why he couldn’t write a play like Charley’s Aunt.

[ Print This Issue ]  

[ Help with Printing ]

 Music Player 


A Bikwil Epitaph for an
Extraordinary Musical Aristocrat
— Tony Rogers


In one of his short stories (Open House, in Mulliner Nights) P.G. Wodehouse introduces us to a young lady called Marcella Tyrrwhitt. While it appears bizarre at first, the surname is typical of Wodehouse, in so far as he often chose designations for his characters that were in fact based on real names, albeit odd ones.

Here in Australia the name “Tyrrwhitt” is non-existent — or, at the very least, exceptionally rare. It certainly doesn’t appear in the Sydney phone book. In England, by way of contrast, this name, in various spellings (chiefly concerned with the “double-r” and/or the “double-t”), has had its several moments of stardom, being attached not only to real people but also to streets.

The 18th century, for instance, produced the classical and English scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt (1730-86), who published editions of Aristotle's Poetics and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It is on the latter that his fame primarily rests. Over the centuries the English language had changed so much that some of the principles needed for a proper understanding of medieval poetry had been forgotten, and Chaucer’s reputation had sunk quite low. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us, “it was Tyrwhitt who pointed out that final “e’s” (by his time mute) ought to be pronounced as separate syllables and that the accent of a word was often placed in the French manner (e.g., virtúe, not vírtue)”.

A humble 19th-century example with unfortunate contemporary echoes was that of Mr. Tyrrwhit of the Marlborough Police Court. According to social researcher Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) in his vast survey of London’s poor, Mr. Tyrrwhit became disturbed by “one of the most disgraceful, horrible and revolting practices (not even eclipsed by the slave-trade), carried on by Europeans . . . [namely] the importation of girls into England from foreign countries to swell the ranks of prostitution”.

On a present-day but more respectable note, for relevant street names Londoners need look no further than Tyrwhitt Road, Brockley, London SE4. A most sought-after area today say the estate agents, where may be had substantial high-ceilinged, four-bedroom, two-storey Victorian homes with views across Hillyfields and towards Greenwich — all for a mere £285,000 (going on for $A700,000).

But for pure Bikwilian idiosyncratic nobility of purpose, no bearer of the surname can take the outrageous cake as can Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt (1883-1950). In my editorial in Bikwil No. 13 (May, 1999) it was Gerald Tyrwhitt whom I intended to feature in our series Memorable Moments in Music as the British composer who wrote the words for his own headstone. Further investigation, however, has led me to realise that his role as self-epitaphist (anomalous though it may have been) was relatively minor in the full eccentric scheme of his gloriously unlikely life. In short, he deserves an extended laudatory article unto himself, well beyond the confines of the memorably musical.

My choice of the word “nobility” above, though ironic, was deliberate and very much to the point. For at the age of 35 Tyrwhitt inherited an ancient title that dated back five centuries and became the fourteenth Baron Berners. Of his ancestors the most illustrious was John Bourchier (1467-1533), the second Baron, who was a soldier, a diplomat and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry VIII. He is remembered, however, less as a man of action than as a man of scholarship, since it is to him we owe most of our knowledge about the Hundred Years War, via his energetic translation from French of the Chroniques of Jean Froissart. He also translated the French romance The Boke Huon de Bordeuxe, which introduced Oberon, King of the Fairies, into English literature and which was used by Shakespeare when writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His importance for English literature and language may be gauged from the fact that the Oxford Dictionary lists over three and a half thousand quotations from his works.

It was only six or seven years ago when I first heard the music of composer Lord Berners — on the Sydney FM radio station 2MBS. They had just been playing his suite The Triumph of Neptune, which took my fancy. I jotted down the title, with a question mark against the word “Lord”.

Had I misheard? Lord Berners? Or did this composer, hitherto unknown to me, have an unusual forename that just sounded like “Lord”? Eventually I learnt the truth. “Lord” was correct after all, but during my research for this article I have discovered that even during Berners’ lifetime people occasionally doubted the authenticity of the title. For example, in 1943, during the staging of his ballet A Wedding Bouquet, several orchestral players inquired whether the composer was actually a “Lord”. Most of them seemed to think it was a tag like those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

For my information here, by the way, I am indebted in large part to Mark Amory’s recent biography Lord Berners, the Last Eccentric (1998, ISBN 1 85619 234 2), and also to the sometimes inaccurate but nicely named Web site The Knitting Circle, maintained by the Lesbian and Gay Staff Association at the South Bank University in London. Here is a bit of the publisher’s blurb for Amory’s book:

Lord Berners was a composer, novelist and painter in that order. He was also charming, witty, greedy, homosexual, a great entertainer and deeply shy. A friend of the glamorous and the talented, he has made many appearances in their biographies but never before had one of his own.

Born Gerald Tyrwhitt in 1883, an only child, he was brought up by a mother whose passion was hunting. Despite failing the Foreign Office exam, he was soon an honorary attaché in Constantinople. Transferred to Rome in 1912, his whole life blossomed . . .

In 1918 he inherited the ancient title of Berners, and estates that made him rich.

Gerald’s childhood was not a happy one. He had no friends, and his father, being in the navy, spent a lot of time away from home. To the boy his father came across as worldly, reserved and cynical. Even so, says Amory, Gerald admired his elegant clothes sense and his wit.

He recounts with admiration how a boring neighbour told his father that someone had kicked his wife, adding, “and in public, too! It’s not cricket, is it?”

“No,” said my father, stifling a yawn, “It sounds more like football.”

While he loved his mother dearly and provided well for her in her later years, Gerald viewed her as conventional and lacking imagination. The idea that he should become an artist or writer, or even worse, a musician, filled her with revulsion. At the age of 17 he wrote a play under the influence of Ibsen. His mother condemned it as morbid, asking why he couldn’t write a play like Charley’s Aunt.

As a little boy he had been occasionally too much for her. For instance, having heard that a dog when thrown into water will swim instinctively, he once threw her spaniel out a first-floor window — his scientific experiment being to see if thrown into the air a dog will instinctively fly. (He would later claim that he had felt free to do so because its face reminded him of George Eliot.)

Sent first to Cheam and later to Eton, Gerald seems to have suffered a bored and miserable education, enlivened socially only by his infatuations with a couple of other schoolboys. One of his teachers at Eton was A.C. Benson, whom observant Bikwil readers will recall from my piece Inadvertent Doggerel in Issue 5, January 1998, as the author of the words to Land of Hope and Glory (written to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII, incidentally).

More memorable for Gerald Tyrwhitt, however, than his teachers or his crushes was the part music began to play in his lonely life. According to Amory, “Music . . . was to be his escape from his uncongenial surroundings”. It began when as a young boy he heard a visitor to the Tyrwhitt home playing Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. Then while he was at Eton he happened by chance upon a book called A Synopsis of Wagner’s Nibelungen Ring.

He hadn't heard a note of the music, but he became obsessed by the world of gods and dwarves, and when he discovered a vocal score of Das Rheingold,

. . . [h]e frightened the shopkeeper by the violence with which he burst in, but he was allowed to handle it, and his excitement and longing . . . were vivid. (Amory)

Later his father shelled out the money for it, and it was not long before he was he was staging Wagner productions at home — in a doll’s house.

After completing his time at Eton, in 1900, aged 16, he went on to study languages, history and geography on the Continent, with a view to a career in diplomacy. He also studied art, sketched a little, and took a course in harmony. During this period he gradually lost his passion for Wagner, and began to pay serious attention to other composers, such as Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Debussy, and to further his interest in literature, particularly drama.

Totally dependent on his mother for funds, Gerald crisscrossed the Continent for the next decade, hardly ever remaining in the same place for more than four months, attempting the Foreign Office exams in 1905 and again 1907 — and failing both times. Even so, by 1910 he had obtained an appointment as honorary attaché to the embassy at Constantinople. Such insignificant positions were given to suitable young men of independent means who were willing to file and type and do a bit of deciphering for no pay. While in Constantinople, however, Gerald took little interest in either local customs or foreign politics. Instead, he spent a lot of his desk time writing nonsense verse. Here’s one of the less smutty ones:

A thing that Uncle George detests
Is finding mouse shit in his vests
But what he even more abhors
Is seeing Auntie in her drawers.

In 1911 he was posted to Rome, a city and culture much more to his liking. It was in Italy that he was drawn to the new art movements Futurism and Surrealism.

Then, in 1918, his Uncle Raymond died, and Gerald Tyrwhitt found himself a Baron and the owner of a Berkshire country manor called Faringdon, situated about 24 km south-west of Oxford. According to architecture lover John Betjeman, who visited several times, Faringdon House is one of the finest buildings in the county.

Of course, for our already idiosyncratic thirty-five-year-old a simple and factual explanation of how he inherited was not good enough, so as time went on he concocted various more exciting versions to tell at parties. To me, they sound a bit like previews of scenes in the 1949 movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. In one, a whole row of uncles fell off a bridge; in another, a procession of Tyrwhitts on their mournful way to a funeral got mowed down by a bus.

The process of Berners’ succession to the title was complicated by a little tradition instituted by his grandmother Lady Emma Berners (née Wilson), who wanted her heirs to take her maiden name before they inherited. Gerald had not thought through his own succession well enough in advance, and when his uncle died only a year after becoming the 13th Lord Berners, had not yet changed his name. As Amory puts it, he “only became Tyrwhitt-Wilson by royal licence in 1919, by which time his surname was cloaked by his title”.

Despite his elevation to the Quality, Lord Berners stayed on at the Rome embassy (now acting private secretary to the Ambassador) for another two years. One of his last acts before he left in 1920 was a perverse letter to Venice. Evidently an Australian newspaper had bemoaned the fact that the once noble city was now full of beggars. It was Berners’ job to reassure them. So he wrote, “It was all mistake — a misprint. It was supposed to read ‘buggers’”.

[ We will continue this feature on Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, in the next issue. ]

Contents  Read Next Item  Read Previous Item
Top of Page

Home | Visitors' Guide | Random Read | Current Issue | Essays & Poems | Catalogues
Site Search
| Likeable Links | Subscriptions | About Us | FAQ | Testimonials | Site Map