Lord Berners
[ Issue 35 ]

Emily Bronto clearly approves of Lord Berners

Bikwil salutes Lord Berners

Lord Berners

Tony Rogers offers another instalment in the saga of the remarkable Lord Berners.
 

Perhaps the best known of his many oddball actions — and this one he carried out on an annual basis — was to dye his many white pigeons: some magenta, some copper green and some ultramarine. This was a great and beautiful success and of course quickly became a talking point in the district.

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A Bikwil Epitaph for an
Extraordinary Musical Aristocrat
— Tony Rogers

Copyright

[ This Part 3 of an article on the life of eccentric English  composer Lord Berners.
Click here for Part 1. ]

 

Berners’ droll behaviour was as memorable as his one-liners. The Knitting Circle people characterise him as conducting himself “in a way that would have brought tears to the eyes of Monty Python”. Usually his daft ways took the form of practical jokes and a series of wacky embellishments applied to his property.

Let’s start with incidents touching on the arts world.

Musical nonsense? Naturally.

For example, passers-by would be startled by the sight of what appeared to be a piano in the back seat of his Rolls-Royce, and even more so by Berners’ practice of wearing horrible masks on the back of his head as he was driven along.

The “piano” was actually a 4½ octave Dolmetsch clavichord, decorated with flowers and butterflies.

I will look at his sometimes mischievous musical compositions a little later in this essay, but before I move on to his mucking about with the visual arts, let me refer to another comical bit of Berners’ conduct in wheeled transport, this time on the British Railways system.

According to Constant Lambert, when travelling by train Berners always tried to keep the carriage to himself.

Donning black spectacles, he would, with a look of fiendish expectation, beckon in the passers-by. Those isolated figures who took the risk became so perturbed by his habit of reading the papers upside-down and taking his temperature every few minutes that they invariably got out at the next station.

At one stage our hero had his portrait painted by Spanish artist Gregorio Prieto (1897 - 1992). Although he strikes a serious pose in a dark suit, what is significant is that he is holding up a lobster.

There is a photograph, too, in which Berners appears advertising toilet paper. One hand is raised in a salute which, though predating Star Trek by decades, bears a striking resemblance to the traditional splayed fingers Vulcan “live long and prosper” greeting.

This tendency to outlandish side-by-side placement of things and ideas was markedly in evidence in the décor at Faringdon.

Amory describes it this way:

Into the conventional country-house mould Berners poured idiosyncratic charm and humour . . . One element was the juxtaposition of elegance and junk . . . [Alongside paintings by Corot, Matisse and Constable would be found] a chest of drawers designed by Dali, which leant steeply to one side.

Berners was particularly fond of funny signs:

Mangling Done Here

Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted, Dogs Shot, Cats Whipped

No Dogs Admitted
(at the top of the stairs)

Prepare To Meet Thy God
(inside a wardrobe).

Here is an example that combines music, fancy dress and décor. Besides being a sort of thirties happening, it is the true story of how the life of the most famous surrealist of them all was “saved” by the fourteenth Baron Berners.

In 1936, in England to attend the International Surrealist Exhibition, Salvador Dali and his wife dropped in on Faringdon. The opportunity was too good to miss.

Berners and Dali arranged to reproduce a performance that Dali regularly gave, which took the form of an outdoor piano recital plus a lecture.

Amory runs through the events as follows:

Dali had the grand piano placed in the shallow pool on the lawn and chocolate éclairs put on the black notes, before Berners played it to him. Dali undertook to give a lecture on “Paranoia, The Pre-Raphaelites, Harpo Marx and Phantoms” or “Authentic Paranoic Fantasies”.

To do this, as he was making a dive into unconscious, “plunging down deeply into the human mind”, he wore a diving suit, acquired for him by Berners. He held two white Russian wolfhounds with one hand and a billiard cue with the other, had a jewelled dagger in his belt and plasticine hands stuck on him. This sort of thing was unknown in London and his entrance caused exactly the right sort of sensation. He spoke in French, but was soon was seen to be trying to take off the diving helmet. Unfortunately it was bolted on. Dali was now unable to breathe, close to fainting. Berners found a hammer and, though every blow was agonisingly loud for the victim, struggled to save him. Eventually, and not a moment too soon, a workman with a spanner succeeded. The audience meanwhile thought everything was planned and rocked with laughter and enjoyment.

Perhaps the best known of his many oddball actions — and this one he carried out on an annual basis — was to dye his many white pigeons: some magenta, some copper green and some ultramarine. This was a great and beautiful success and of course quickly became a talking point in the district.

But, ever eager to annoy the neighbours, Berners soon made every effort to sell the idea to local farmers that they should do likewise — namely to dye their horses and cattle purple.  His undying hankering after new ways to infuriate adjoining landowners went even further. When Faringdon had to get a telegraphic address, Berners chose “Neighbourtease” and had it printed on the estate’s official writing paper.

According to Diana Mosley, Berners had no less success exasperating the locals with his Tower, though the latter did welcome it as a landmark on their way home from hunting. Berners’ Tower is credited with being the last “folly” in England. A folly, as you know, is any expensive structure seen to be the product of extreme foolishness on the builder’s part. Berners said of his Faringdon Folly, “The great point of the Tower is that it will be entirely useless”.

Erected in 1935 on a hilltop in his grounds and 43 metres high (the lower part in the Classical style, the top in the Gothic),

. . . [t]he tower is square, of brick, and the wooden staircase leads to a belvedere room with three arched windows on each side. Above this another room, in the shape of an octagonal lantern with elongated oblong windows. Finally there is a viewing platform, surrounded by a stone pinnacled parapet, from which you can see four counties . . . (Amory)

At the Tower’s entrance Berners placed his sign to end all signs. It read:

Members of the Public Committing Suicide from this Tower Do So At Their Own Risk.

Though there is still no electricity or running water, the Tower is today available for hire. If you do not fancy an extended stay, however, you can at least pay it a visit. It is open to the public on the first Sunday of the month.

Apart from being an accomplished chef always thinking up menus to thrill his visitors’ palates, Berners was also good at inventing party games for them to enjoy after a banquet. One was his variation, known as “Bulgy”, on the card game Snap. Instead of calling “Snap” when your card is the same as your opponent’s, you bulge out your face, and the one who laughs first loses his cards.

You will not surprised to learn that ultimately some of Berners’ friends started to think him too silly. He returned the compliment by finding a lot of them pompous.

For example, Osbert Sitwell used to keep a great bowl of ever-restocked press cuttings in a sitting-room of his London house. To draw attention to such pretension Berners placed an even more outsized bowl in the hall of his London place and into it laid “a solitary, minute cutting from The Times announcing only that he had returned from abroad”. (Amory)

That story is reminiscent of a stunt he had pulled years earlier. Just before lending his villa in Rome to a newly married couple, he sent the butler a packet of calling cards of the most notorious society bores he knew, none of whom were within cooee of Rome. Whenever the honeymooners went out, the butler was to put a few of the cards in the tray for them to find when they came back.

And spare a thought for poor Sibyl Colefax. She was your classic society hostess, always eager when it came to rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. During WWII Berners, disguising his signature and address, sent her this invitation:

Dear Sibyl, I wonder if you are free to dine tomorrow night? It is only a tiny party for Winston and GBS. I think it is important they should get together at this moment. There will be nobody else except for Toscanini and myself.


[ The fourth and last part of of our ongoing saga of Lord Berners will appear in the next issue. ]

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