[ This Part 3 of an article on the life of eccentric English
composer Lord Berners.
Click here for Part 1. ]
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.
start with incidents touching on the arts world.
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.
“piano” was actually a 4½ octave Dolmetsch clavichord, decorated with
flowers and butterflies.
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.
to Constant Lambert, when travelling by train Berners always tried to
keep the carriage to himself.
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
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.
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.
tendency to outlandish side-by-side placement of things and ideas was
markedly in evidence in the décor at Faringdon.
describes it this way:
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.
was particularly fond of funny signs:
Will Be Prosecuted, Dogs Shot, Cats Whipped
the top of the stairs)
To Meet Thy God
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
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.
and Dali arranged to reproduce a performance that Dali regularly gave,
which took the form of an outdoor piano recital plus a lecture.
runs through the events as follows:
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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)
the Tower’s entrance Berners placed his sign to end all signs. It read:
of the Public Committing Suicide from this Tower Do So At Their Own
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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:
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
[ The fourth and last part of of our ongoing
saga of Lord Berners will appear in the next issue. ]