Born: September 18, 1883 - Apley Park, Shropshire, England Died: April 19, 1950 - Faringdon House, England
Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, also known as Lord Berners or Gerald Tyrwhitt, was a British composer of classical music, novelist, painter, & conspicuous aesthete.
Lord Berners was educated at Eton College, travelled widely in his youth, and served as a diplomat before inheriting his title. As well as being a talented musician, he was a skilled artist and writer. His 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 later years he composed several songs and film scores, notably for the 1946 film of Nicholas Nickleby. His friends included the composers Constant Lambert and William Walton and he worked with Frederick Ashton; William Walton dedicated Belshazzar's Feast to Berners. Lord Berners suffered from depression for much of his life.
Lord Berners wrote several autobiographical works and some novels, mostly of a humorous nature. He is also known for his roman-à-clef The Girls of Radcliff Hall, (named apropos the famous lesbian writer), in where he depicts himself and his circle of friends, such as Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel, as girls that are members of a school named Radcliff Hall. The indiscretions made in this novel (which was published privately and distributed the same), created an uproar among his intimates and acquaintances, turning the whole affair highly discussed in the 1930's. The novel subsequently disappeared from circulation, making it an extremely rare book among collectors of gay literature. Rumor has it that Beaton was responsible for gathering most of the already scarce copies of the book and destroying them. However, the book has been reprinted in 2000.
Lord Berners is a curious personality in the British literature circle of the mid 20th century. He is cited in many books and biographies en passant; always seemed to be present at some more famous person's party. He was portrayed as the delightful Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. He was notorious for his eccentricity, dyeing his Faringdon house pigeons in vibrant colors and at one point having a giraffe as a pet and tea companion. As a child, having heard that if you throw a dog into water it will learn how to swim, he threw his mother's canine companion out of the window on the grounds that if one applies the same logic it should learn how to fly. (The dog was unharmed, and he was "thrashed" by his mother.) At some point he also accused the dog of having a face like George Eliot. He lived in Rome during the fascism years and found himself in trouble after his return to England, for his friendship with fascists. He was also a great friend and supporter of Diana Guinness. He published many autobiographical accounts of his privileged childhood and teenager years.
The Berners Case I have an old suitcase which used to belong to Lord Berners. His heir Robert Heber-Percy was about to throw it out when I saw that the ‘rubbish’ inside was in fact music manuscripts. I intervened, went through the papers and was duly given the suitcase, which I still use. At that time little of his music was recorded or performed, his books were out of print, and his paintings (admittedly the least important part of his output) dispersed and uncatalogued. Now virtually all the music is available on CD, and the novels and parts of his own autobiography have been republished.
There is, however, no particular reason to celebrate the life and work of Lord Berners today rather than any other day - there is no anniversary or imminent book launch. But I find that few days pass without my thinking of him in some way, partly perhaps because of the suitcase which now occasionally houses my own manuscripts. From 1976 to 1983, his centenary year, I was the ‘official biographer’ and although I wrote a number of pieces on him, arranged exhibitions, and edited some of his unpublished scores I eventually had to take the decision to either be a biographer or a composer (and there are people from each side who think I made the wrong decision). I eventually passed all my research on to Mark Amory who published the biography in 1998. Mark admits quite freely that, as he puts it, I know “more about Gerald Berners than any man alive” (sic!) and that he is not comfortable when discussing the music.
Lord Berners is probably familiar to many from his fictionalised portrait, as “Lord Merlin” in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. And this portrait is both affectionate and not wildly inaccurate. Osbert Sitwell said of him that “in the years between the wars Berners did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms....he moved.. a sort of missionary of the arts.” Cecil Beaton talks about how he first saw Berners from a distance, entering a Venetian palazzo, and clearly wanted to be a part of this world. Berners, from his side, although liking Beaton, lampooned him mercilessly in the homosexual roman-à-clef The Girls of Radcliffe Hall where he appears as ‘Cecily’, and Berners as the headmistress. (Beaton tried to get all copies of the privately circulated book destroyed, but fortunately John Betjeman had put his copy in the British Library....)
In spite of his picaresque life and many eccentricities, it ought to be, and is, as a composer that Berners is best known. His artistic output was not only music, of course, and his output in any case was not particularly large. There are about 30 works in all and there are occasional gaps of up to three years between one piece and the next. But what he did produce shows that he was one of the few truly original English composers of the last century. However, he also published 6 novels in his later years, 2 volumes of autobiography and had two one-man exhibitions of his paintings in the 1930’s. Beyond that he had many close friends within the worlds of literature, music and art, and was closely involved with the development of British ballet with his friend and ally Constant Lambert. They were the only two English composers commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, and of Berners’ five ballets, two were choreographed by Georges Balanchine and three by Frederick Ashton - not a bad track record.
The bulk of his music was written between the two world wars - it was in 1918 that he inherited the title - though his earliest successful pieces were written before that, and accepted for publication, while he was a diplomatic attaché at the British Embassy in Rome. There he became friends with Stravinsky, who maintained his high regard for Berners’ work (even in 1950 Stravinsky told Edward James that Berners was the best composer of his generation), with Casella (who gave the premiere of the Three Little Funeral Marches in Rome), with Futurist artists (he owned at least one Balla painting) and he provided music, along with Casella, Malipiero and Bartok, for Depero’s Futurist marionette theatre. He found himself in Diaghilev’s circle - based in Rome during part of the First World War - and, later, Diaghilev commissioned The Triumph of Neptune from him for the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky’s trust in Berners’ musicianship is shown by the fact that he enlisted his assistance to orchestrate the Song of the Volga Boatmen in 1917 (replacing “God Save the Tsar” at the last moment). He was also friends with Russian Futurists Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova who provided designs for some of his scores.
Both Stravinsky and Casella were astonished at the original conceptions and advanced style of someone whose musical education had been so desultory. His principal teacher, for example, had been the German composer Kretschmer, whose opera The Fair Melusine was so despised by Mendelssohn that he wrote an overture of the same title in order to rid his ears of Kretschmer’s music. But Berners learned his craft in a practical way, by attending performances (he was at the premieres in Germany of Strauss’s Salome and Elektra) and acquiring scores such as Reger’s Lieder Album in preparation for his own collection of Lieder. While others in England were looking to the pastoral for inspiration his outlook was European and modernist. At the first ISCM Festival, in 1922, it was he who acted as translator when the young William Walton met Alban Berg.
Although his work after acquiring the peerage becomes musically more accessible, this is more because he wrote almost exclusively for the theatre from that time on than for any other reason. The apparent easiness of, say, The Triumph of Neptune (his Ballets Russes score of 1926) is deceptive and there are many curious elements in the piece, not least a storm scene scored for percussion alone, unheard of in the mid-20’s, with the violinists playing flexatones! Unfortunately this section does not appear in the Suite which is occasionally performed and the full ballet score has not been heard since the mid 1920’s. However, perhaps the ballet which has been most successful is the one is almost entirely his. For the choral ballet A Wedding Bouquet (Frederick Ashton 1936) he not only wrote the music, but also provided 30 costume designs, the painted backdrop and curtain and made many alterations to his collaborator Gertrude Stein’s published text for the libretto. It is curious that no one seems to have taken the initiative to produce this alongside the other great choral ballet based on rustic weddings, Stravinsky’s Les Noces (Stravinsky’s Russian weddings versus Berners’ French). His only opera Le Carosse du Saint Sacrement has the disadvantage - like Busoni’s Arlecchino, or Zemlinsky’s The Birthday of the Infanta - of being a half-evening piece and depends on being part of a mixed programme for production. This has not happened since its first performances in 1924 when it was teamed up with Sauguet’s Le Plumet du Colonel and Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, home for the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (and sixty years later for the Paris premiere of my own opera Medea). At the time of the first performance Stravinsky took great pleasure in playing through Berners’ piano duets, Valses Bourgoises, (which contained, according to Stravinsky, the four most impudent bars in all music!) with Gabriel Buffet-Picabia in her Paris apartment.
When the Ballets Russes broke up after Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Berners used the remnants of the company for the very beautiful, though seldom heard (let alone seen) ballet, Luna Park, produced for Cochrane’s 1930 revue and choreographed again by Balanchine. But by then he had embarked on parallel artistic endeavours culminating in his first one-man show of paintings at the Reid and Lefèvre Gallery in 1931. In his lifetime he exhibited over 100 oil paintings all of which are now in private collections. Most were landscapes, often taking Corot as his model. Berners owned many Corot’s and, in fact his collection was the largest outside the Louvre. He found “the directness and simplicity of Corot’s early paintings.... the perfect method of dealing with landscape”. He admired landscapes by Matisse and Derain, which he also owned, for similar reasons. When I used to stay at Faringdon my bedroom contained not only works by Corot, but also Polemberg, Dali and Dürer. His taste in visual art was impeccable, though his own paintings are largely conventional At the same time, though, he maintained friendships with the avant-garde (Salvador Dali, for example, was a visitor to Faringdon, and Berners arranged for the hire of the deep-sea diver’s outfit for Dali’s lecture at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 - “How deep is Mr Dali going to dive, my lord?” “To the depth of his subconscious” replied Berners without a flicker).
He also began to publish books, starting with the first volume of his autobiography First Childhood (1934), and followed by The Camel (1936). Both Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm, masters of prose style themselves in different ways, were astonished by the easy grace of Berners’ prose. But this fluency was achieved only after many drafts, and even the most apparently simple letter was the result of several elaborately reworked sketches. Later books were written quite quickly, although each one contains jewels of observation. Count Omega (1941), a hilarious parody of the kind of composer and aesthetic which Berners found abhorrent was even subject to advanced litigation when William Walton felt that he was about to be lampooned. Berners responded by threatening an injunction to prevent Walton ingratiating himself into his novels!! Emanuel Smith, the composer in Count Omega, in fact is not Walton - he could be Edmund Rubbra - but there are countless portraits of friends and former friends scattered throughout the books. He portrays himself as Lord Fitzcricket in Far from the Madding War, a picture that is almost vicious in its ruthless near-accuracy: “He was always referred to by gossip-writers as ‘the versatile peer’ and indeed there was hardly a branch of art in which he had not at one time or another dabbled.... He was astute enough to realise that, in Anglo-Saxon countries, art is more highly appreciated if accompanied by a certain measure of eccentric publicity.... When travelling on the Continent he had a small piano in his car....” Later he described himself (Lord Fitzcricket, that is) oxymoronically as “fundamentally superficial”.
In fact the ‘piano’ was a clavichord and his chauffeur told me how the tool kit had been removed from under the front seat of the Rolls in order to house the instrument’s case. Berners’ would use it to practice, or to compose, in hotels when travelling to and from his house in Rome (a wonderful address: 1 Foro Romano). The many stories about his eccentricities, though, are almost all true. He did indeed, for example, build the last traditional folly tower in England, clearly visible outside Faringdon on the road from Oxford to Swindon. The architect was Lord Gerald Wellesley, later 7th Duke of Wellington who, John Betjeman said, was the only modern architect with a style named after him - the “Gerry-built “ style, and the tower’s Classical/ Gothic hybrid arose from confusion between architect and patron, who arrived from Italy to find a partially completed 100-foot Classical tower. Berners had wanted Gothic and so a Gothic top, the viewing room, was added. The notice at the entrance, though, was Berners’ own: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.
In the final analysis he will ultimately be remembered for his work, and that is what he wanted. There were few days in his life when he did not pursue some form of artistic activity and his craftsmanship was meticulous in each. I never met Berners of course, I was only 7 when he died in 1950, and have little in common with him except our initials, but one aspect of Gerald Berners as a person that I like is the fact that he worked artistically even though he had no need to, a form of artistic purity. This is what I think Stravinsky meant when he said that Berners was an amateur, but in the “best, literal, sense”. Paradoxically this allies him with Erik Satie in that art-politics and -economics (and I include in this the sense of setting up and following a ‘career path’) had nothing to do with the production of art for either of them. It was as a result of Cecil Gray's book A Survey of Contemporary Music that Gerald was referred to as the "English Satie" from a glib sentence which reads " in the music of Goossens, Bliss and Berners we find our English Ravel, Stravinsky and Satie". Although Gerald's own copy of this book was heavily annotated (and to the title page he added the words "one of the silliest books about music ever written") it is interesting that there are no annotations alongside the reference to his connection with Satie, probably the purest artist of all. Unfortunately the only time that Satie ever referred to Berners, when he described him as “an amateur” he meant it in the pejorative sense.... But Satie is a different case. Gavin Bryars (published in 'The Guardian', February 2003)
Damian Thompson finds never a dull moment with the man born Gerald Tyrwhitt
Unlike the vast majority of upper-class people, the composer, painter and writer Lord Berners was militantly uninterested in his own family. "There have only been two distinguished Lord Berners - the one who translated Froissart [in the 16th century] and myself," he told his companion Robert Heber-Percy. "I see no reason why it won't be another 400 years before there are any more."
Actually, "distinguished" is not quite the right word for Berners. Distinguished men do not normally drive around their estate wearing a pig's-head mask to frighten the locals.
Nor do they place advertisements in The Times announcing that they wish to dispose of two elephants - and, when rung up by a diary column, pretend to be their own manservant and explain that one of the elephants has been sold to Harold Nicolson (who took the joke badly).
As for Berners's writings, the best of them tend towards the lightweight. He was the author of The Girls of Radcliff Hall, a pastiche of an Angela Brazil girls' school story, and verses such as this: Uncle Fred and Aunty Mabel Fainted at the breakfast table. Isn't that an awful warning Not to do it in the morning?
The word "dilettante" might have been invented for Gerald Tyrwhitt, who claimed (untruthfully, of course) to have acquired his title when three uncles fell off a bridge at the same time after attending a funeral. In fact, he inherited it through his grandmother Lady Berners, a baroness in her own right who had converted to the extreme evangelical wing of the Church of England. As he recalled: "She went so far as to have herself described in Who's Who as 'distinctly low', an epithet which must have caused some surprise to those unaware of its sectarian significance." Berners could paint, beautifully if conventionally, in the style of Corot, wrote crisp and witty prose and was a moderately successful British diplomat. Politics did not attract him: he attended the House of Lords once, but refused to return on the grounds that his umbrella was stolen by a bishop. His greatest talent was for music. Before and during the First World War, he wrote little pieces that were as close to Modernism as anything produced by a British composer, including three Little Funeral Marches "for a statesman, a canary and a rich aunt", the subtitle of which scandalised a leading French critic who thought that making jokes about death was in deplorable taste. Stravinsky, never much of a judge in these matters, went to the other extreme and hailed Berners as the most important living British composer, which he was not. But, if you like exquisite musical chintz, the 14th Baron is your man. Lord Berners: Composer, Writer, Painter is a delicious mess of a book: no substitute for Mark Amory's biography, but an illustrated collection of interviews and reminiscences assembled by the composer Peter Dickinson, most of them for a radio programme that went out as long ago as 1983. The interviewees included Lady Mosley, Sir Harold Acton, Lord David Cecil, Lady Dorothy Lygon. Throw in the friends who had already died - Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Noël Coward, the Sitwells - and you have more or less the complete "smarty" set, as Acton put it. Berners once said that he would have been a better composer if he had accepted fewer lunch invitations. But Gavin Bryers, in one of the most interesting interviews in this book, disagrees: "If he had spent more time on his music he could have become a duller composer," he says. He would certainly have been a duller person. He developed an effective technique for ensuring an empty seat opposite you in a railway carriage, which is to stand at the window beckoning people in to join you. And it was he who discovered that the question "Death, where is thy sting?" is immensely more evocative in the Dutch Authorised Version of the Bible (1619): Dood, waar is uw prikkel? When Berners died in 1950, Heber-Percy thought it would be a nice idea to send the family portraits to the new Lady Berners as a present. Alas, it was not to be. In a life crowded with elaborate pranks, Gerald Berners had found time to paint moustaches on the ladies and lower their dresses down to the navel - thus proving that, to quote Alan Bennett, if a thing isn't worth doing, it's worth doing properly. 20 Sep 2008 The Telegraph
Mark Amory's new biography, "Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric," traces the hedonistic and self-indulgent life of Gerald Tyrwhitt and his odd assortment of friends, who included some of the most supremely talented people of upper-class England, but which also comprised a collection of noted homosexuals, freeloaders, parasites, neurotics, and ambitious social climbers with whom he associated throughout his life. They are all here in Amory's biography - Gertrude Stein, the Sitwells, Picasso, Dali, Frederich Ashton, Siegfried Sassoon - and they all helping Gerald avoid boredom. Gerald Tyrwhitt became Lord Berners in 1918 and also became immensely rich. He sets up his estate at Farington, near Oxford, and for the next thirty years he hosts the beautiful and the rich, regaling them all with his eccentricity, practical jokes, and dark, sometimes cruel, humor. Robert Heber Percy, a man almost thirty years younger than Berners, becomes his companion, lives with Berners until the latter's death, and inherits almost everything from him, including the estate and over 214,000 pounds sterling. Of course, biographist Amory goes into the wild happenings at Farington: Berners' dying his pigeons different colors; Berners' inviting birds and his favorite horse into the dayroom for tea; Berners' inviting noted homosexuals like Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward, and Andre Gide for weekends; and Berners's designing a useless "folly" tower, one hundred feet high, partly to annoy the neighbors. During World War II, when Lord Berners became morbidly depressed (old age had closed in on him, his friends were leaving, his world was transformed beyond recognition) he confessed in a letter that for thirty years "I have given myself up to self-indulgence and hedonism." Lord Berners, however, was also a rather talented composer, an author of six novellas and stylish memoirs, and an artist of note. Stravinsky called him the most interesting composer in England, and he maintained close relationships with such creative artists as William Walton, Constance Lambert, Diaghilev, the Sitwells, and Frederich Ashton. Amory is particularly strong in describing Berners' musical career which included a number of ballets, including "The Triumph of Neptune," some light miniatures, and the film score to "Nickolas Nickleby." (His music is well documented on an excellent CD with the Royal Liverpool Orchestra, conducted by Barry Wordsworth.) Amory also examines Lord Berners' literary output. Berners' wrote a series of novellas throughout his life, but the ones he wrote during the 1940's when he was undergoing a nervous breakdown are the most fascinating. The story "Percy Wallingford" metaphorically describes this breakdown. He also includes in his stories characters that are based on his friends, sometimes mischievously, at other times cruelly. Lord Berners was apparently never a pleasant man - what would he have done for friends had he not inherited a fortune? - but his brutal teasing of such men as William Walton is unconscionable. So it is all there in Mark Amory's book, a biography that tells us about the eccentricities of Lord Berners, but never really involves us in his life or reveals who he really was. I thought the style of the writing to be mediocre, the analysis to be interesting but far from profound, and the details to be far from complete. For example, there is little discussion of Berners as a painter, despite his success in showing at galleries and selling his art for astronomical prices. It is, however, a thoroughly adequate portrayal of Berners' life until something better comes along. Since I had read almost all of Berners' fiction and memoirs, and since I am an enthusiast of 20th century British music of which Berners' is a small part, this biography served me well for putting pieces of Berners' life together and providing a chronological outline from which to work. By Russel E. Higgins
FARINGDON hits you like a fanfare as you sweep round the gravel drive beneath its clustering elms. In the house's 1930s heyday, Osbert Sitwell applauded this "spacious, arcaded villa in the Palladian taste". More recently, a visitor from the New Yorker confessed himself captivated by this "doll's house lowered from heaven".
For nearly 20 years, Faringdon House was the home of the wealthy eccentric Lord Berners. In this lush, pastoral landscape west of Oxford, he created an exuberant, raffish social salon for his huge circle of friends and acquaintances. Berners himself was a Renaissance man, a composer in the modern style (Stravinsky visited and admired his music), Dadaist painter and writer.
He was also the original gay lord, who lived openly with his lover and painted his parties as pink as his pet fantail pigeons. He dyed their feathers in various pastel shades to create what Nancy Mitford described as "a cloud of confetti in the sky". With the arrival of Berners, Faringdon erupted into one long house party, arrested only by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Smart Bohemia, the great, gay and good flocked there: Beerbohm, Beaverbrook, Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh, Osbert and the other Sitwells, Cecil Beaton, Dali, Fonteyn and H G Wells all churned their creative juices within its elegant walls, exchanging epigrams and bon mots.
It was Berners himself who described T E Lawrence as "always backing into the limelight" and Vita Sackville-West as "wry Vita". The journalist and politician Tom Driberg considered Berners "one of the wittiest men I have ever known".
Witty yes, pretty no. Even as a young man, he looked middle-aged, short and dumpy. Camp Beverley Nichols found him "remarkably ugly - swarthy and simian". Berners was so bald that, by his own admission, "when he was annoyed he looked like a diabolical egg". When he was nearly 50, he fell in love with Robert Heber Percy. The young man of 20 was handsome and gentle-eyed, but he was also possessed, says Berners's biographer, Mark Amory, of "an electrifying wildness, the suggestion of danger, the dash that earned him the nickname of 'the Mad Boy' ". After a disastrous first weekend at Faringdon, Heber Percy offered to leave. "Don't go," Berners pleaded. "You make me laugh. I don't mind about the other." Schooled at Stowe, Heber Percy flunked a career in the cavalry, acted as a Hollywood extra, was sacked as a waiter for sloshing soup over a customer, and helped run a notorious London nightclub before being adopted as the protege of the 14th Lord Berners in 1932. He inherited Faringdon when Berners died in 1950, and maintained and enhanced the exotic atmosphere of the house and grounds. Heber Percy's granddaughter (he married, briefly, twice) is Sofka Zinovieff. She was a 25-year-old student studying in Greece for a PhD in anthropology when she inherited the estate on his death in 1987. Becoming chatelaine of Faringdon "altered the course of my life a lot". Sofka now lives in Rome with her Greek husband and two daughters, and lets out Faringdon House. A smitten Texan family who took it for a year have just moved out. Tenants pay £8,000 a month for the eight-bedroom house and grounds. The present house was built in 1780 for Henry James Pye, execrated as the worst poet laureate ever and whose ghost is supposed to walk the grounds. The architect, a Mr Wood of Bath, designed a graceful double staircase for the cool, white entrance hall that Pevsner later found pleasing, with pillars, decorated plaster ceilings and classical chimney pieces. Nancy Mitford, a frequent guest, was charmed by Faringdon ("plain and gray and square and solid, sober and restrained"), and made it the model for Merlingford in her 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love. During her sleepless nights of fire-watching in wartime London, "the place I longed to be in most intensely," she recalled, "was the red bedroom at Faringdon, with its crackling fire, its Bessarabian carpet of bunchy flowers and above all its four-post bed." Berners bought Faringdon House in 1919 and gave the house to his mother for her lifetime, with tiny quarters for himself. He spent most of the 1920s in London (he had rooms off Piccadilly) and led an amiably flamboyant existence composing music, especially for the ballet, and being chauffered in his Rolls-Royce, which had been fitted with a small, stencilled keyboard. With the death of both his mother and stepfather in 1931, Faringdon House beckoned. The house, in writer Peter Quennell's phrase, was built for harmony. But that wasn't what Berners wanted. "It was not at all glamorous," explains Amory. "Berners set about transforming it and created his masterpiece." He was an inveterate joker. When the Marchesa Casati arrived in tight satin trousers with a live boa constrictor, Berners entertained her at dinner by wearing a false nose. He tilted at Faringdon's dignity, pinning joke notices around the house. "Mangling Done Here" was a prominent one, and "No dogs admitted" was posted at the top of the stairs. On a nearby hill, Berners built a folly. A notice warned: "Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk." On the walls of the house, Berners hung Corots, Constables and Matisses. The 54ft drawing-room offered views through five French windows beyond the fountain to one of the longest vistas in England, extending (it was said) 22 miles across a patchwork English landscape. But the mischievous Berners couldn't resist a tease, assailing his own idyll by inviting Penelope Betjeman's Arab stallion Moti to join them in the drawing-room for afternoon tea. As Amory discovered, the Betjemans were neighbours, hated the smart life but enjoyed dipping into it at Faringdon. "Gosh, she was an attractive woman," Penelope declared of Dali's nymphomaniac wife. "Never stopped talking about fur-lined wombs." Berners buried all the entertaining rooms in flowers. He loved rich food ("loathsomely rich," complained Beverley Nichols); from Paris, Vera Stravinsky sent special powder to help him make blue mayonnaise. Even in the austerity years that followed the Second World War, Faringdon's kitchen garden was among the most productive in Britain. "When every sort of luxury has been forever banned in England," declared Cyril Connolly, "Lord Berners will somehow manage to maintain a secret melon house." ( By Roger Wilkes, 26 May 2001 The Telegraph - extract )
Faringdon Folly Tower, Faringdon The folly was built in 1935 by Gerald, 14th Lord Berners. It is 100 feet (30 metres) high and it was intended to have no purpose whatsoever. In the event it was used during the second world war as an observation post by the Home Guard. It remained bricked up until 1983 when it was restored and re-opened. Normally open the first Sunday of each month between Easter and October (and BH Mondays), it was open today as a special occasion
Mere miles across the Wiltshire border, and just off the main A420 road between Swindon and Oxford, stands one of the local area's most unique historic buildings. A Folly is defined in Chambers as 'great useless structures' and snidely referred to as 'Bedlams in architecture' they serve no specific purpose and yet who can resist them?In the 18th Century they were the equivalent of decking, a must-have for any fashionable garden, and in Wiltshire alone over a dozen of them were built.
They had no real use and, as their name implies, fell mainly into the madcap branch of architecture built on a whim for the indulgence of the rich.
And what an indulgence. Forget garden gnomes, this was garden statuery super-sized... massive columns, obelisks, monuments and even sham castles. In Faringdon, the town's landmark folly is a tower, a strapping 140 ft tower, which dominates a mound half a mile east of the town.
The "entirely useless" tower The mound, known for centuries as Folly Hill despite being Folly less, must have been a galling oversight to the local eccentric landowner Lord Berners. So much so, in fact, that in 1935 he decided to rectify the problem and get a folly for Folly Hill.
Brushing local objections aside Lord Berners plumped for a functionless tower to do the job.
As he said himself: "The great point of this tower is that it will be entirely useless". Handing the project over to his architect friend, Lord Gerald Wellesley, Lord Berners promptly took off on holiday. On his return instead of the gothic one-off he had envisaged he was faced with a rather more modest and sober looking tower. With just the top of the tower still to be finished, Lord Berners put his foot down and had his gothic flourishes, octagonal room and mock battlements added. With that the last major folly to be built in England was completed.
On Guy Fawkes Day, 1935, to a fanfare of fireworks and the release of hundreds of red, white and blue painted doves the Faringdon Folly aka Lord Berners' Folly was officially opened. All that was left to do was to add, a true eccentric Lord Berners touch, a sign at the top of the tower saying: 'Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk!'
Today the well preserved, peculiar looking tower is open to the public on the first Sunday of the month from Easter until October.
With fantastic views to the North across the Thames Valley and southwards to the Berkshire Downs, and on a clear day across five counties, the £1.00 entrance fee is an absolute bargain. Plus with a new power supply installed, and currently sporting a pink light, it's a landmark that's becoming harder and harder to overlook.