July 14, 1883 – Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson:
“There is a good deal to be said for frivolity. Frivolous people, when all is said and done, do less harm in the world than some of our philanthropists and reformers. Mistrust a man who never has an occasional flash of silliness.“
Tyrwhitt-Wilson was the 14th Baron Berners. He was an eccentric British aristocratic gentleman of leisure, who found time to be a painter, diplomat, chef, novelist and composer, but mostly he was an aesthete. Short, bald and witty, his friends claimed that he was a “mixture of sweetness and malice“.
Tyrwhitt-Wilson was born into a family that were part of a long linage of nobles. He was a shy and effeminate only child. He was discouraged from advancing his love of art and music by his pious mother, who felt such pursuits were unbecoming to a young man of his class. His eccentricities were displayed early in life. Hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing him into water, young Tyrwhitt-Wilson concluded that by tossing his mother’s dog out the window, he could teach the canine to fly. He was punished by being locked in a cupboard, and he retaliated by locking all the bathrooms in his parent’s house and throwing the keys into a pond.
He attended Eton and entered the diplomatic service in 1899, despite failing the qualifying exams. But, because he was fluent in both Italian and German, he was posted as an attaché to the British Embassy in Constantinople (now Istanbul). He was next sent to Rome where he became friendly with gay writer Ronald Firbank and bisexual composer Igor Stravinsky, who admired his musical talents.
In 1918, 35-year-old Tyrwhitt-Wilson inherited his uncle’s title, fortune, and properties. He left the diplomatic corps and retired to Faringdon, a huge a Palladian-style manor outside of Oxford where he devoted his life entirely to the pursuit of pleasure. He gave the main house to his mother for her lifetime use, keeping a smaller for himself.
He spent most of the 1920s in London living an amusingly flamboyant existence, while also keeping a house in Italy.
After his mother died in 1931, Faringdon caught his imagination once again. The house was more accurately described as comfortable rather than elegant, so Tyrwhitt-Wilson set about transforming it, creating a classic English country house. He hung important paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Claude Monet and Henri Matisse. The 54-foot drawing-room had fine views through five French windows, looking beyond the fountain to one of the longest vistas in England, extending 22 miles across a pretty patchwork of English landscape.
As Lord Berners, Tyrwhitt-Wilsonset cultivated his reputation as an eccentric. When he was not dabbling in composing, writing or painting, which he called “my little hobbies”, he read works classical and popular. Among his celebrated antics: dyeing doves on his estate various colors, arranging color-coordinated meals (often the food and dove colors matched), traveling around the continent with his fold-away piano in the backseat of his Rolls-Royce. He found it amusing to drive around wearing a pig’s-head mask to frighten the locals.
He attended many of the literary and artistic salons of the day, and among his friends and frequent guests were gay writer Evelyn Waugh, gay photographer Cecil Beaton, witty writer Nancy Mitford and her sisters, poet Edith Sitwell, stage designer Oliver Messel and other members of the Bright Young Things.
He is immortalized in fiction as Lord Merlin in Mitford’s The Pursuit Of Love (1945), and he found it fun to depict himself and others in his own novels. In his notorious roman à clef The Girls of Radcliff Hall (1932), published under the pseudonym “Adela Quebec”, he depicts himself and his pals such as Beaton as schoolgirls at a quirky upper-class school.
Salvador Dalí was one of many illustrious visitors to Faringdon, possibly the only guest quirkier than the host.
He once invited a friend’s Arabian stallion to join them in the drawing room for afternoon tea. He kept a pet giraffe. I’m not making this up.
The list of his idiosyncratic antics goes on and on. He sent Lady Sybil Colefax, noted for her aggressive social climbing:
“I wonder if by any chance you are free to dine tomorrow night? It is only a tiny party for Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. I think it important they should get together at this moment. There will be no one else except for Arturo Toscanini and myself. Do please forgive this terribly short notice.”
Then he made both his name and the address on the envelope completely illegible.
Even while entertaining extravagantly, he still found time to pursue his artistic interests. As a composer, he was largely self-taught; nonetheless, he produced a body of work that Stravinsky praised. Tyrwhitt-Wilsonset was friends with prolific composer Sir William Walton who dedicated his popular massive choral piece Belshazzar’s Feast to him. His best known works are his ballet scores, including The Triumph Of Neptune (1926), commissioned and produced by gay impresario Serge Diaghilev and choreographed by George Balanchine. His innovative ballet A Wedding Bouquet (1936) had placards written by Gertrude Stein. He commissioned Stein to write an opera libretto for Doctor Faustus, but he never got around to composing music for it.
He wrote songs and scores for films, including the soundtrack for Alberto Cavalcanti‘s Nicholas Nickleby (1947), the first sound version of the Charles Dickens novel. He did his composing at a grand piano adorned with a beer mug that played the God Save The King when lifted.
Tyrwhitt-Wilson also wrote three volumes of memoirs and several short, campy Firbankian novels.
In the 1930s, Tyrwhitt-Wilson enjoyed a brief vogue as a painter, with his landscapes selling for extraordinary prices.
For two decades, he lived openly with a man 30 years younger, the equally eccentric Robert “Mad Boy” Heber-Percy (1911-1986). Before taking up with the Baron, Heber-Percy worked as an extra in films, was kicked out of the British Army, was fired as a waiter, and helped run a notorious London nightclub.
In 1934, Tyrwhitt-Wilson had a “folly” built, probably the last such structure erected in England, as a birthday present for his “Mad Boy”. Asked what purpose the 140-foot tower served, he stated:
” The great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless.”
A notice at the entrance to the folly said:
“Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”
Later, Heber-Percy had a short marriage to a woman, yet Tyrwhitt-Wilson left him his manor house, his estate, his and fortune when he made his final exit in 1950. Heber-Percy lived there until his passing in 1986. Faringdon Manor now belongs to Heber-Percy’s granddaughter and it is available for rent by the month; a perfect spot for a quarantine.
Tyrwhitt-Wilson was a masterful host and superb chef. His meals were overwhelmingly luxurious. One of his dishes, Roast Chicken in Cream, was even included in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954), Stein’s immensely entertaining memoir/recipe tome.
Baron Berners died a peaceful death at 68 years old. The doctor who tended to him during his final years refused to send a bill, saying that the pleasure of his company had been payment enough. All his life he had lived on the strength of his charm.
Baron Berners’ epitaph on his gravestone reads:
Here lies Lord Berners
One of the learners
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning
But praise to the Lord
He seldom was bored