If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you certainly remember…
A folly, a deep sea diver, coloured pigeons – The last English eccentric: Lord Berners
Perhaps you would agree with me that the English humour is different, distinctive and the English are quirky. Benny Hill, Monthy Python’s Flying Circus, Mr Bean, You rang, M’Lord? just to mention a few of the most popular English comedies and characters. After such a catalogue, it might not be a surprise that the English aristocracy is abundant in eccentrics and funny characters.
I have already read Lord Berners name in several books, but it was not until April, when we visited the folly that was bulit by him and the town he lived in, then I decided to get to know more about his life and dedicate a post to him.
Lord Berners name might ring a bell to you because of his folly. His eccentric idea to build a folly on the top of a hill because he believed ‘This hill needs a tower’. ‘The great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless’, he said. Because he had money, he could go for it. Locals first objected to his idea, but later they actually quite liked it and showed their landmark proudly to visitors. Lord Berners knew his friend Lord Wellesley detested Gothic architecture, therefore he commissioned him to build a Gothic folly! As it happens, Berners was away during the building works, which made Wellesley’s life easier and he carried on building the folly in a Classical style. Upon Berners return just before finishing the building, he insisted on a Gothic finish. The result is rather eclectic. The folly was finally ready in 1935 and was a birthday gift to Berners 28 years younger life-time companion, Robert Heber-Percy. Perhaps the folly’s quirkiest sign added by Lord Berners is:
Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.
Lord Berners‘ eccentricity showed its signs quite early: At age of six, he tried to teach his mother’s dog to fly by throwing it out of the window, because he heard that dogs can be taught to swim by throwing them into the water. (The dog survived the ordeal by the way.) But do not think young Berners was useless and had no talents. On the contrary! Little Lord Berners was indeed very talented especially in music. Later on he wrote several ballets and music pieces. His friend, Stravinsky described him as the finest British composer of his generation. Wow!!
So there is a creative, musically talented, funny chap who after his parents’ death inherited not only wealth but Faringdon House in Berkshire. With no financial issues, he could happily live and enjoy an aristocrat’s life. He met his life-long love, Robert Heber-Percy in 1932 who was 28 years junior. Interestingly, Heber-Percy married a 21 year old girl with whom he had a daughter.
Berners composed music, wrote plays and poems and sometimes he also painted pictures. On one occasion he decided to paint a portrait of his friend’s horse, but he did not go to the stables, the horse was taken to his living room! It is not a joke. Besides he loved dying his pigeons in pastel colours, and his whippets wore diamond collars.
Lord Berners often threw lavish diner parties in his London house in half Moon Street just a few minutes taxi drive from the theatres of the West End and in his country house in Berkshire. Needless to say, he enjoyed pulling his guests’ legs. On open-air summer parties he pretended he had just been stung by a wasp – something that ladies feared greatly.
He often took the ‘Mickie’ out of London’s elite as well. On one occasion he sent a diner invitation to the snob social hostess, Sibyl Colefax saying the P o W (Prince of Wales) is also invited. In those days the London elite would have killed for a diner with the Prince of Wales, so no wonder that Sybil dropped everything and finally rushed to the diner party. To her surprise and disappointment she dined with the Provost of Worcester.
Other times, Berners wore a pig’s head mask and drove around his estate to frighten the locals.
Well, I think this already might be over the top, however there is something which surprised me when I was walking around Faringdon and saw a statue of a deep sea diver. What on earth is this? And why is it here? I had absolutely no idea, but I could have thought it had something to do with Berners.
Apart from Stravinsky, Berners had other prominent friends Salvador Dalí for example. Dalí was over in England to open the Exhibition of the Surrealist Art in London for which Berners thought Dali should wear a deep sea diver’s outfit.
When Berners was arranging to hire the outfit, he was asked on the phone: ‘How far does Mr Dalí wish to descend?’
‘To the depths of his subconscious’, Berners replied.
The voice responded: ‘Oh, in that case he’d better have a special helmet.’ Can you imagine Berners and Dalí practising in the lake on Berners estate where Dali nearly drowned? Moving forward can you visualise Dalí strolling down the streets of Faringdon in a deep sea diver’s outfit and then opening the exhibition in London wearing the same outfit, where he had to be extricated as he nearly suffocated. It all happened!
Whether Berners was crazy or eccentric and quirky, I let you decide. One thing is for sure: he was a distinctive character of Faringdon and London’s high society. As I was walking down the streets in Faringdon, everything reminded me of Berners: the coloured pigeons in the windows, the funny and quirky notes on the walls, the statue of the deep sea diver. I am sure, Lord Berners would be happy to see his legacy is still alive.
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