Lord Berners’ legendary ‘teases’ also included dying doves pink and dressing his dogs in pearl collars, which helped to make his home — with contents offered in our Interiors sale on 12 April — a haven of fun for artists, writers, musicians and socialites, as Meredith Etherington-Smith reveals
Between the wars Faringdon House, the Georgian home of Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson — Lord Berners — in Oxfordshire in the south of England, became a restful weekend perch for a colourful and accomplished group of friends. Among their number were artists such as Salvador Dalí; avant-garde musicians Igor Stravinsky, Constant Lambert and William Walton, who dedicated Belshazzar’s Feast to Lord Berners; writer H.G. Wells; intellectuals such as Gertrude Stein (whom Berners described as the least well-dressed woman in the world); the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli; society photographer Cecil Beaton; and ‘Bright Young Things’ including Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell and the Mitford sisters. What these people — and others — came to enjoy was the special atmosphere of fun created by its owner.
A composer, writer, painter and life-long eccentric, Berners was certainly no dilettante. He composed music for ballets such as The Triumph of Neptune (1926), which was based on a story by Sacheverell Sitwell, produced by Diaghilev and choreographed by Balanchine, and the score for the 1947 film Nicholas Nickleby. He painted surprisingly well (in the manner of Corot), and wrote novels, of which The Girls of Radcliff Hall, written under the pseudonym Adela Quebec, depicted a St. Trinians-style establishment populated by schoolgirls who were thinly disguised portraits of friends such as Beaton and the stage designer Oliver Messel. Beaton was so horrified that he bought up all the limited copies and burned them.
The contents of Faringdon, to be sold in the Interiors sale in London on 12 April, consist of conventional early to mid-Georgian furniture and mirrors, and 16th and 17th-century British portraits. The eccentric and witty additions to the grand decor revealed the curious conjunction of things that caught Berners’ fancy, marking him out as a collector in the grand eccentric English tradition of Horace Walpole and William Beckford. His taste veered from the surreal, such as a pair of Regency waxwork figures, to Venetian blackamoor torchères, to the turquoise Burmantofts and Minton shells that were so ubiquitous in chic interiors of the time.
Berners was especially friendly with the Mitford sisters, particularly Diana. Yet it was Nancy Mitford who penned the finest account of his eccentricities, ‘teases’ and kindnesses at Faringdon: in The Pursuit of Love, Berners appears as Lord Merlin, a charming aesthete with numerous friends.
Berners indulged in many notable ‘teases’ of Faringdon’s stolid neighbours, too. These ranged from doves dyed in dainty pastels to the tinkling chandelier in the porch, from dogs wearing pearl collars to an invitation to tea for Moti, Penelope Betjeman’s Arab stallion. It was a summons that came with a request: namely, that the horse ‘sit’ for a Berners portrait in his drawing room.
On another occasion the poet Sir John Betjeman, a close friend of Berners, fondly remembered him taking Schiaparelli, then at the height of her fame, to a ‘Bring and Buy’ sale at the local vicarage, and pressing her to buy something from the second-hand clothing stall.
Sybil Colefax, the notorious social climber and collector of celebrities, was the target for another memorable ‘tease’. ‘I wonder if by any chance you are free to dine tomorrow night?’ Berners wrote in a letter to her. ‘It is only a tiny party for Winston [Churchill] and GBS [George Bernard Shaw]. There will be no one else except for Toscanini and myself’. Berners made both his name and the address on the envelope illegible, driving Colefax into a frenzy at missing the dinner.
Eccentric to the very last, Lord Berners died in 1950, leaving Faringdon and its contents to his long-time companion, ‘Mad Boy’ Robert Heber-Percy. Fittingly, he wrote his own epitaph, which appears on his gravestone at Faringdon: ‘Here lies Lord Berners / One of the learners / His great love of learning / May earn him a burning / But, Praise the Lord / He seldom was bored.’ Nor were his friends.