Lord Berners: The Last Eccentricby Sam Leith
Here lies Lord Berners/One of life's learners,
Thanks be to the Lord/He was never bored.
So reads the epitaph on the gravestone of Lord Berners. In its witty way, it hints at his range of accomplishment. He was a composer (admired by Stravinsky), writer, painter, aesthete and eccentric, indeed in Mark Amory's words 'The Last Eccentric',/p>/i>/i>
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Here lies Lord Berners/One of life's learners,
Thanks be to the Lord/He was never bored.
So reads the epitaph on the gravestone of Lord Berners. In its witty way, it hints at his range of accomplishment. He was a composer (admired by Stravinsky), writer, painter, aesthete and eccentric, indeed in Mark Amory's words 'The Last Eccentric', famously dyeing the pigeons at his house, Faringdon, in vibrant colours, and, for a time, having a giraffe as a pet and tea companion. His literary and artistic milieu was glittering: Stravinsky, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Siegfried Sassoon, John Betjeman, the Sitwells, Harold Nicolson, Frederick Ashton and Gertrude Stein - they all belonged to it.
In fiction, he was famously portrayed as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.
'As social history and a chronicle of a mad-cap English eccentric this long awaited, much needed and beautifully written book is, to use a simple clich , indispensable.' Alexander Waugh, Literary Review
'In Amory, this engaging character has found the ideal biographer. Getting the exact measure of its subject throughout, written in a dry, wittily ironic prose ... the biography offers of sheer bliss.' Gilbert Adair, Sunday Times
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The ancient title of Berners has been traced back to the kings of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. A French connection, on what an Englishman might consider the wrong side, gave the order for the Normans to fire their arrows upwards and was thus directly responsible for shooting King Harold in the eye. A travelling Berners brought back a monkey from his Crusades with Richard I; a cuckolded Berners had his castle burned down, as well as his wife removed by King John; a charming Berners was a favourite of Richard II, in spite (or perhaps because) of which he was executed, his wife dying of grief. All this is recorded by a descendant in The Spirit of the Berners Past, which turns out, most suitably, to be a spoof. Gerald, fourteenth Lord Berners, though he was to paint moustaches on his ancestral portraits in much the same spirit, was not that descendant.
What is more reliably recorded is that Sir John Bourchier, son of a French count and the daughter of an English duke, great-grandson of Edward III and member of Parliament 1455-72, took his wife's maiden name for his barony. His grandson, who succeeded in 1474, was the most distinguished of the line. He translated the chronicles of Jean Froissart, our main source of knowledge about the Hundred Years War. It is said to be one of the noblest monuments of English prose, a rival to Malory. He also translated Marcus Aurelius and Huon of Bordeaux, which introduced King Oberon to the English and was used by Shakespeare when writing A Midsummer Night's Dream. Primarily a man of action, John Bernerswas a soldier, a diplomat and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry VIII. His less remarkable successors were mostly soldiers, sometimes clergymen, or, in Gerald's words, `country squires or businessmen with recreations of an almost exclusively sporting nature'. Osbert Sitwell, in a fictional portrait, wrote that `ever since the dawn of English History the [Berners] family had carried on a ceaseless but victorious feud against stags, otters, hares, badgers, rabbits and any other bigger non-domestic animals of which they were able to get within reach.'
The historian A. L. Rowse, in pointing out that Gerald Berners was often but wrongly thought to have Jewish blood, repeats Gerald's suggestion of a gypsy strain, but that is the only hint of the exotic. The title is an old one, its bearers conventional, although its descent is a wild zigzag of distant cousins. It passes to and through women and lay dormant for almost 200 years before 1720. Like a faithful but energetic dog on a walk, it always reappears, even if in an unexpected place.
The only interesting account of his grandparents comes from Gerald himself. His autobiography, First Childhood, takes 235 pages to get him to the age of thirteen, so it has space enough to dwell on them. It is his best book and a persuasive one, but it was published when he was fifty-one, by which time his image of himself and those surrounding him had long set into an acceptable form.
Some distortions are so marked as to seem deliberate. Lady Berners, his grandmother, who inherited the title rather than marrying it, was the least appealing character and is presented, under the ineffective disguise of `Lady Bourchier' (Gerald liked to leave clues), as an ogre, `not unlike Holbein's picture of Bloody Mary with just a touch of Charley's Aunt ... one of the most forbidding awe-inspiring women I have ever known'. Dressed in black silk, like the Queen, she was ferociously religious, and Gerald claimed that she described herself in Who's Who as `distinctly low', without any risk of being misunderstood (in fact she put `distinctly Protestant'). Secular pictures were turned to the wall on Sundays. The twenty-two servants all went to church and, as they seated themselves, their `satins' made a sound that was still remembered seventy years later. Daily prayers, normal enough, seemed to have the purpose of emphasising `her own intimacy with God at the expense of her audience'. The only subjects permitted in her presence were `the less sensational items of general news and those preferably of a theological nature ... Without saying a single word she managed to radiate disapproval ... the air seemed to grow heavy with it and the most garrulous talker would wilt and fall silent.'
She had been born Emma Wilson, an only child in a family well established in Leicestershire, as well as in Norfolk. She married Sir Henry Tyrwhitt when she was seventeen and he was twenty-nine. Sir Henry was a pleasant, easy-going man with a mild liking for politics, `in which, however, he was never permitted to indulge'. Gerald's father Hugh, was the third son of this ill-matched couple.
Lady Berners spent a good deal of her time paying minatory visits to the sick and the poor. She would set out on these charitable raids in a small pony-chaise, which she used to drive herself, armed with soup and propaganda. The rest of the day she passed in meditation in her grim little study at Stanley Hall in Shropshire, overlooking the `rather smelly' moat. She constantly gave out bibles, which were a problem to dispose of, as the appropriate name was meticulously written in the front of each. Gerald recalls tossing one into that overlooked water and being appalled to discover that, far from sinking, it bobbed buoyantly on the surface.
This is a vivid image, but in fact there never was a moat at Stanley Hall, though there are a series of fish ponds on the far side of the drive and at some distance from the house; perhaps the bible bobbed in one of them. There was, however, a moat at Ashwellthorpe Hall in Norfolk, another family home, where Lady Berners lived following the death of her husband in 1894, and Gerald has clearly borrowed it. Similarly with the picture he paints of an Elizabethan house, `deformed by later additions' and shut in on all sides by tall fir trees, `so that even under a blue sky and when the sun shone its brightest, Stackwell [as he calls the house] looked as grim as an ogre's castle'. Much had been added during the nineteenth century (now once more removed), but old photographs and drawings show only one Wellingtonia and a Scots fir within fifty yards of even the enlarged building. Gerald created the wicked fairy's dark abode out of any available material.
Lady Berners had nine sons and three daughters but retained formidable energy, as well as will. Gerald's view of her is the highly prejudiced one of a child. She moved to Ashwellthorpe when he was just eleven and, though she survived for another twenty-three years, he scarcely saw her. Villagers there remembered her as a generous, or at least conscientious, old lady, giving parties at Christmas at which all the guests received presents with their names painstakingly attached. Gerald's view, however, is supported by his father, who, when asked if she was a baroness in her own right, replied, `Yes, and everything else in her own wrong.' There is a story that she lined up six of her children and dealt the one on the end such a blow that the whole row fell over. Nor did hardship bring them together. They were not a fond family, certainly, in later years. All of them grew up to be worldly and irreligious, except one who became a vicar, but possibly a more subtle revenge extremely High Church.
Though the parents were rich, the children, apart from the eldest son, were not, because they were too many. Gerald's father, Hugh, went into the navy at thirteen and was reasonably successful. As a boy, however, he had been brought up with ideas above his income, so at twenty-six he conveniently married the daughter of an immensely rich neighbour.
William Foster, that neighbour, was an ironmaster and employed 5,000 people in south Staffordshire alone, becoming the Liberal member of Parliament there for eleven years. His fortune was based on the expansion of the railways. Much money went on building churches, vicarages and schools, but without denting the surface of his riches. In 1843 he married Isabelle Grazebrook, and Gerald was to remember this grandmother as having `the air of an elderly Madonna, placid and matriarchal ... she had never been known to utter an unkind word or a hasty judgement'. The only criticism Gerald would allow was `limited'. William and Isabelle had six children, of which Julia was the third, and in 1867 moved to Apley Park in Shropshire, `a huge neo-Gothic building of grey stone built towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was a little like Strawberry Hill in appearance and if not quite so airy and fantastic in its architecture, was quite as turreted and castellated'.
`Arley', as Gerald calls it, is enhanced by its castellation, where Stanley was deformed. It is said to overlook the river, which is in fact a mile or so away. The stone is indeed grey, which could be seen as depressing, but Gerald is painting a contrast; he remembers being happy here and the park, not entirely unlike the land just across the river, was `an earthly paradise for children'. Gerald viewed his mother's family as conventional mid-Victorians, well behaved, devoid of any excess of imagination, perhaps of imagination at all, fond of each other, happy to hunt and shoot at Apley, less delighted to be transported to Belgrave Square in the summer. Once they went to Europe, a great adventure but not exactly enjoyable. Gerald thought that Julia had been romantic when young but, with `a nice well-trimmed landscape-gardener's kind of romanticism', preferring Scott to Byron; although when she got married, she hurried off to buy Don Juan, which had previously been forbidden her.
Sir Henry Tyrwhitt's Stanley Hall was only three miles away from Apley Park, with a convenient bridge across the Severn, so Gerald's parents must have known each other when Julia was sixteen and Hugh was eleven. By 1882, Hugh Tyrwhitt had seen the world. He could be exceptionally charming when there was something in it for him, and his attentions must have seemed exciting to Julia, while her long acquaintance with him was reassuring. They married in 1882 when she was thirty-one and their only child, Gerald Hugh, was born thirteen months later, on 18 September 1883.
When he married, Lieutenant Tyrwhitt's allowance was just enough to pay for his cigars, but his wife's family was as rich as his own was grand. Gerald not only thought but put into print that his father had married for money: `It is difficult to believe that he could ever have been seriously in love with my mother. But it is only fair to add that he does not seem to have been the kind of man who could ever have been seriously in love with anyone.' On her wedding, Julia received £30,000 - no more than her share, though the equivalent today of about £13/4 million. (Gerald describes this as being enough for his father to pay off his debts; after that, she had only a modest income.)
At much the same time Julia's father, who had had a stroke, went almost literally barking mad. Gerald remembered him sitting alone in a darkened room, groaning and cursing continually. `He could be heard all over the house ... I never saw him smile or take an interest in anything.' He came to meals and went to church, though on at least one occasion a string of expletives caused the service to be curtailed. Gerald was not frightened; on the contrary, he used to listen with interest and do imitations for his younger cousins, aware that this was a dreadful lapse of taste which would be severely punished if overheard. Foster did not die until 1899, when he was eighty-five and Gerald was fifteen. He left £2½ million, a gigantic fortune.
Gerald saw his father as `worldly, cynical, intolerant of any kind of inferiority, reserved and self-possessed' and again `curious, moody, rather brilliant'. He became a naval captain at forty-three, going on to command the Renown when it took the Prince of Wales to India in 1905. The son admired the father's elegance: `He took a great deal of trouble about his clothes, He was a small well-built man. He wore a neat, pointed beard and he walked with an imposing swagger. He had that easy superiority of manner which enables people to command respectful attention whether on a battleship or in a restaurant. Anyone meeting him for the first time might have taken him for minor royalty.' Gerald also admired his wit. He recounts with admiration how a boring neighbour told his father that someone had kicked his wife, adding, `And in public too! It's not cricket, is it?' `"No," said my father, stifling a yawn, "It sounds more like football."'
Gerald admitted that his father was strict and critical, but the most important thing about the way Gerald saw his father was that it was not often. This was not only because of Hugh's career, which he took seriously (two years after his wedding he was away for months, failing to relieve Gordon at Khartoum), but because he found that his wife bored and irritated him. Even when his father was present, Gerald sensed that he was not trying, that what was presented to the family was not nearly as impressive as what was presented to the world. His only child was of peripheral importance. When it was suggested that he should beat Gerald for some wickedness, Hugh said he could not be bothered. `I suppose I ought to have been grateful but I remember being offended by his lack of interest.' Noting that a child's view of God may be based on that of his father, Gerald quotes himself as replying defiantly to a threat of divine vengeance made by a nanny, `Nonsense. God doesn't care what we do.' Years later he still seemed to admire his father greatly, but still from a distance.
Although Gerald talks of visiting Apley, the family seems in fact to have lived there during his early years. That it was not gloomier depended on the kindly disposition of his maternal grandmother. Unmarried Uncle James and crippled Aunt Constance lived there too, and someone he calls Cousin Emily, `a very disagreeable young woman ... of small stature, lean and cross-eyed', used to come and stay for lengthy periods; but there were no other children. Younger cousins and neighbours are mentioned, but Gerald looked back on a little boy very much alone, not only in age but in character. However, nobody's portrait of his own childhood can be accepted as objective. Gerald's considered opinion was that he fought his way single-handed out of totally philistine surroundings in which there was no sympathy for his deepest feelings and that, though it was a bore to complain and he did not indulge in it, nobody knew the trouble he'd seen, nobody knew his struggle. The little evidence there is, however, suggests that, though broadly true, this is not the whole truth. The most complicated reactions, the heart of any contradictions, unsurprisingly concern his mother.
The blandest version, endorsed by many of his friends of later years, is that Gerald adored her, surprising though that might seem (Harold Nicolson thought that she had the face of Mr Gladstone and the brain of a peahen), and always behaved well towards her. Certainly he wrote many letters, gave her a house when he could, visited her frequently. There is no known instance of his speaking against her. His own version never contradicts this directly he is too loyal but it does undermine it. He begins with the assertion that `Fox-hunting was the dominant interest in my mother's life, the one thing she was good at.' Even that has a sting, from someone who never cared for hunting; but no one who knew Julia could disagree. More or less deserted by an unloving husband, she turned not to her son but to her horses. He in turn devotes as many pages to the housekeeper as to his mother, drawing a purposeful distinction: the housekeeper (who does not sound particularly warm or lovable) taught Gerald to believe in fairies; his mother opposed all imagination.
His beliefs got him into trouble: bad Cousin Emily saw him in the mirror when he was trying to turn her into a toad; he attempted to cure his mad grandfather by placing a wreath of snowdrops (`self-righteous little flowers') on his head. Nevertheless to Gerald this lack of interest in fantasy or imagination was a crucial failing of his mother, representing a large part of what he had to overcome and a lifelong complaint. In notes jotted down only a few years before his death he recorded, `Play I wrote at the age of seventeen under the influence of Ibsen ... my mother pronounced it morbid and said "Why couldn't I write a play like Charley's Aunt?"' Elsewhere he wrote that at eighteen he `was determined to brave parental displeasure and devote my life to music', but then, honestly, changed it to the weaker `almost made up my mind to ...' Again: `How many mothers, I wonder, out of maternal solicitude, have ruined the chances of their sons.' But at least the blighting mothers are allowed solicitude as a motive.
He recognised the closeness that the two of them shared when he was young, but it was not what he would have chosen: `My discrimination was acute enough to let me realise that, of my two parents, [my father] was by far the more interesting. But association with and dependence on my mother led me to give her all my affection and to take her side rather than his.' So she does receive all his affection, but only because she is there and in power. With that power she tried to thwart Gerald's deepest wishes: `The thought of any son of hers becoming a professional artist filled her with horror.' She had got him off to a crippling start because of her own taste, `which with the cocksureness of her Victorian mentality she believed to be the last word in artistic refinement ... for many years she continued to quote the opinions of her governesses on aesthetic matters'. This comment was written when he was middle-aged and Julia was dead, but the irritation lingered on.
Gerald's letters to his mother have survived, as few of his papers have, and would seem certain to throw light on his daily life, or at least to contain examples of his writing at its most relaxed and personal; these hopes are for the most part disappointed. It seems almost as if he was being dull to keep her at a distance, but his own explanation is slightly different:
it was necessary to exercise the utmost caution to avoid telling her anything that she might seize upon as a motive for alarms and excursions. The slightest provocation would elicit expressions of maternal anxiety. `I hope you are not getting into a foreign way of thinking.' `I hope you are taking plenty of exercise and not sitting about all the time talking. Foreigners lead such unhealthy lives.' `I hope you are not falling in love with the niece.'
Solicitude indeed. By this time, Gerald had gone abroad, while still in his teens, and parted from her with `intense relief'.
One or two friends thought Gerald felt guilty about not seeing more of his mother when he was grown up, but that he could not bring himself to prolong visits because of the tedium, the undisguisable fact that they had nothing in common. He himself gracefully offers a milder version of the belief widespread among children that they are foundlings, that they must have sprung from something different from, and better than, their parents: `I am unable to trace any single one of my distinctive traits to my grandparents and still less to my parents ... there were certain disadvantages to being a sport (in the biological sense) in an exclusively sporting environment.'
In the biological sense only. Inevitably his mother made it clear that to ride well was the main aim in life, and started Gerald riding as soon as he could walk; inevitably it was a disaster. He fell off, was laughed at and humiliated, accepted her view that he was uniquely inept. (In fact he became perfectly competent.) Shooting was no more successful:
One day, after luncheon, I went for a walk with Albert [a neighbouring child] in the woods. He was carrying a gun. As we approached a clearing we saw a large rabbit sitting a few yards away. Albert handed me his gun. I took a shot at the rabbit and missed it, and I shall always remember the manner in which Albert took back the gun from me as one of the most contemptuously eloquent pieces of mime I have ever experienced. I know it depressed me for several days afterwards.
His interest in, even enthusiasm for, canoeing impressed nobody.
No sooner has a less amiable portrait of Mrs Tyrwhitt been assembled from Gerald's later writings than it has to be modified again partly by other things he said, partly by her own diary, partly by comments from others. The diary is extremely dull, but there are many fond references and constant reports that Gerald is looking well. No one remark is proof that she loved him, but the sum of them is: `Drove to the station to meet G. Train 11/2 hours late. Arrived looking very well with six wax-bills and a tame mouse.' `Meyrick and I worked nearly all day decorating G.'s bicycle.' `Gerald took Remove at Eton!!!' His own earliest letters are full of humour and high spirits `I'm so frisky today I am drawing you a picture ... A wonderful new American drink called ice-cream soda ... it's rot that you can't come to the concert.'
Gerald admits that there were signs that Julia was rather proud of his artistic side. She played the piano to him and allowed him to look at her own efficient watercolours, took him to the National Gallery and the Royal Academy, allowed him to read Trilby after a schoolmaster had confiscated it. When, at the age of ten, he wrote a funeral dirge for her, she was amused and used to ask him to play it at parties. So there must have been parties, occasionally. Christabel Aberconway recorded a much later scene:
He was devoted to his old mother, but couldn't resist training his parrot to walk across the room in front of her chair with his bowler hat covering the parrot, with the brim almost sweeping the floor. Nevertheless this strange sight of a self-moving hat didn't seem to surprise Gerald's mother, which did surprise Gerald; perhaps Gerald wasn't aware how well, even in old age, Gerald's mother understood her son.
There are no fundamental contradictions in Gerald's feelings for his mother. His image of two great houses, run by his grandmothers (a good fairy, and a bad fairy), in which men are of little consequence stands. His mother, unworldly but unchallenged, changeable but always returning to convention, loved him when he was small, and worried about his enthusiasm for the arts, which were outside her range, only when it threatened his career or threatened to become his career. `My mother used to think literature and painting were less dangerous to me than music', and she was right. Gerald recorded `the lack of affection that held between my two parents. I thought at first that it was the normal relationship between husbands and wives.' This was the more insidious legacy, though he does not himself connect it with the emotional timidity that was to turn to a crippling shyness and spread across his whole life.
Meet the Author
Mark Amory has been the Literary Editor of The Spectator for the last twenty-five years, thus making him the longest serving Literary Editor in London. In addition to his Lord Berners biographer he has written one on Lord Dunsany, as well as editing the published letters of Ann Fleming and Evelyn Waugh and a volume of Marc Boxer's drawings and cartoons.
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