British composer, painter, novelist and eccentric
Born 1883 Died 1950
Although the 14th Baron Berners lived the life of a country gentleman, he devoted much of his time to "my little hobbies, writing, painting, and music" and left a small but in some ways impressive body of work. His general attitude to life can be summed up by the fact that when he had his portrait painted by the Spanish artist Gregorio Prieto he insisted on being depicted holding a lobster.
1. Early Life
Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt was born on the 18th September 1883 at Apley Park in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, being the only child of a Royal Naval Lieutenant named Hugh Tyrwhitt and his wife Julia Mary Foster. His father was the third son of the Baroness Berners whilst his mother was the daughter of William Orme Foster, the Liberal Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire.
Gerald appears to have had a lonely childhood. He had no brothers or sisters and no childhood friends. His mother appears to have been disappointed by his lack of interest in horses and hunting, whilst his father, being in the navy, spent a lot of time away from home. (An arrangement that apparently suited both parents as neither seems to have been that fond of the other.) Gerald was therefore forced to amuse himself, and soon began to display certain idiosyncrasies.
Having been told that a dog would instinctively swim when thrown into water, he decided to throw his mother's spaniel out of the window on the basis that it would then similarly instinctively fly. Fortunately it was only a first-floor window and the spaniel survived, although his mother did thrash him for this misdemeanor.
Being sent off to boarding school does not appear to have improved matters. He was later to claim that the main drawback of his time at Cheam Preparatory School was "the fact that the headmaster happened to be a sadist", whilst he complained that he was merely surrounded by philistines at Eton College. As Gerald himself was later to put it "Those who say that their childhood was the happiest period in their lives must, one suspects, have been the victims of perpetual misfortune in later years".
Having left Eton at the age of sixteen in 1900 he then spent the next few years travelling on the Continent courtesy of regular cheques from his mother where he ostensibly studied languages. He then decided on the Diplomatic Service as a career and sat the Foreign Office examination in 1905 and again in 1907 but failed on both occasions. Nevertheless he became an honorary attaché and was posted first to Constantinople in 1909, then to Rome from 1911 until 1919.
His decision to pursue an unpaid diplomatic career had two important consequences. Firstly it kept him away from the traumas of World War I, and secondly it introduced him to a number of European cultural influences, particularly during his time in Rome, where he met and befriended Ronald Firbank, came into contact with both Futurism and Surrealism, and made the acquaintance of both Diaghilev and Stravinsky.
What however transformed his life was the death of his rich uncle, Raymond Robert Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 13th Baron Berners on the 5th September 1918, after which he became the 14th Baron Berners and a baronet and also inherited a considerable country estate. In the following year he took his grandmother's name of Wilson becoming Tyrwhitt-Wilson (belatedly fulfilling the condition imposed by his grandmother on her heirs), resigned from the Diplomatic Service and returned to Britain. Although he did indeed take his seat in the House of Lords in December 1923, and actually attended once or twice, politics were of no interest to him. When asked some years later by Diana Mosley about his view of the House of Lords he replied, "I did go once, but a bishop stole my umbrella and I never went there again."
2. The Composer, Painter and Author
Gerald had in his youth learned to play the piano, although "somewhat inaccurately" and had later written and published a number of songs and short pieces, most notably Trois petites marches funèbres in 1914. This was however more of a hobby than anything else, and it was whilst he was in Rome that Gerald was persuaded to take the the business of composing more seriously. Indeed he was later to have a Dolmetsch clavichord, decorated with flowers and butterflies, installed in the back seat of his Rolls-Royce, so that he could compose in transit.
The first product of his more serious phase was a short one-act opera, Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement which was based on Prosper Mérimée's comedy, and was regarded as a success when performed in Paris in 1924. This led to his being commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev to compose a ballet on his behalf, with the resulting The Triumph of Neptune, with choreography by George Balanchine, appearing in 1926. Although he also wrote Luna Park, produced by Charles B. Cochran in 1930, with choreography again by Balanchine, it was to be another ten years before he wrote another major musical work.
The main reason for his sudden lack of interest in music was that he had developed an enthusiasm for painting. Having acquired a house on the Forum in Rome (address 1 Foro Romano), he spent much of his time in the surrounding countryside painting Italian landscapes in the style of Corot. He had two successful exhibitions at the Lefèvre Gallery in 1931 and again in 1936 where his work sold well, although as Evelyn Waugh remarked "Gerald Berners had an exhibition of pictures and sold them all on the first day which shows what a good thing it is to be a baron." The general opinion appears to have been that his pictures were "just too perfect"; that is conventionally photographically accurate without necessarily displaying any genuine artistic merit.
Perhaps such attitudes encouraged him to turn to the written word, and his first book, an autobiography entitled First Childhood appeared in 1934. Described as "a minor masterpiece" this recounted the details of his life to the age of fourteen, and was followed by a novel The Camel in 1936 in which a vicar's wife decides to ride a camel to hounds. He is however best remembered for The Girls of Radcliff Hall (1937) which is part parody of the so-called lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and a part camp homosexual roman de clef. Set in a girls' school, each of the girls where simply versions of Gerald's various homosexual friends, such as Cecil Beaton, David Herbert and Oliver Messel, whilst the character of the school's headmistress was based on Gerald himself. The work was understandably intended for private circulation only, although it is said that Cecil Beaton was so annoyed by the book that he made efforts to gather up and destroy all the copies he could find in an attempt to suppress it.
Towards end of the thirties he rediscovered his enthusiasm for music and in 1937 completed a ballet, A Wedding Bouquet. Based on a play by Gertrude Stein and with choreography by Frederick Ashton, Gerald also designed both the costumes and sets for the production, whilst the cast included Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn. This was regarded as a definite success and has been described by the New Grove Music Dictionary as a "minor masterpiece of British ballet".
3. Faringdon House
After his mother died in 1930 Gerald made his home at Faringdon House, which was in Berkshire at the time, but is now in Oxfordshire thanks to a shifting of the county boundary. There he erected a sign in the grounds which read 'Trespassers will be prosecuted, dogs shot, cats whipped', and another on the front door which proclaimed 'Mangling done here'; indeed he seemed to have a penchant for erecting signs and stuck one that read 'Prepare To Meet Thy God' inside a wardrobe.
Of course the reason why Gerald had so many homosexual friends was that he himself was very much homosexual and set up home at Faringdon House with Robert Vernon Heber Percy, otherwise known as the Mad Boy, who was some twenty-nine years his junior. Although quite how he managed to land such a catch as the dashing 'Mad Boy' is a mystery to many, since Gerald was to be frank quite ugly. His general appearance wasn't helped by the fact that he was also bald and, as he admitted himself, he "looked like a diabolical egg" when angry. In fact as his friend Beverley Nichols was later to recall, Gerald was "remarkably ugly — short, swarthy, bald, dumpy and simian. There is a legend that nobody who has ever seen Gerald in his bath is ever quite the same again." Gerald's profound lack of physical attractiveness may explain why he was shy and apparently somewhat intimidating. By contrast his partner Robert was an extravagant extrovert and appears to have encouraged Gerald in the exercise of the bizarre elements of his imagination.
It was at Faringdon that Gerald dyed the fan-tailed pigeons in various pastel shades, using vegetable dyes provided by Vera Sudeikina in 1937, kept whippets with diamond collars, and tried to persuade neighbouring farmers to dye their horses and cattle purple. He filled the house with paintings by Derain, Sisley, and Matisse and his collection of stuffed birds and mechanical toys, and a slightly less than perpendicular chest of drawers designed by Salvador Dalí.
It was also at Farringdon that that he built the Folly Tower, which is is said to be the last folly ever to be constructed in England, which was formally unveiled in 1935 on the occasion of Robert's birthday. (Although Robert apparently always said that he would have preferred to have been given a horse.) At 104 feet in height, Gerald proudly proclaimed that the the resulting tower was "entirely useless", and put up a prominent sign bearing the words 'Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so entirely at their own risk'. (The Folly Tower is now open to the public and can be inspected by those wishing to verify its lack of utility.)
All this and his various eccentricities became well known, as throughout the 1930s Gerald entertained on a lavish scale and Faringdon House was the scene of a series of glittering parties. Guests included the likes of Harold Nicolson, Siegfried Sassoon, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Emerald Cunard, Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, Constant Lambert, Sibyl Colefax, Diana Mosley, and her sister Nancy Mitford, whilst he also liked to entertain fellow composers such as Thomas Beecham, George Gershwin, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. (The last named dedicated his Belshazzar's Feast to Gerald in gratitude for a gift of money.) When Salvador Dali came to Britain in 1936 to attend the International Surrealist Exhibition, both he and his wife dropped in on Faringdon, and arranged that Gerald should play the grand piano, conveniently located in a pool on the lawn which featured chocolate éclairs placed on the black notes.
4. Final Chapter
Gerald's world was rather turned upside-down by the arrival of World War II, as given his complete lack of interest in politics the whole thing came as something of a shock. He had a nervous breakdown as a result and went to live in Oxford where he spent much of the war cataloguing books. This experience appears to have encouraged him to return to the written word and in 1941 he published three short works of fiction Far, from the Madding War (which contains portraits of his Oxford friends of the time), Count Omega, and Percy Wallingford and Mr Pidger, wrote another comic novel The Romance of a Nose which appeared in 1942 and another autobiographical and a sequel to First Childhood entitled A Distant Prospect in 1945.
Gerald also became involved in cinema, and wrote both a polka and a song Come on Algernon which appeared in the 1944 Ealing production of Champagne Charlie, and composed the film scores for The Halfway House (1943) and Nicholas Nickleby (1946). He also wrote two more ballets in conjunction with Frederick Ashton. However both Cupid and Psyche (1939) and Les sirènes (1947) were unfortunately regarded as being failures. In particular this latter failure seems to have exacerbated his pre-existing depression. First his eyesight and then his general health failed and he died at Faringdon House on the 19th April 1950. The doctor who looked after him in his final years refused to send a bill, on the basis "that the pleasure of his company had been payment enough".
Gerald appears as the character Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's Pursuit of Love, and also as Robert Mainwroth in Osbert Sitwell’s story The Love-Bird. The Girls of Radcliff Hall was eventually published in 2000 as despite Beaton's best efforts, John Betjeman had given his copy to the British Library and thereby preserved it for posterity. It apparently holds a certain place of significance in the history of homosexual literature. Much of his music is available on Compact Disc on the Naxos label and remains well regarded, Igor Stravinsky apparently once told Edward James that he was the best composer of his generation.
Naturally Gerald never married and died without heirs. His title passed to a female cousin, whilst his money went to his partner
Robert Vernon Heber Percy.
- Mark Amory, ‘Wilson, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-, fourteenth Baron Berners (1883–1950)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Joseph Epstein, Pink pigeons and blue mayonnaise from The New Criterion Vol. 17, No. 3, November 1998
- Composers Lord Berners http://www.chesternovello.com/default.aspx/default.aspx?TabId=2431&State_2905=2&composerId_2905=112
- Lord Berners (Arranger)
- Gavin Bryars, The Berners Case, originally published in 'The Guardian', February 2003
- Berners, Lord (Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson) Biography