Lord Berners (1883 – 1950)
Shropshire born Gerald Tyrwhitt, aka Lord Berners, was the 14th Baron Berners, a title he inherited, along with Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, on the death of his uncle in 1918. He was an accomplished, albeit minor, composer of classical music, a novelist, painter and all-round aesthete. More importantly, from our perspective, he was an eccentric and gratifyingly showed evidence of unusual behaviour from an early age.
I have learnt from experience that you need to be careful what you tell a child. The young Berners overheard someone saying that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing it into the water. Deciding to experiment he grabbed hold of his mother’s pet dog and hurled it out of a window, expecting the pooch to fly. Alas, the dog just crashed to the ground but walked away unhurt albeit a bit groggy. Berners received a thrashing.
His exasperated and uncaring parents often punished Berners by locking him up in a cupboard. One day Berners exacted his revenge by locking all the doors to the lavatories in his mother’s house and throwing the keys into the pond. This was the final straw and he was packed off to boarding school, Cheam House, and then Eton. He then spent ten years attached to the British Embassies in a number of European cities.
Berners left his stamp on Faringdon House. He had all the pigeons dyed in vibrant, pastel colours, using a harmless form of vegetable dye. The National Trust re-enact this tradition at Easter at the house. His dogs wore ersatz pearl necklaces which he bought from Woolworth. However, his guests were often taken in and when one reported that Fido had lost his necklace, Berners sighed and said “Oh dear, I’ll have to get another out of the safe”.
Berners was very fond of signs and notices. He had a number dotted around the estate proclaiming that dogs would be shot and cats whipped. Inside the house guests would find a sign at the top of the stairs announcing that no dogs were to be admitted and upon opening a wardrobe would be confronted with a sign advising them to “prepare to meet thy God”. The gardens would be full of paper flowers and Berners would disconcert the locals by wandering around wearing a pig’s head mask. Berners was noted for the quality of the tropical fruits he was able to grow. When complimented on some particularly delicious peaches, Berners claimed they were ham-fed.
In 1935 Berners decided that the estate needed a folly and so a 140 foot tower was built and given to his beau, Robert Heber Percy, as a birthday present. When asked what the point of the tower was, Berners responded, “the great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless”. However, in case someone decided to use it as a launch pad for a suicide bid, he erected a wonderful sign announcing “members of the public committing suicide do so at their own risk”. Quite.
In those days guests would leave calling cards and Berners was an inveterate collector of them. He put his collection to good use. When he lent his house in Rome to friends he would furnish his butler with the calling cards of some of the most notorious bores in London society and instruct him to invite one or two a day to drop in at the Roman gaff. It amused Berners to think of his guests diving for cover every time the doorbell rang!
An eccentric, for sure, but fairly harmless – perhaps more a man with a wicked sense of humour. As he said in his epitaph which he composed himself, “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”.