Serious, Silly, Charming, & Heartless

Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s
Lord Berners, Robert Heber-Percy with his daughter Victoria, and Jennifer Fry in the drawing room at Faringdon, Berkshire, September 1943; photograph by Cecil Beaton

It was an oddity of growing up in the small Berkshire town of Faringdon in the 1950s that Lord Berners’s name was often mentioned. He was, in a way, a part of the landscape. A tall slender tower on a hill at the edge of the town was the goal of all our childhood walks, its red-brick walls rising scarily blank to a high-up viewing chamber and Gothic crown that showed above the surrounding pines. This was Lord Berners’s Folly, said to be the last great folly built in England, and stridently opposed by the town when it was first planned in 1934. Before long of course it was something to be proud of, and when Berners depicted it in his painting for a famous Shell poster it became an emblem of the town, its Eiffel Tower. It was opened with fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night 1935 and the guests were invited to “bring effigies of their enemies for the bonfire. No guest may bring more than six effigies.” It bore a characteristic notice: “MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC COMMITTING SUICIDE FROM THIS TOWER DO SO AT THEIR OWN RISK.”

Berners, a distinguished composer, novelist, and memoirist as well as a prolific painter, was best known to us, as he had been for decades to the illustrated papers, as an eccentric. Around him anecdote, not discouraged by himself, proliferated and mutated. Extremely rich, he had made Faringdon House, his elegant Georgian mansion concealed beyond the parish church, a place of luxurious hospitality to artistic and society friends throughout the 1930s and beyond. Twenty years earlier a clued-in porter might have noted the arrival at our little train station of Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Stein, or Elsa Schiaparelli.

After Berners’s death in 1950 his much younger partner and heir, Robert Heber-Percy, maintained his traditions. He continued to dye the Faringdon pigeons all the colors of the rainbow, and made further surreal interventions in our placid rural scene. He installed the salvaged statue of “Africa” that looked down on the road into town on the north side—a swathed figure spoken of and described in guidebooks as a woman, but on close inspection of the chest quite clearly a man. It had just the Berners note of deadpan provocation, a sexual conundrum hidden in plain sight. Sofka Zinovieff records the rumor that the Folly itself was a birthday present from Berners to Heber-Percy, an outrageous phallic compliment disguised as an architectural caprice.

Their relationship was an attraction of opposites, the older man shy, stout, and bald, a depressive who sought refuge in frivolity and the creation of wittily sophisticated music; the younger, known for much of his life as “the Mad Boy,” lean, handsome, barely educated,…

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