The Magazine

Lord Ha-Ha

The aesthete-aristocrat who was always in on the joke.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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Lord Berners

Composer Writer Painter

by Peter Dickinson

Boydell Press, 214 pp., $47.95

It is easier to describe the appearance of Gerald Tyrwhitt (1883-1950), the 14th, and strangest, Lord Berners, than the man himself. In his short story The Love-Bird, Osbert Sitwell gave his hero (a version of Berners) a "natural air of quiet, ugly distinction." Cecil Beaton thought that Berners resembled "a bald wax figure in a cheap clothes shop," while the cat-loving author Beverley Nichols was suitably feline, claiming that there was "a legend that nobody who has ever seen Gerald in his bath [was] ever quite the same again."

The mismatch between this once-renowned aesthete's disappointing looks and his lifelong pursuit of beauty was too much fun to overlook.

Understanding the elusive, talented, and complex Lord Berners is altogether more difficult. He was a composer, a painter, and a writer, sometimes of merit, sometimes less so. He was a creative force who created, in the end, not that much. He was a prankster--on occasion tiresomely so--and a parodist, a satirist, a dryly laconic, sporadically cutting wit, a surrealist in a buttoned-up suit, a modernist in a country house, and he may (or may not) have had lunch with Hitler. An introvert who knew "everyone," Berners, a lover, appropriately, of masks, manipulated his own famously eccentric image so skillfully that in many respects his public persona was, three or four decades before Andy Warhol, both protective shield and his most successful, and possibly most enduring, artistic achievement.

Under the circumstances, it's fitting that this life of Berners by the British composer, pianist, and critic Peter Dickinson is not a conventional biography--for that, turn to Mark Amory's marvelous Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric (1998), essential reading for anyone looking to fill in the gaps left by Dickinson's patchy, distinctly nonnarrative approach--but a fascinating collage of impressions, recollections, and analysis of different aspects of this multi-faceted individual's life, work, and career. It's impressively buttressed by a well-researched discography, a nicely reproduced selection of his paintings, some of his poems, a few unpublished writings, and even details of Berners's record collection.

Partly funded by the Berners Trust, this is Berners for completists. If you think that there's a touch of the Trekkie about the whole project, you'd be right. Dickinson "has been interested in Lord Berners for over thirty years." He has written a great deal about him, he arranged for an important revival concert of Berners's work, he was "prominently involved" in events to mark Berners's centenary, and he has done much else besides to focus attention on his lordship's career.

The book's intriguing core is made up of interviews conducted over the years with a clutch of ancients who had known Berners well, including Sir Harold Acton, the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, the widow of Britain's would-be Führer, Berners's chauffeur, and Robert ("mad boy") Heber-Percy, the much younger man with whom Berners lived for the final quarter of his life, despite the inconvenience posed by the mad boy marrying and, adding issue to injury, fathering a child.

The usual place to begin for those who agree that Berners deserves scholarly treatment of this sort is his music. Music was the art form that meant the most to him, and musically he was at the very least a minor talent from a country unable to boast much in the way of the major. He was dubbed the "English Satie" (Satie objected); he worked with Diaghilev and Balanchine. Stravinsky praised a youngish Berners as "a composer of unique talent," but it was a talent that was not exercised as much as it might have been: There was simply too much else that interested and entertained him.

In any event, as a rich man, Berners never had to produce anything. To be sure, he was an artist, but he wasn't confined to a garret--he owned a number of properties in England and abroad--nor did he starve: His table was legendary. Maybe this shrewd and remarkably (although largely self-taught) knowledgeable judge of good music just knew his limitations. (For what it's worth, his compositions do nothing for me, but then I'm no expert, nor am I an enthusiast for the serious music of that period. For those who are, I suspect that Dickinson makes a convincing case that Berners still matters.)

As for his paintings, they are a mixed bunch, competent enough, pleasant enough, but with exceptions, not enough. Kindly comparisons have been made with Corot, but the reaction of the reliably unkind Evelyn Waugh to the news that a 1931 exhibition of Berners's work had sold well was, for once, only slightly unfair: "[This] shows what a good thing it is to be a baron."

By contrast, if we discount (and we must) The Girls of Radcliff Hall (1937), a high camp roman à clef, Berners's writing, at its best, merits more than a second look. That said, to claim, as some have done, that his Far from the Madding War (1941) ranks somewhere close to Waugh's Put Out More Flags is, notwithstanding moments of sharp insight and a good joke or two, a stretch. Berners's short stories lurch from sub-par Saki to interminable whimsy.

His memoirs, however, are a delight. Taken as a whole, First Childhood (1934) and A Distant Prospect (1945) are, with the posthumously published Dresden and The Château de Résenlieu, a charming, engrossing, and frequently very funny portrait of a late-Victorian/Edwardian upper-class upbringing that is too knowing to fit comfortably into the prelapsarian myth-making so typical of many of the reminiscences of that epoch, yet is made poignant by our sense, and Berners's sense, of the civilization that was so carelessly and yet so carefully destroyed in 1914.

Tellingly, as the 20th century ground relentlessly on, the outbreak of a second world war drove Berners to the edge of psychological collapse. Not even the ruins of what had already been lost were, he feared, to be spared destruction.

These characteristically slight, slyly profound autobiographical scraps also come as near as Berners ever came to really revealing something of himself, the aesthete who came of age in a society of hearties, the Englishman with, for his time and island, an astonishing appreciation of Europe far grander, and far finer, than anything now likely to emerge from the gimcrack European Union, the fabulist who understood the loveliness, the escape, and the magic of absurdity. Not for nothing did Nancy Mitford give the lightly fictionalized Berners who appears in The Pursuit of Love the name Lord Merlin, proprietor of a hallucinatory, fabulous estate where a "flock of multi-coloured pigeons tumbl[ed] about like a cloud of confetti in the sky" and the dogs wore diamonds.

With Lord Merlin, it was impossible to know where "jokes ended and culture began." And not for nothing had Berners himself conjured up a similarly resplendent menagerie (more or less, in reality the canine jewelry came from Woolworth's) for his own estate at Faringdon. PETA types may relax: The dye used on the pigeons was harmless. And with Lord Berners, too, the border between the art and the jokes was ill-defined and unpoliced, each in their own way aspects of a far greater composition.

Determined, perhaps, to secure his hero's place in the cultural pantheon, Dickinson seems almost embarrassed by the stunts, japes, and trickster exploits that underpin Berners's reputation, but prefers, instead, to downplay them in favor of the music which, "everybody agrees .  .  . was his most important single contribution."

Everybody? This misses the point that Mitford, if imperfectly, grasped: "Lord Berners" was Berners's finest creation, that greater composition, a brilliant, if accidental, anticipation of our era, and a gentle rebuke to the conventions, pretensions, and the horrors of his own.

And that's something for which Dickinson should give this most gifted of amateurs a little more credit.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.