Guest Post: Not the First English Eccentric

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Steve Graubart of ArtSpock.

Of many things famously England, not least is a penchant throughout history to produce an ample supply of eccentrics. Since the number is too large to list them chronologically or alphabetically, the best way to handle the topic is one at a time.

Case in point—Lord Berners, the 14th Baron Berners of Farington House. Gerald Tyrwhitt (1883-1950), writer, composer and diplomat, hailed from Eton. Following a World War I Rome diplomatic assignment, he inherited a fortune as a true descendent of Edwardian royalty. He was now free to pursue artistic interests and activities born of an ever-growing idiosyncratic nature.

At Farington House, in Oxfordshire, whippets wore diamond collars and pet doves were dyed pastel blue, green, yellow and red. When he painted a horse (on canvas), he brought a stallion inside his home to pose. Known in artistic circles as “the versatile peer,” his first novel, “The Camel,” was published in 1936.

His fascination with animals had actually started in childhood. Having discovered that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing it in water, he attempted to teach the house pet to fly by throwing it out the window. The pooch was unharmed, though stunts such as this eventually landed him in boarding school.

As an adult, he had the odd habit of collecting calling cards from just about anyone he encountered in British society. Sometimes, he would loan his Rome house to close friends. He then instructed his butler to deliver, every day, one or two cards of the most incessant bores in the batch. The guests would shriek every time the doorbell rang, running to the far corners or the house.

In the mid-1930s, he designed and constructed a 140-foot high gothic tower dubbed “Farington Folly”. He stated, “The great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless,” although he did post a notice to those intent on one possible use. It read:
“Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”

Berners did not like company in his rail carriage. Wearing fake spectacles and a black skullcap, at each stop he would stick his head out the window and zealously invite people to come sit with him. For the few not dissuaded by this, he produced a thermometer and took his temperature at regular intervals, each time with louder utterances of personal doom. This usually brought solitude.

Though not a prolific composer, he did write several operas and ballets. Stravinsky was known to admire his work. Gertrude Stein provided lyrics for “The Wedding Bouquet.”

World War II took a heavy toll on Tyrwhitt’s psyche and health. He died in 1950.

His epitaph reads:

Here lies Lord Berners
One of life’s learners
Thanks be to the Lord
He never was bored

For more on Berners, see Mark Amory’s 1999 biography, “Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric”

About the Author: Steve Graubart is a web-marketing writer and journalist based in Chicago. He is the host of ArtSpock, a blog dedicated to literary, visual, music and media arts.

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