Books: Mad about the boys

Diana Souhami takes tea with a decorative dilettante
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Lord Berners: the last eccentric

by Mark Amory

Chatto & Windus, pounds 20

My favourite photograph in this entertaining book is of the drawing room of Faringdon in Berkshire, Lord Berners' country house. Middle-aged, dumpy, with a bald bullet of a head, Berners wears a formal suit and two- tone shoes. He sits in a chintz chair beside the love of his life, Robert Heber Percy, the "Mad Boy" 30 years his junior who shared his house for 18 years and his bed perhaps as often as twice.

Porcelain figures cram the mantelpiece, priceless art adorns the walls. The table is laid for decorous tea. A guest, Penelope Betjeman, sits at it nonchalantly holding a plate for Moti, Berners' large white horse, daintily to eat cake while the humans chat.

This was the sort of nonsense at which Berners excelled. Accounts of his daft excesses figure in letters, memoirs and biographies of his guests between the wars. At supper he would wear a false nose or blow soap bubbles. The lining of his Rolls Royce was stencilled with butterflies. The swans on the Faringdon lake were dyed magenta.

This is the first biography of Berners. It is a generous picture of an aristocrat who epitomised that prewar mix of reactionary politics, mild talent and subversive sex. The visitors' book at Faringdon was a dazzling roll-call of homosexuals who were almost out and always about: Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Tennant, Chips Channon, Violet Trefusis, the Princesse de Polignac, Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Harold Nicolson, E M Forster...

Berners, born Gerald Tyrwhitt in 1883, was an only child. His father boasted a grand lineage and grand debts. His mother, a millionaire, preferred horses to her husband. At Eton, Berners felt unpopular and inferior, liked music, called himself an artist among philistines and developed the defence of embellishing the truth so as never to bore.

Life was transformed when he inherited his title as the 14th Lord Berners. He had houses in Rome and Belgravia, a retinue of servants and the freedom to indulge his talent, such as it was, to compose, paint and write. He had success with his ballet scores The Triumph of Neptune, produced by Diaghilev and choreographed by Balanchine, and A Wedding Bouquet, with words by Gertrude Stein. He painted the Rome countryside, wrote mildly witty poems, two volumes of autobiography and five romans a clef about the antics of his friends.

"I'm an amateur and fundamentally superficial," he said astutely. His most telling spoof was The Girls of Radcliff Hall. Written in 1935, seven years after the banning of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, it mocks the jealousies and intrigues of his homosexual circle. Misogyny and self-rejection underpin its frivolity. Faringdon becomes a girls' public school. Berners is the headmistress Miss Carfax. The girls, daggers drawn, are Cecil Beaton, Peter Watson - with whom Cecil was in love - Robert Heber Percy, who was having sex with Peter Watson, and the stage designer Oliver Messel, Watson's long-term lover.

Extrovertly homosexual, Berners seemed maimed at core. Like Beaton, he hankered after hunky Adonises who, for sex, chose someone good at it. His personality and sexuality seemed formed and retarded by bizarre parenting, public school and money. He died aged 66, of heart disease. Heber Percy took enormous chrysanthemums to his nursing home. He inherited Faringdon and in a month "installed a Mad Boy of his own".

Amory writes wittily of Berners' flamboyance and notes but does not dwell on its flip-side of pain. He has had access to his notebooks, letters and papers from a private archive. Because of other demands, Lord Berners took him 10 years to write. Seams show when he resumes work after a forgotten lapse. He is haphazard about credits, dates and sources. I was mildly miffed, in biographical reference, to be called Southani and Southami. But those are quibbles which do not detract from this good portrait of the clownish, forlorn character of camp Lord Berners and his lost eccentric world.

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