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Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Baron (1883-1950)  

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the fourteenth Baron Berners, was, as his friend Osbert Sitwell reflected, a dilettante, but a dilettante in the best sense of the word. A composer, painter, and novelist, he was, first and foremost, a genuine British aristocratic eccentric whose life was, in a sense, a grand performance.

He was born September 18, 1883, at Apley Park, Shropshire, to a family with a long noble pedigree. A shy and effeminate boy, he was discouraged from pursuing his love of art and music by his pious and conventional mother, who felt such inclinations unbecoming a young man of his class.

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Berners was educated at Eton and, in 1899, entered the diplomatic service, despite failing its written examinations. He was first posted as an honorary attaché to Constantinople, where he met Harold Nicolson, later the husband of Vita Sackville-West. Subsequently he was posted to Rome, where he became a friend of Ronald Firbank, who was his major literary influence, and Igor Stravinsky, who admired his musical compositions.

In 1918, he inherited his uncle's title, fortune, and properties. Consequently, he left the diplomatic service and retired to the family estate at Faringdon, Oxfordshire, in order to devote his life entirely to the pursuit of his pastimes and pleasures. As Lord Berners, he cultivated a considerable reputation as an eccentric.

He was known for such antics as dyeing the doves on his estate various colors, arranging color-coordinated meals, and traveling through Europe with a spinet piano in the rear seat of his Rolls-Royce. He also frequented many of the literary and artistic circles of his day, and numbered Evelyn Waugh, the Mitford sisters, and the Sitwells among his friends and guests.

Even while entertaining extravagantly, Berners still found time to pursue his various artistic careers. As a composer, he was largely self-taught; nonetheless, he produced an impressive number of compositions that could be deemed light-hearted "serious" music influenced by contemporary French composers. He wrote a considerable number of songs and pieces for solo piano.

His best known and most enduring works, however, are his ballets, particularly The Triumph of Neptune (produced by Diaghilev, choreographed by Balanchine, 1926), as well as Luna Park (1930) and A Wedding Bouquet (with words by Gertrude Stein, 1936). He also commissioned Stein to write an opera libretto, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, but he never actually composed the music for it.

Berners also achieved some success as a writer. His published work includes three volumes of amusing autobiography, including First Childhood (1934), A Distant Prospect (1945), and the recently discovered The Château de Résenlieu (published 2000).

In addition, he wrote a number of short, campy Firbankian novels, including The Girls of Radcliff Hall (1934), a roman à clef (published under the pseudonym "Adela Quebec"). This fiction is set in a girls' school (the name of which alludes to the lesbian author of The Well of Loneliness) in which all the "girls" are disguised portraits of his various gay male acquaintances. The volume has become rare, as several of those portrayed, particularly Cecil Beaton, were offended and thus bought and destroyed many of the copies.

In the 1930s, Berners enjoyed a brief vogue as a painter as well; his landscapes, though not terribly original, sold for extraordinary prices.

For over twenty years, Berners lived openly with a much younger man, the equally eccentric Robert Heber-Percy (1911-1986). In 1934, Berners had a "folly" tower, perhaps the last such structure built in England, erected on his estate as a birthday present for the "Mad Boy." Despite Heber-Percy's short-lived wartime marriage to a woman, Berners left him his estate and fortune upon his death on April 19, 1950.

Patricia Juliana Smith

     

    
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arts >> Overview:  Ballet

The enduring and persistent connection between ballet and male homosexuality is undeniable and may be related to the art's remarkably masculine provenance.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Classical

Classical music is an important component of Western culture to which glbt people have contributed significantly.

arts >> Beaton, Sir Cecil

The celebrated British photographer Cecil Beaton described himself as a "terrible, terrible homosexualist," but may be best known for his relationship with Greta Garbo.

arts >> Diaghilev, Sergei

For Russian nobleman Sergei Diaghilev, who revolutionized music, the visual arts, theater, and dance, homosexuality may have been integral to his creativity.

literature >> Firbank, Ronald

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literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

arts >> Messel, Oliver

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Oliver Messel was Britain's most celebrated theatrical designer, the creator of lavish costumes and sets for ballet and stage productions in the country's most prestigious venues.

literature >> Sackville-West, Vita

Best known for her relationship with Virginia Woolf and for her scandalous love affairs, Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

literature >> Sitwell, Edith

Throughout her life, poet and novelist Edith Sitwell surrounded herself with gay men, some of whom became her artistic collaborators. Although it is not clear that she ever experienced a sustained sexual relationship with anyone of either sex, her closest emotional bond was with another woman.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

literature >> Waugh, Evelyn

Evelyn Waugh, who had homosexual affairs while at Oxford but later led a heterosexual life, treated homosexuals both nostalgically and contemptuously in his novels.


    Bibliography
   

Amory, Mark. Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998.

Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Lord. The Château de Résenlieu. Chappaqua: Turtle Point Press, 2000.

_____. A Distant Prospect. Chappaqua: Turtle Point Press, 1998.

_____. First Childhood. Chappaqua: Turtle Point Press, 1998.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Baron  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 27, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/berners_b.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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