Wednesday 3rd January 2017

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Faringdon

Faringdon hits you like a fanfare as you sweep round the gravel drive beneath its clustering elms. In the house’s 1930s heyday, Osbert Sitwell applauded this “spacious, arcaded villa in the Palladian taste”. More
recently, a visitor from the New Yorker confessed himself captivated by this “doll’s house lowered from heaven”.
For nearly 20 years, Faringdon House was the home of the wealthy eccentric Lord Berners. In this lush, pastoral landscape west of Oxford, he created an exuberant, raffish social salon for his huge circle of friends and acquaintances. Berners himself was a Renaissance man, a composer in the modern style (Stravinsky visited and
admired his music), Dadaist painter and writer.

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He was also the original gay lord, who lived openly with his lover and painted his parties as pink as his pet fantail pigeons. He dyed their feathers in various pastel shades to create what Nancy Mitford described as “a cloud of confetti in the sky”. With the arrival of Berners, Faringdon erupted into one long house party, arrested only by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Smart Bohemia, the great, gay and good flocked there: Beerbohm, Beaverbrook, Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh, Osbert and the other Sitwells, Cecil Beaton, Dali, Fonteyn and H G Wells all churned their creative juices within its elegant walls, exchanging epigrams and witty remarks. It was Berners himself who described T E Lawrence as “always backing into the limelight” and Vita SackvilleWest as “wry Vita”. The journalist and politician Tom Driberg considered Berners “one of the wittiest men I have ever known”. Witty yes, pretty no. Even as a young man, he looked middle-aged, short and dumpy. Camp Beverley Nichols found him “remarkably ugly – swarthy and simian”. Berners was so bald that, by his own admission, “when he was annoyed he looked like a diabolical egg”. When he was nearly 50, he fell in love with Robert Heber Percy. The young man of 20 was handsome and gentle-eyed, but he was also possessed, says Berners’s biographer, Mark Amory, of “an electrifying wildness, the suggestion of danger, the dash that earned him the nickname of ‘the Mad Boy’ “. After a disastrous first weekend at Faringdon, Heber Percy offered to leave. “Don’t go,” Berners pleaded. “You make me laugh. I don’t mind about the other.” Schooled at Stowe, Heber Percy flunked a career in the cavalry, acted as a Hollywood extra, was sacked as a waiter for sloshing soup over a customer, and helped run a notorious London nightclub before being adopted as
the protege of the 14th Lord Berners in 1932. He inherited Faringdon when Berners died in 1950, and maintained and enhanced the exotic atmosphere of the house and grounds.

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The present house was built in 1780 for Henry James Pye, execrated as the worst poet laureate ever and whose ghost is supposed to walk the grounds. The architect, a Mr Wood of Bath, designed a graceful double staircase for the cool, white entrance hall that Pevsner later found pleasing, with pillars, decorated plaster ceilings and classical chimney pieces.
Nancy Mitford, a frequent guest, was charmed by Faringdon (“plain and gray and square and solid, sober and restrained”), and made it the model for Merlingford in her 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love. During her sleepless nights of fire-watching in wartime London, “the place I longed to be in most intensely,” she recalled, “was the red bedroom at Faringdon, with its crackling fire, its Bessarabian carpet of bunchy flowers and above all its four-post bed.” Berners bought Faringdon House in 1919 and gave the house to his mother for her lifetime, with tiny quarters for himself. He spent most of the 1920s in London (he had rooms off Piccadilly) and led an amiably flamboyant existence composing music, especially for the ballet, and being chauffered in his Rolls-Royce, which had been fitted with a small, stencilled keyboard. With the death of both his mother and stepfather in 1931, Faringdon House beckoned. The house, in writer Peter
Quennell’s phrase, was built for harmony. But that wasn’t what Berners wanted. “It was not at all glamorous,” explains Amory. “Berners set about transforming it and created his masterpiece.” He was an inveterate joker. When the Marchesa Casati arrived in tight satin trousers with a live boa constrictor, Berners entertained her at dinner by wearing a false nose. He tilted at Faringdon’s dignity, pinning joke notices
around the house. “Mangling Done Here” was a prominent one, and “No dogs admitted” was posted at the top of the stairs. On a nearby hill, Berners built a folly. A notice warned: “Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”

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On the walls of the house, Berners hung Corots, Constables and Matisses. The 54ft drawing-room offered views through five French windows beyond the fountain to one of the longest vistas in England, extending (it was said) 22 miles across a patchwork English landscape. But the mischievous Berners couldn’t resist a tease, assailing his own idyll by inviting Penelope Betjeman’s Arab stallion Moti to join them in the drawing-room for afternoon tea. As Amory discovered, the Betjemans were neighbours, hated the smart life but enjoyed dipping into it at Faringdon. “Gosh, she was an attractive woman,” Penelope declared of Dali’s nymphomaniac wife. “Never stopped talking about fur-lined wombs.” Berners buried all the entertaining rooms in flowers. He loved rich food (“loathsomely rich,” complained Beverley Nichols); from Paris, Vera Stravinsky sent special powder to help him make blue mayonnaise. Even in the austerity years that followed the Second World War, Faringdon’s kitchen garden was among the most productive in Britain. “When every sort of luxury has been forever banned in England,” declared Cyril Connolly, “Lord Berners will somehow manage to maintain a secret melon house.”

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“Faringdon always feels as though I have stepped into another world,” says Sofka Zinovieff. “What I like about it is its mixture of obvious beauty and its classical links. My grandfather’s style was very quirky and that appeals to me.” During her time at Faringdon, she has restored and renovated, redecorating the drawing-room last year with ochre walls and the adjoining music room “a dark, mysterious sort of British Racing Green”. She wants the house to retain its vibrancy. “I wouldn’t want to rip everything out,” she explains, “but I don’t want a museum, either. I want to do things in the spirit of what went before.”

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Faringdon FUN (Frivolously Unnecessary Notices) Trail

On various buildings in and around the Market Place in Faringdon, there are a number of silly signs ( or Frivolously Unnecessary Notices (FUN) as some like to call them) that can only be described as a complete waste of money. A number of signs that had previously been plastered or painted over have now all been revealed and restored. It is believed that the twelve signs were originally put up at the instigation of Lord Berners in 1935 In fact, not all the signs are as frivolous as you might think, and thanks to the research carried out by a certain Prof Featherstonehaugh from Oxford University, we now know what some of the signs are actually trying to tell us. And it also turns out that the signs actually form a Trail around the Market Place, roughly sketching out the shape of a giraffe’s head. If you’re interested in finding out more, then there is now a FUN Trail Pamphlet that is available free of charge from the Tourist Information Centre.

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt 14th Lord Berners 1883- 1950.

by Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 12 March 1920

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, inherited his title in 1918 and went on to win fame as a composer, writer, painter and lovable eccentric. After schooling at Eton he worked abroad for ten years becoming attached to British Embassies in Constantinople, Rome and Paris, where he left to devote his time to musical composition.

Berners had an inspirational effect on creative people. In 1926 he met the young Rex Whistler who was studying painting in Rome. He introduced Rex to the finest things Italy had to offer – food and wine as well as scenery, Art and architecture

In 1930, when his mother died, at the age of 46 this sophisticated individualist came to live at Faringdon House. He was an accomplished writer, painter and composer.
Stravinsky called him the best British composer of the twentieth century and Diaghilev commissioned him to compose the score for the Triumph of Neptune. Berners made Faringdon House the centre of a glittering social circle, entertaining some of the most diverse, creative and influential people during the 1920s and 30s. His typical weekend guest list could have included any one or all of the following: Aldous Huxley, HG Wells, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, Nancy Mitford, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Diana Mosley, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Duff Coopers, John & Penelope Betjeman, Elsa Schiaparelli…
Berners’ themed parties were legendary.

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Lord Berners, born Gerald Tyrwhitt, seems to have been one of nature’s jokers from the start. Punished as a small boy by being shut up in a cupboard, he retaliated by locking all the lavatories in his mother’s house and throwing the keys in a pond. Always a form of protest, his jokes grew subtler and more surreal with time. He was the only child of a semidetached mother and father whose preoccupations (hunting and the Army respectively) he repudiated, and whose mutual antipathy he failed to dent. Gerald’s conception was by all accounts the only time he managed to attract their joint attention. He survived instead on a substantial income from his mother’s family, together with a minor but reputable title inherited from a paternal uncle in 1919, when he was 36. (Berners said he came by it because a whole row of Tyrwhitts fell off a bridge or, alternatively, under a bus on their way to a family funeral.) Short, bald and dumpy, he looked like an egg and cultivated the bland, sardonic stoicism of an upper-class Humpty Dumpty.

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The First World War made no apparent impact on what was already, in Mark Amory’s memorable phrase, a life of planned repression. “Of Berners one can always be sure,” wrote Siegfried Sassoon in the 1920s: “He wears the same mask (if it is a mask), and is, to me, consistently inhuman, and unfailingly agreeable.” Wagner had been a formative influence at Eton, crossed later with the Italian Futurists, encountered during a youthful stint at the British Embassy in Rome. For a little over a decade between the wars, Berners composed short but brilliantly inventive, audacious and technically adept ballet scores, song-settings and piano suites in collaboration always with the very best and latest European talent.
Natalia Goncharova designed the cover for his first published score; Diaghilev commissioned his ballets; and Stravinsky singled him out as the finest British composer this century. But Berners himself recognised inhibition as the controlling factor in his art. He told Virginia Woolf that his talent clung like a creeper to a clifftop, and his musical scores – like his paintings and his novels – were as bright, slight and spiky as rock plants.

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“I can always tell when Gerald’s weekend guests arrive,” said a friend, discussing his music. “There’s a sudden clash of cymbals.” Passion, human or aesthetic, had long since been eliminated from Berners’s life and art. His sexual exploits, ambiguous and inconclusive like much else about him, centred more or less unsatisfactorily on a lifelong live-in boyfriend called Robert Heber Percy. Midway in age between Max Beerbohm and John Betjeman – both of whom became his friends – Berners invested his meagre emotional capital in the weird, elliptical, inconsequential humour which has always been the native English version of surrealism.
It was Berners who referred to Vita Sackville-West as “Wry Vita”, and said that a hostile review for Cyril Connolly would be like shooting a sitting robin. In his heyday as chatelain of Faringdon in Gloucestershire between the two World Wars, he built a folly, kept a flock of home-dyed, multi-coloured pigeons, installed a grand piano in his car (in fact it was a travelling clavichord which exactly fitted the Rolls-Royce tool compartment), and observed complacently when complimented on his hothouse peaches: “Yes, they are hamfed.”

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After the Second World War, in an age of austerity when luxury had become a dirty word, Faringdon took on in retrospect the aspect of an heroic and beleaguered outpost (“Lord Berners will somehow manage to maintain a secret melon house,” Connolly wrote confidently). Feeling lonely, anomalous and disheartened, Berners invented a characteristic riddle: “If the clocks . . . had no one to talk to or keep them going, what publisher would they refer to?” The answer was Chatto and Windus, but the clocks’ predicament was of course Berners’s own, stranded in a world that had replaced its pre-War cult of the grasshopper with commitment to the earnest and self-righteous ant. “The world has no use at present for middle-aged grasshoppers,” he wrote with the sombre self-know- ledge which, as Osbert Sitwell noted, he could never entirely erase from even his most frivolous text: “Occasionally, very occasionally, I thought I could detect another quality ruffling the surface of it, something sad and understanding that, it might be, he had been at great pains to hide.”
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The “Dali Diver”

The “Dali Diver” celebrates an era when the glitterati of the art, music and literature worlds would descend on Faringdon in their droves. Diana Churchill ran around the grounds of Faringdon House naked. Salvador Dali even had his own bedroom there – painted deep red. On one of Dali’s extended visits, Berners entered into the spirit of Dali’s endeavours by making the arrangements to hire a deep sea diver’s suit that Dali was going to wear at the opening of the first exhibition of Surrealist Art in London. On being asked to what depth Dali wished to descend, Lord Berners replied that Dali was going to descend to the subconscious, after which he would immediately come up again. With equal seriousness the voice on the telephone replied that in this case they would replace the helmet with a special one.

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Dali also tried out the suit in Faringdon, walking across the square right by the site of the Portwell seat. The opening itself when Dali attempted to give a lecture while slowly suffocating encased in the diving suit has gone down in the infamous annals of art history. The Diver is also particularly appropriate in a region famed for its fossil sponges that thrived when Faringdon was deep beneath the sea. Faringdon of course also has it’s own fully registered lighthouse.

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Just as Dali wore the diver’s suit to startle people from their complacency, Berners was also fond of wearing masks to give people a shock, so the weight hanging below the diver’s shoulder plates is fashioned into a laughing mask. The sad mask on the diver’s back represents the duality of Berners’ bouts of depression contrasting with his eccentric humour. The sculpture is accompanied by a quote from Berners,
‘Mistrust a man who never has an occasional flash of silliness’.
These words are set into sunken panels, like those of the decorative mouldings on the Portwell pump, and positioned on the front and back of the existing seat. They have been carved as though the words are stamped into soft putty rather than incised into hard stone, a bit of silliness similar to surreal melting watches. By the deliberate spacing of the incised words, the quote is designed to be misread. Just as Berners enjoyed a silly joke, (he once ran down the drive after a departing guest shouting ‘I must show you my cock’ (brandishing a ceramic cockerel), so the quote from the front reads ‘a man who never has an occasional flash’; most appropriate for a deep sea diver! Whereas from the back it reads ‘of silliness. Mistrust’, a conventional viewpoint that is contradicted when the punctuation is taken into consideration and the sentence is read in the right order.
This again reflects Berners complex character, a confused mixture of establishment values and unconventional frivolity.

The age of the Portwell seating
It was built in 1986; the architect was Hugh Creighton of Stanford in the Vale ( who died in the 90s) ; and the stone mason was Jack Fox – still very much alive. Jack
lives down the Lechlade Rd . He worked for Russell Spinage at the time. The seating was paid for by English Heritage, ( “they had some spare money they
wanted to give us” – according to Jack ) and the prime mover (Jack remembers ) was Councillor Cecil Blisset .
The Cotswold stone came from a small quarry between Stow on the Wold & Lower Slaughter; and the stone supplied was originally too soft. “That won’t last 20 years –
I told them” . So – Jack went to the quarry himself, and picked out harder, longer wearing stone. Jack also remembers that the paving was changed in the nineties. ”
I laid it on a slope, in keeping with the rest of the slope of the marketplace. But then someone came along and relaid the paving stones so that they were flat – so that
they could put tables and chairs there” . Anyway – we can be quite sure that neither Cromwell nor Dali sat on the seating.

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There is a good deal to be said for frivolity. Frivolous people, when all is said and done, do less harm in the world than some of our philanthropisers and reformers. Mistrust a man who never has an occasional flash of silliness.’ On the front door of Faringdon House was the legend ‘Mangling done here’.

Joke notices ‘ No dogs admitted’ at the top of the stairs’ and ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ painted inside a wardrobe. The local vicar asked for money for the deserving poor, Berners replied ‘I’m afraid I can’t help you much though I’d like to. My parents taught me never to be associated with failure’. and of the Folly Tower ‘The great point of the Tower is that it will be entirely useless.’

A questionnaire about the requirements for a happy marriage completed by Berners:
‘A short memory, A long purse, Infinite credulity, No sense of humour, A combative nature, The man should be a Man

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The Dali Diver, Portwell Bench, Market Place, Faringdon

The work of art was unveiled on 27th September 2014, to entertainment from Circus skills, bubbles, music, children’s activities and fancy dress on an underwater theme.
In 2014 the stone seat near the Portwell Pump in Faringdon’s Market Square was cleaned, repaired and improved with money from Bloor Homes Folly Park View development.

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In 1936, Dalí went to be fitted for a diving suit in a small shop on the South coast of England. The shop owner asked as to how deep Dalí was planning on going, Dalí replied his plan was to dive into the depths of the human subconscious – and that he hoped to take the British public with him. The diving suit was the pièce de résistance of the legendary International Exhibition of Surrealism, which brought together Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Meret Oppenheim, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí. On its opening day (11 June 1936) the show stopped traffic on Piccadilly due to the enormous crowds and, would instigate a change in the British arts establishment, a long-awaited reappraisal of what an art exhibition could be. Dalí’s idea was to give a lecture while wearing the diving suit. Because this wasn’t quite odd enough he made the addition of holding two dogs on leads in one hand, and in the other, a billiard cue. All looked as if it were going to plan, for a while, but during the course of the lecture, Dalí began, slowly, to suffocate underneath the hefty diving helmet. Which is when the billiard cue came to the rescue, and was used to help prise it off his head.

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A Town Beneath the Sea

To the tune of Yellow submarine- of course

In a town, with a Folly,
Lived a man, eccentricly,
And he had a horse for tea,
With his friend, Penelope.

Salvador Dali,
Came to stay, surreally,
And you’ll agree, that mentally,
He was barking mad, loopy.

Chorus
We all live in a town beneath the sea, town beneath the sea,
town beneath the sea
We all live in a town beneath the sea, town beneath the sea,
town beneath the sea

Mistrust a man who never hass,
The occasional flash, of sillinass,
And the band begins to play

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