14th Baron (1883–1950)
Composer, writer, artist, eccentric
Faringdon Folly Tower, Folly Hill, Faringdon (access lane from Stanford Road)
Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt was born in 1883 at Apley Park, Shropshire, to the Hon Hugh Tyrwhitt, Captain RN, and his wife Julia. His paternal grandmother, Emma Harriet Wilson, was the 12th Baroness Berners in her own right. After Eton he entered the diplomatic service, serving as honorary attaché at Constantinople and later in Rome (1911–1919). Here he formed friendships with Diaghilev and Stravinsky, and was introduced to the modernist music developing in Europe. On the death of his uncle in 1918, he became the 14th Baron Berners and 5th Tyrwhitt baronet, inheriting great wealth and estates.
He was now able to give free rein to his passion for musical composition across the spectrum of piano music, songs, orchestral pieces, opera and ballet scores, including his masterpiece A Wedding Bouquet, choreographed by Frederick Ashton. He became the leading British avant-garde composer of the time, influencing William Walton and others. Multi-talented, he diversified into painting and writing. First Childhood (1934) and A Distant Prospect (1945) are brilliant autobiographies. He also wrote satirical fiction, such as The Girls of Radcliff Hall, incorporating barely disguised portraits of his friends and himself.
In 1919 he had bought Faringdon House and here he entertained the cultural luminaries of the day: Siegfried Sassoon, the Sitwells, Gertrude Stein, Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, Constant Lambert, Salvador Dali, Max Beerbohm, Nancy Mitford (who based the character Lord Merlin on him in The Pursuit of Love) and her sister Diana Mosley, John and Penelope Betjeman, Lord David Cecil, to name a few. A ‘professional eccentric,’ he dyed the fantail pigeons pink and other colours and contrived various stunts such as having his pet giraffe to tea in the drawing room. He would erect absurd notices such as ‘Don’t throw stones at this notice’.
As an especially extravagant gesture, he commissioned the architect Gerald Wellesley, 7th Duke of Wellington, to build the 104 ft Folly Tower (left) on Folly Hill in 1935.
- Sources: Lord Berners, Composer, Writer, Painter by Peter Dickinson (2008), Lord Berners: the Last Eccentric, by Mark Amory (1998). The couplet round the lower rim of the plaque is derived from the epitaph Berners composed for himself: “Here lies Lord Berners / One of the learners. / His great love of learning / May earn him a burning / But praise to the Lord! / He seldom was bored.”
- Photograph of plaque being unveiled
The Folly Tower was handed over to the town in 1982 and is maintained by the Faringdon Folly Tower Trust, supported by the Friends of Faringdon Folly. It is open for visitors to ascend from April to October (first and third Sunday of each month).
The plaque was unveiled on 6 April 2013 at Faringdon Folly by Dr Sofka Zinovieff, granddaughter of Robert Heber-Percy, Lord Berners’ heir. Among those attending were the Mayor of Faringdon, the Chair of Vale of White Horse DC, the Lord Mayor of Oxford, and representatives of the Berners Trust, an arts charity founded in 1987.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
14th BARON BERNERS
Composer, Writer, Artist
lived at Faringdon House
and built this tower
“Praise to the Lord
He seldom was bored”