Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (18 September 1883 – 19 April 1950), also known as Gerald Tyrwhitt, was a British composer of classical music, novelist, painter and aesthete. He is usually referred to as Lord Berners.
Berners was born in Apley Hall, Shropshire, in 1883. The Berners family were descended from King Edward III of England.
His father, a naval officer, was rarely home, which left Berners to spend most of his childhood with his mother and grandmother. He was raised by a grandmother who was extremely religious and self-righteous, and a mother who had little intellect and many prejudices. His mother ignored his musical interests and instead focused on developing his masculinity, a trait Berners found to be inherently unnatural.
The eccentricities Berners displayed started early in life. Once, upon hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing him into water, the young Gerald promptly decided that by throwing his mother's dog out the window, he could teach it to fly. The dog was unharmed, though the act earned Berners a beating.
After devising several inappropriate booby traps, Berners was sent off to a boarding school in Cheam at the age of nine. It was here that he would first explore his homosexuality; for a short time, he was romantically involved with an older student. The relationship was abruptly ended after Berners accidentally vomited on the other boy.
After he left prep school, Gerald continued his education at Eton College. Later, in his autobiographies, Berners would reflect on his experiences at Eton, claiming that he had learned nothing while there, and that the school was more concerned with shaping the young men's characters than supplying them with an education.
As well as being a talented musician, Berners was a skilled artist and writer. He was a ubiquitous presence in British literary circles of the 1920s and 1930s. He appears in many books and biographies of the period, notably portrayed as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. He was a friend of the Mitford family and close to Diana Guinness.
Berners was notorious for his eccentricity, dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colors and at one point having a giraffe as a pet and tea companion. His Rolls Royce automobile contained a small clavicord keyboard which could be stored beneath the front seat. At his house he had a 100 foot viewing tower constructed, a notice at the entrance reading: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.
He was also subject throughout his life to periods of depression. These became more pronounced when Berners, who had lived in Rome from 1939 to 1945, found himself somewhat out of favour after his return to England.
He died in 1950 at Faringdon House, bequeathing his estate to his companion Robert ('Boy') Heber Percy, who lived at Faringdon until his own death in 1987.
His epitaph on his gravestone reads:
"Here lies Lord Berners
One of the learners
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning
But, Praise the Lord!
He seldom was bored".
Berners' musical works included Trois morceaux, Fantasie espagnole (1919), Fugue in C minor (1924), and several ballets, including The Triumph of Neptune (1926) (based on a story by Sacheverell Sitwell) and Luna Park (1930). In later years he composed several songs and film scores, notably for the 1947 film Nicholas Nickleby.
His friends included the composers Constant Lambert and William Walton and he worked with Frederick Ashton. Walton dedicated Belshazzar's Feast to Berners, and Lambert wrote a Caprice péruvien for orchestra, on themes from Lord Berners' Le carrosse du St Sacrement.
Besides piano pieces and songs he wrote film scores and ballet music. The ballet The Triumph of Neptune (1926) was written on the request of Diaghilev for the celebrated Ballets Russes.
Through his eccentric attitude to life and the strange titles of many of his pieces, Lord Berners is often associated with Dadaism. Some of his works featured in the Ebony Band's programme Dada, past and present (1997).