EVELYN WAUGH AND LORD BERNERS
THE GIRLS OF RADCLIFF HALL
On July 12 1931, Evelyn wrote a very gossipy letter to Patrick Balfour, AKA Mr Gossip in the Daily Sketch. It included the observation: 'Gerald Berners had an exhibition of pictures and sold them all on the first day which shows what a good thing it is to be a Baron.'
In The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, the editor provides 30 footnotes identifying individuals in that one letter to Balfour, including Lord Berners (see below) who is described as a 'composer, painter and writer'. Though telling the reader that Berners was extremely rich and eccentric would have been equally to the point.
The next mention of Berners is in Waugh's Diaries. Following a gap in his diary after his trip to the Amazon, from which he returned in March 1934, Waugh took up his pen on 5 July of that year, to write: 'I woke up in time to go to tea with Gerald Berners. When he asked me he said, "It is a tea party you know," with a little giggle. "Don't you think that is an amusing idea?" I said, "Very amusing."'
I suspect Waugh wanted to signal that Gerald Berners had rather a whimsical sense of humour, and that Evelyn was quite willing to go along with it. "Yes, indeed. And what a good thing it is to be a tea baron, Lord Berners."
Also at the tea party at Lord Berners' London home (3 Halkin Street, see red tack in the middle of the map below) were the usual suspects: Osbert Sitwell, Diana Cooper and Diana Guinness. So Evelyn was with elite, mega-privileged, ultra-cultivated chums. He tells us that after tea he walked across Belgrave Square to see if anyone was in at Halkyn House (lower red tack), the London home of the Lygons, who Evelyn had become friendly with in 1931, spending a lot of time at their country house, Madresfield, with four (of seven) siblings, Mary (Blondie), Dorothy (Poll), Sibell and Hugh.
That day in summer 1934 it was Hugh Lygon who was in Halkyn House, drinking whisky. Evelyn joined him, and their discussion led to an adventure in Spitzbergen, that Waugh recorded in his diary and later wrote up as a travel story. But I want to refer back to 1932 at this point, because I feel connections between Evelyn Waugh, Lord Berners and Lord Beauchamp - father of the Lygon brood - can usefully be established.
Lords Berners and Beauchamp had piles in the country as well as houses in Belgravia. Both were gay, Beauchamp in spite of his long marriage and six children. Of course, homosexuality was illegal at this time, and when Lord Beauchamp's brother-in-law found out about his sexual proclivities, he gathered evidence of them and forced Beauchamp out of the country, leaving Madresfield to be run by the children. Paula Byrne is very good on this in Mad World.
Lord Beauchamp, seducer of socialites and servants, went to Italy and rented a house in Rome that was owned by Lord Berners. The place, although luxurious, only had one bedroom, so when Evelyn Waugh and Mary Lygon visited her father there in 1932, there were four people sharing the one bedroom. Robert Harcourt Byron, Beauchamp's handsome/sexually abused (delete as appropriate) Australian valet/secretary being the fourth.
The Betjemans, neighbours of Lord Berners in the Oxfordshire countryside, stayed at his house in Rome in 1936. And as the Betjemans play a role in this story that will soon become apparent - and as John Betjeman wrote in a bright, funny way - here is the first half of a letter that he wrote to Lord Berners from Rome. I should say first that the most important references here are to 'Tito', the cook, and to 'Robert'. This is Robert Heber-Percy who lived with Gerald Berners from 1932 onwards. Robert was Berners first known lover, when the baron was already 48. It's possible that Gerald had affairs earlier in life. But bearing in mind the fate of Lord Beauchamp, discretion had to be the watchword.
It also needs to be said that 'Pegrilloppy' is a deliberate mis-spelling of Penelope, as is 'Peyellowppy' which crops up in the second half of John B's letter.
In 1932, after staying at Lord Berners' house in Rome with Lord Beauchamp, Evelyn Waugh and Mary Lygon went on to stay two weeks in Venice. The two stays, in Rome and Venice, are conflated in Brideshead to the one idyllic time in Venice with Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain, who is not portrayed as gay. As Charles Ryder narrates to us: 'The fortnight at Venice passed quickly and sweetly - perhaps too sweetly; I was drowning in honey, stingless.' I will try to find an opportunity to come back to that fortnight in Venice.
As Paula Byrne states about Evelyn Waugh in Mad World: 'Meeting Lord Beauchamp had had a profound effect on him. The theme of the aristocrat in exile, far from his beloved ancestral home was to haunt him.'
Fair enough, but I think meeting Lord Berners may also have made an impact on Waugh. And as that has not yet been explored in print, I'm writing about it now.
OK, let's up the pace. Below is Penelope Betjeman driving her white mare, Moti, through Uffington where she and John lived from 1934 in a house called Garrard's Farm.
The male passenger on the dog-cart is Robert Heber-Percy, Lord Berner's partner. So let's assume they're driving the four miles through rural Oxfordshire from point B on the map below, to point A, which is Faringdon House, the main home of Lord Berners.
Faringdon House is the property dominating the top half of the next image. There is a view of a lake to the north, while to the south lawns and trees separate the grand house from the busy village.
Below is a view of the north facade of Faringdon House painted by Gerald Berners himself. Berners favoured a subdued Camille Corot style of oil painting. He had several examples of actual paintings by Corot inside the house, so it's perhaps not surprising that he made a fair stab at the thing.
Below is a relatively recent photo of the south-facing front of the house.
The front of the house, the porch in particular, crops up in many period photos, including this one of Pegroloppy's horse, Moti.
Next is a well-known photograph of Penelope (enough with the name variations) holding Moti while Lord Berners paints the scene.
Are these altogether posed pictures? Or was Lord Berners really painting the horse? Well, when he had his second exhibition in a London gallery in 1936, a review mentions White Horse 9, so I think we can safely say that Lord Berners really was painting the horse against the background of a fine English interior.
I suspect the photo below was taken on the same day as the above two. Certainly, Penelope is wearing the same clothes. That's Robert sitting beside Gerald as the party partakes of afternoon tea.
Of course, what this has to be leading to is a photograph taken at Faringdon House featuring the white horse and Evelyn Waugh. Here it is, courtesy of Martin Stannard's biography of Evelyn.
Penelope is differently dressed than in the other pictures. And Robert is carrying a double-barrelled shotgun that draws attention away from the cigar that Evelyn is holding in his left hand. Did Lord Berners paint the scene? White Horse 10, for example? I don't know. Let's just be thankful for the photograph.
Years later, when Waugh was writing Helena, he wrote to Penelope asking questions of a young woman's sexual attitudes to riding a horse. She must have given him the information he was looking for because Helena is dedicated to her. This is one of the relevant passages:
'Helena rode Pylades; she sat astride and the saddle-tree solaced her man-made hurt; whip in hand, rein in hand, the air of her home sweet in her nostrils. The smell of the hunt, compact of horse sweat and warm harness, new leaf and old leaf trodden together; the call of the horn; the horse-life under her, between her thighs, at her fingers' ends; everything of that tangy, British morning contended with the memories of the night and seemed in those last few free hours to heal her maidenhead.'
So when exactly did Evelyn Waugh stay with Lord Berners and Robert Heber-Percy at Faringdon House? In late July or early August of 1935, Waugh wrote to Diana Cooper telling her that he was about to go to Abyssinia as a war correspondent. But first: 'Now I can go to Gerald's to finish some work.'
A letter sent to his literary agent from St James' Club (where Waugh was a member and often stayed) in early August, 1935, tells Peters that Waugh would be leaving London for Abyssinia on August the 7th and he must have the contract (with the Daily Mail) signed before then and the advance paid. 'Can be reached at Lord Berners telephone number until Sunday.'
I suspect Evelyn became friendly with the Faringdon household during this visit in early August. Certainly he was chummy with Penelope. Later in August he wrote from the Red Sea asking her to find out about something, concluding: 'Be a good girl about this and I will reward you with a fine fuck when I get back.'
I've read somewhere that Penelope Betjeman didn't appreciate this kind of gratuitous sexual reference from Evelyn. So let's give Penelope her revenge. The following photograph shows (from left to right) Dorothy Lygon, Robert Heber-Percy, Penelope Betjeman and Gerald Berners.
Penelope: "We will fuck Evelyn when he gets back from Africa. We will fuck him good."
Gerald: "Ooh! - poor Evelyn."
Penelope: "We will have his balls bouncing against Moti's saddle. We will whip his bare backside until it bleeds."
Robert: "What about his cock?"
Penelope: "Evelyn's cock is too ridiculous a thing for me to have anything to do with. You can deal with it."
Robert: "I surely will."
Gerald: "Ooh! - lucky Evelyn."
This is where I should mention The Girls of Radcliff Hall, a book that Gerald Berners wrote and had privately printed in 1935. The book was written in a very different tenor to the above risqué dialogue, but I believe to roughly the same end. According to Diana Guinness, she was staying with Gerald in Rome when he wrote the comedy of coding. She writes in her own memoir, Loved Ones:
'Gerald's book was a roman a clef about himself and some of his friends. Radcliff Hall was a school; he was the headmistress; the girls were Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, Peter Watson, Robin Thomas and Robert Heber-Percy, the school tomboy, all easily recognisable. Every morning Gerald read me the latest chapter; sometimes he had to stop reading he laughed so much. It was wonderfully funny if you knew the characters and their foibles, but perhaps less so for the general public.'
Nevertheless, I think the general public would have been intrigued by the title, a spoof on Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness, which had been published in 1928 and banned for implying that the female protagonist slept with another woman. Of course, Gerald Berners was not aiming for a general public. As well as being privately printed in a small edition, the author's name was given as Adela Quebec, a reference to Angela Brazil, popular author of many books about girls at boarding school.
One of the 100 copies went to Cyril Connolly. Peter Watson - Lizzie the letch in The Girls of Radcliff Hall, who went on to fund many an arts initiative, for example Connolly's Horizon - seems to have confirmed the detailed cast list that Connolly noted on the end-papers of his copy. At least someone has written at the bottom of the page, underneath 'How did you guess!', 'Peter Watson's writing'.
Did Evelyn know about this book? There is no evidence (I've come across) to confirm that he did, but surely he would have known about it from multiple sources. I suspect he would have loved it, not least because Cecil Beaton hated the work. In life, Cecil fancied Peter Watson. So, in The Girls of Radcliff Hall, Cecily is jealous that LIzzie (Peter) gives a car to Millie (Robert Heber-Percy). I should say here that there is already a page on this website devoted to Waugh's relationship with Cecil Beaton.
Sofka Zinovieff states in The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, 'Poor Cecil was mortified when he went to stay with Gerald in Rome in 1935. He had no idea about the novel, which had already been privately published and passed around the ranks to much hilarity... According to Hugo Vickers, Cecil attempted to destroy as many copies as possible.'
Though Cecily is portrayed as jealous, Miss Carfax (Gerald Berners) does see talent in her. 'Cecily was so temperamental, her wit so exuberant, and she was, above all things, so versatile. Miss Carfax felt there was nothing that Cecily could not do if she set her mind to it. She was certain that one day Cecily would make a mark for herself in some branch of art.'
Of course, it was as a photographer that Cecil Beaton principally shone, and here is a photo of Lord Berners at Faringdon House taken by the talented Cecil-without-the-y
Gerald Berners, half in hiding, preferring to put art to the fore, his own and the cream of western civilisation's. (Though he seems to be implying the presence of something else, perhaps a white horse.)
As for Millie (Robert), in The Girls of Radcliff Hall this line would seem to sum up her personality: 'Millie evinced an almost morbid interest in the sex life of hens and was always getting in more cocks without telling Miss Carfax.'
Below is a page that I scanned from the National Library of Scotland's copy of The Girls of Radcliff Hall, a reprint from 2000 that was organised by the Scottish painter, John Byrne. Remember: Miss Carfax is Gerald Berners, Lizzie is Peter Watson and Millie is Robert Heber-Percy.
Daisy Montgomery was based on David Herbert, apparently. Not sure he was ever part of Evelyn's life. But Evelyn had been intimately connected with the roman a clef school of novel-writing since long before his own Decline and Fall, and would surely have been fascinated by Lord Berners' exercise. Here's a scene that involves Cecily (famous photographer-to-be) and Lizzie (patron of the arts-in-waiting).
Lord Beauchamp and his son, Hugh Lygon, might certainly have been worthy of a place in The Girls of Radcliff Hall. Perhaps they are to be found therein, I didn't have much time to read the book. I did note that in chapter 15 (of 19) Miss Carfax decides to resign and asks Millie to come to the country with her and keep chickens. For all I know, that could be, on one level, a reference to Lord Beauchamp going into exile with his manservant.
The Girls of Radcliff Hall may be more than the slight book that it first appears to be. It might amount to a report on the state of upper-class England!
The Girls of Radcliff Hall: Miss Carfax and Millie:
Lord Berners with Robert Heber-Percy, September 1943 by Cecil Beaton (detail).
The Girls of Radcliff Hall: Cecily and Lizzie:
Cecil Beaton and Peter Watson at Asquith.
The Girls of Radcliff Hall: Daisy and Cecily:
Detail of David Herbert, Cecil Beaton and Truman Capote, 1949.
The Girls of Radcliff Hall: Olive and Lizzie:
Oliver Messel and Peter Watson.
To those could be added The Girls of Renishaw Hall, Sir Osbert Sitwell and David Horner. David was Osbert's life companion, though he barely gets a word in Sitwell's five-volume autobiography. Moreover, they don't seem to have been photographed together.
Not forgetting The Girls of Madresfield: Lord Beachamp and Hugh Lygon. At least, Paula Byrne maintains that Hugh was gay, though she doesn't present much more evidence of this than a line in Evelyn Waugh's diary referring to a man 'with whom Hugh Lygon sodomises'.
And what about Evelyn himself? Would he be entitled to a place at Radcliff Hall? Well, at Oxford in the early twenties he had either two or three male lovers (the possible third being Hugh Lygon). But since splitting with Alastair Graham and taking up with She-Evelyn (Evelyn Gardner), all of his objects of sexual interest would seem to have been women.
After Evelyn Gardner, Waugh had an affair with Audrey Lucas in 1930. From 1930 to 1933 he was much fancying Teresa Jungman. And while writing A Handful of Dust in Fez, Morocco, he mentions 'rogering' Fatima once a week. By the spring of 1935 he was having an affair with Joyce Gill. And when he got back from Abysinnia in 1936 he would get engaged to Laura Herbert, who he'd been pursuing since spring 1933. So, no, Evelyn was hardly scholarship material for Radcliff Hall.
In January 1936, Waugh returned to England from Abyssinnia via Rome, where Diana Cooper was staying with Gerald Berners. Then in May, Waugh wrote in French to Mary Lygon telling her that he had won the Hawthornden Prize for Edmund Campion. Now May of 1936 was when Gerald Berners had his second solo show at Alex, Reid and Lefevre and although Waugh was not keeping a diary at the time, and it's not mentioned in his published letters, a photograph was taken of Evelyn in the company of Lord Berners at the show.
It's a pity that the woman in the following picture is not Diana Mitford or Nancy Mitford. Diana and Nancy were great admirers of both men. Diana included essays about each of them in Loved Ones. She said of Berners: 'Clever, talented, witty, original and private-spirited, he was the best of companions as well as the most loyal friend that anyone could be lucky enough to have.' Berners made a point of being there for Diana when she was imprisonned during the Second World War. Indeed, both Evelyn and Gerald sent copies of their new books to her in Holloway.
As for Nancy, her two literary mentors/advisers were Evelyn Waugh and Lord Berners. Berners is portrayed as the delightful Lord Merlin in The Power of Love. While Evelyn read Nancy's manuscripts and contributed titles, critiques etc in the dozens of letters that he wrote her. Nancy dedicated books to each of them.
How do I know that the above photo was taken at Berners' 1936 exhibition rather than the 1931 show (the photo is dated 1930 in Diana Mosley's Loved Ones)? Because the painting behind Gerald Berners left shoulder is signed and dated (1935) in the bottom left corner, though the following reproduction of the painting, which was sold at a Christie's auction in 2008, is just too fuzzy to prove that.
Gerald Berners: British tourists in the Mussolini Forum, Rome. (1935)
In the picture, two women are looking straight ahead, but the man holding the sun umbrella is looking towards the sculpture of a naked man who may (or may not) be chained to a rock. The scene brings to mind something Gerald Berners wrote called Bone Sweet Bone. It goes like this:
I sit alone
On the Phallic Stone
My Bone -
My beautiful Bone.
Back to the photo of Berners and Waugh in the gallery:
Gerald: "What do you think of my British Tourists in Rome, Evelyn?"
Evelyn: "Not really my cup of tea, Gerald. I imagine it will sell, though."
The above photo of Lord Berners, Evelyn Waugh and Lady Rosebery is taken from Evelyn Waugh and his World by David Pryce-Jones. That image has been cropped though, and in the original photograph more paintings are visible.
The painting on the left (above) would seem to be done in Lord Berners' Corot-style. Below is an actual Corot:
Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot: 'Venise: Le Grand Canal vu du Quai des Eclavons.
The painting below, which is reproduced in Peter Dickinson's book, Lord Berners, is clearly painted from almost the same spot that Corot painted the above scene, though it's not a copy as such, and the position of sails and masts is significantly different.
Gerald Berners: 'La Piazetta' Venice. (1933).
In the London gallery, Evelyn studies the painting of Venice at length. And in due course a conversation ensues:
LB: "How did you find Venice when you were there in 1932, Evelyn?"
EW: "I was there with Mary Lygon, Hugh's sister... On some days life kept pace with the gondola, as we nosed through the side-canals and the boatman uttered his plaintive musical bird-cry of warning; on the other days with the speed-boat bouncing over the lagoon in a stream of sun-lit foam; it left a confused memory of fierce sunlight on the sands and cool, marble interiors; of water everywhere, lapping on smooth stone, reflected in a dapple of light on painted ceilings."
LB: "My dear man, what has happened to your punctuation? But do go on, and I will endeavour to follow your drift."
EW: "Boom was there too. Well, no we left him in Rome, but I suspect he effectively followed us to Venice... Of what am I thinking?...Of a night at the Corombona Palace such as Byron might have known, and another Byronic night fishing for scampi in the shallows of Chiogga, the phosphorescent wake of the little ship, the lantern swinging in the prow and the net coming up full of weed and sand and floundering fishes; of melon and cheese and prosciutto on the balcony in the cool of the morning; of hot cheese sandwiches and champagne cocktails at the English bar."
LB: "Enough for now, my poor paintings seem so much the greyer for your purple prose. Indeed, I suggest you put your impressions of Venice into a book. But do tone them down a little. Think, Camille Corot, rather than Salvador Dali. Though Salvador is coming to stay with us at Faringdon this summer, did you know?"
EW: "He seems to have inspired your British Tourists in Rome. Let us turn our backs on this painting and stare down any visitor wanting to gaze upon its decadence."
LB: "Very well. But I have no objection to people looking at the statue's bottom, no objection whatsoever."
In June, Waugh was asked to speak about the situation in Abyssinia at the Newman Society in Oxford. On the way north from London, he and his party stopped at Faringdon House so that they could visit 'the wicked Lord Berners'. Gerald was not at all pleased to see them, perhaps because he already had a visitor (not Salvador Dali, according to Evelyn's letter to Katharine Asquith). After drinks, Waugh went on to Oxford to give his first public talk since his boisterous attempts at the Oxford Union. As he wrote in his letter to Katharine: ‘I began to speak but words would not come and I got lost in my arguments and confused in grammar and it was as bad a lecture as I ever heard.' After three-quarters of an hour he sat down and invited questions. He enjoyed that part of the event, finding himself able to work his audience 'like a ventriloquist and his dummy'.
That was on June 7. In the middle of the month, Evelyn was awarded the Hawthornden Prize at Aeolian Hall, London, in front of several hundred people.
In July, the news from Rome came that the Catholic Church had dissolved his first marriage (thanks to Edmund Campion?) leaving him free to marry again. News which he transmitted to Laura Herbert and which allowed them to begin house hunting.
In September, Evelyn and Laura looked at Whatley Rectory and Nunney Farm, both in Somerset, while staying with Waugh's Catholic friend, the aforementioned Katharine Asquith. Evelyn had made a start on Scoop while living in Mells.
In December, Evelyn and Laura were looking at houses in Oxfordshire and stayed at Faringdon House. Apparently, Laura was very flirtatious with Robert, and Gerald made a joke about elephants. (I suspect that's a reference to the fact that Lord Berners had put a notice in the Times that he was selling two elephants and a small rhinoceros.) However, the houses Evelyn and Laura looked at were 'no-good', and the day after leaving Faringdon they saw Piers Court in Gloucestershire which would become their home for twenty-odd years.
Quite a parting of the ways that. I suspect life would have been less isolated and religious and more eccentric and esoteric if the couple had settled close to the Betjemans and to Faringdon House.
Gerald Berners was depressed by the war and didn't really recover from it. He faded away and died in 1950, aged 67. Robert Heber-Percy inherited the estate, and after Waugh had dined there after seeing the Betjemans in December 1950, he wrote to Diana Cooper: 'The Mad Boy has installed a Mad Boy of his own. Has there ever been a property in history that has devolved from catamite to catamite for any length of time? It would be interesting to know.'
And so with this catty stream of words, Evelyn Waugh, by then the father of six children, underlined the distance he had travelled from his former friend, Lord Berners, and the 'girls' of Radcliff Hall.
But hold on. Which of the two gay lords in the end had most influence on Waugh's life? Lord Beauchamp, who was the inspiration for Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited? Or Lord Berners, who showed how to make oneself at home in one's own country house? My answer to that is implied on just about every page of the Piers Court section of this website.
Where Berners had his collection of Corots, Waugh had his Victorian narrative paintings. Waugh may never have had a white horse inside Piers Court, but he did give house room to the Narcissus Washstand, a white elephant of a gift from none other than John Betjeman in 1953. Which was also the year Waugh told Nancy Mitford that the illustrations for his new book, Love Among the Ruins, were made by 'cutting out bits of prints and sticking them together again and drawing on them with black and white and changing all the expressions as Lord Berners used to do'.
Lord Berners as role model, then. Though it was always Evelyn's intention that his property - first Piers Court and then Combe Florey - should be handed down in the conventional way, from son to son. With catamites neither here nor there.
1) This essay owes much to information and images found in The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff.
2) This goes online on September 19, 2015. I should take the opportunity to say that I'm giving a talk, 'Evelyn Waugh in Appledore', at the Appledore Literary Festival on Friday, October 2. And a talk about Evelyn! at Toppings Bookshop, St Andrews, on Wednesday, October 7.