Saturday, March 30, 2024

Lord Berners, the Mad Boy and Faringdon - with Pudding Louise


Berners and Robert entertaining Moti the horse

Last year, while reading about the dashing Wilfred Blunt and the Souls, I stumbled across delectable tales of Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners and his lovely Mad Boy, Robert Heber-Percy and just had to get a book about them. I chose The Mad Boy by Robert’s granddaughter, Sofka Zinovieff, and stashed it for a read after the holidays – it was delicious and started attracting connections almost immediately.  Down the rabbit hole I happily jumped.

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn

Those connections began with a viewing of the great film Saltburn. I felt the thrum of Lord Berners’ world and his circle of bright young things and eccentrics running through Saltburn – but without the brilliant artists, musicians and writers of the last century. It brought me back to favorite Evelyn Waugh novels I'd loved in my youth. It had some of the sadness in Waugh’s broken world of Brideshead Revisited (written in 1945 but conjuring Berners heyday between the wars), as well as the shrill energy of Waugh’s 1930 Vile Bodies/ Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry's 2003 version is a great watch). Saltburn leaves you feeling like that social set is burning on toxic fumes in the 21st century. Maybe it always was, but in the 20th century there was plenty of oxygen-rich fuel for the dance. You dream of an invitation to the old parties – the Saltburn crowd feels more like a hangover memory of a nightmare.

A bit closer to the mark, Berners social set was more faithfully captured in 1945 by Nancy Mitford’s  Pursuit of Love. The recent BBC film was a frothy antidote to Saltburn.

                       Photo by Andrew Montgomery

Mitford's novel contained fictionalized versions of the crowd that danced in and out of Lord Berners ancestral estate in the years between the wars – Faringdon (renamed Merlinford in the novel).

                        Photo by Andrew Montgomery

Mitford was very fond of Lord Berners and his home and like many souls she ran there for refuge during WW2, “I can remember, during the tedious or frightening but always sleepless nights of fire-watchings in wartime London, that the place I longed to be in most intensely was the red bedroom at Faringdon, with its crackling fire, its Bessarabian carpet with bunchy flowers, and above all its four-post bed, whence from beneath a huge fat fluffy old-fashioned quilt one can gaze out at the view, head still on the pillow...” She memorialized Lord Berners as Lord Merlin in her novel and although her mage Merlin’s behavior was more outrageous than the man who inspired him, her admiration for Berners shone through. 

Andrew Scott doing brilliant dance as Lord Merlin in the BBC version of Pursuit of Love

Mitford wrote of Merlin’s entrance to a ball:

“The evening was saved from being an utter disillusionment by the Merlinford house party. They came immensely late, we had all forgotten about them in fact, but, when they had said how do you do to Aunt Sadie and taken the floor, they seemed at once to give the party a new atmosphere. They flourished and shone with jewels, lovely clothes, brilliant hair and dazzling complexions; when they danced they really did seem to float, except when it was the Charleston, and that, though angular, was so accomplished that it made us gasp with admiration. Their conversation was quite evidently both daring and witty, one could see it ran like a river, splashing, dashing, and glittering in the sun. Linda was entranced by them, and decided then and there that she would become one of these brilliant beings and live in their world, even if it took her a lifetime to accomplish.”

                      Lord Berners

Lord Berners must have been quietly pleased with the portrait. In truth, Osbert Sitwell observed the real Berners had a, "... Hapsburg cast of his features ..." and a " natural air of quiet ugly distinction," but his eccentric ways were delightful and intoxicating and he knew how to entertain his guests who treasured their invitations to Faringdon with its many layers of sensual delights of sight, sound, scent and taste. Osbert Sitwell further noted, “Berners did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms … he moved … a sort of missionary of the arts.” 

              Lord Berners, age 8, 1891

He came to this playfulness and talent for the arts early in life and captured his incubation in a novel, First Childhood 1934, written shortly after meeting his mad boy, and dedicated to him - it's a little gem of a book.

Penelope Betjeman, Moti the horse, Robert Heber-Percy and Evelyn Waugh

           Lord Berners painting Penelope and Moti the horse

                  Berners and Gertrude Stein

People loved to circle around him, and what a circle - Stravinsky, Harold Acton, Margot Fonteyn, Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, Peter Watson (arts benefactor), David Herbert, Cyril Connolly, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh, HG Wells, Schiaparelli, Aldous Huxley, John Betjeman as well as Mitfords, Sitwells, Lygons, the Dianas - Cooper and Guiness, and assorted lords and ladies all came to Faringdon often. It was more like who didn’t visit the house!

Faringdon 1950

From all accounts – Berners enjoyed himself immensely– given his self-scribed epitaph:

"Here lies Lord Berners
One of life's learners
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning
Thanks be to the Lord
He never was bored".

              Berners working with Beaton and Acton

He was a full blown polymath with interests and talents and accomplishments in music, art and writing – and a mastery of the art of entertaining

Alexandra Danilova & Serge Lifar in the "Triumph of Neptune" 1926

He was a composer of Triumph of Neptune Suite ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, film scores, Halfway House 1944,  Nicholas Nickleby 1947), and many of the composers of the day came through his house and enjoyed his counsel and his company(click the links above and listen to the pieces). Frequent guest Igor Stravinsky  thought he was the English Erik Satie .

                               Vassilis Papadimitriou photo

Stravinsky’s lover from Paris provided the rainbow of vegetable dyes for the famous doves that Mitford described as flying around the manor " like a cloud of confetti in the sky". – a tradition maintained for 60-odd years

                     Lord Berners' painting

                    Lord Berners painting

Berners was also a painter and most certainly a fine decorator – his house was just recently sold and broken up – but it stayed in his style for over 80 years thanks to his bequest to his young friend and lover – the ‘mad boy’ of the book title - Robert Heber-Percy.

      Cecil Beaton photo of Robert Heber-Percy – titled Mad Boy

                             Peter Watson and Mad boy

   Robert and his daughter with Berners and wife Jennifer Fry in a Cecil Beaton photo

In 1932, a 48-year-old Berners fell in love with 21-year-old Robert Heber-Percy who was soon ensconced at Faringdon as Gerald’s beloved and fellow host of the estate and later as master when he became Berners’ heir at his death in 1950.  He remained there till his own death in 1987.

Robert painted by Lord Berners

Robert was a spare son from an old family who had to make his way in the world without the family money and estates.  He was wild as wild could be as a teenager, surviving in Europe and the UK by taking manual labor jobs or even a few turns a paid escort from time to time after washing out of military service. Although he was universally described as gorgeous, his behavior was careless and often vile and cruel to friends and foes alike.  He actually gave Cecil Beaton a violent thrashing for spreading the story that he neglected Berners during his final illness. He did seem to care in his way and wrote to Osbert Sitwell that he felt lost after Berners' passing, " “I never made any decision without either mentally or actually considering his reaction”. Although he stood as a virtual opposite to the Lord's beautiful manners and care,  Berners obviously loved him and put up with his mad ways -- even accepting the accidental ménage-à-trois with an accidental baby and an unfortunate asexual marriage which ended fairly quickly when the new wife met with his locked bedroom door.  Robert did take care of the estate, worked on the land with the staff and, a fine horseman, often rode naked about the grounds on his favorite horse.  He enjoyed and mostly gleefully participated in the social whirl of Faringdon.

The often lavish parties saw visitors young and old, gay and straight, cavorting and mingling in fetes with ever-changing and inventive themes and lots of late night bedroom musical chairs. They reminded me of a description written by Berner’s friend, Evelyn Waugh in his aforementioned novel, Bright Young Things/Vile Bodies:

" ...Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris--all that succession and repetition of massed humanity.... Those vile bodies...."

           Faringdon’s greenhouses 2017

Yet more than the scandals and shocking behavior, what many guests remember most fondly was the food which continued through Depression and war thanks to the estate’s gardens and greenhouses. Mitford explained,

“This kitchen garden, I must say in passing, ministers most wonderfully to the house, and produces exquisite vegetables, fruit and flowers with a perfect disregard for the slow-rolling seasons, the vagaries of the Berkshire climate, and indeed of all known rules. Mr. Cyril Connolly once said that if every sort of luxury had been forever banned in England, Lord Berners would somehow have managed to maintain a secret melon house”.

                      Berners and his skull cap

Mitford gushed in a 1950  House and Garden article (reissued with color photographs of the house in 2021), 

“There is something magical about Faringdon, and Lord Berners himself in his skull cap, looked not unlike a magician, but perhaps the greatest, most amazing conjuring tricks were reserved for the dining room. In this pleasant sunny white room scattered with large silver-gilt birds and wonderful Sèvres and Dresden china, a standard of culinary perfection was maintained through the darkest days of war. Cook or no cook, raw materials or no raw materials, a succession of delicious courses would somehow waft themselves to the sideboard, and the poor Londoner, starved or sated with Spam, would see sights and taste tastes he had long ago forgotten to believe in."

Lord Berners, Sir Robert and Lady Diane Abdy,  Robert Hebert-Percy, Alice B. ToklasGertrude Stein 1937.

"But one of the greatest of his achievements was the atmosphere he created around himself at Faringdon, a house where the second best was never tolerated, either in comfort, conversation or in manners.”

 Dining room shot Maurice Ambler 1950

Dining room shot 2017

Faringdon’s dining room did acquire a reputation for the bizarre, and some recalled further experiments with color. Zinovieff’s book revealed, “Stravinsky mentioned meals ‘in which all the food was of one color pedigree; i.e. if for Berners mood was pink, lunch might consist of beet soup, lobster, tomatoes, strawberries…’ But most close friends recalled the consistent quality rather than the games. Naturally, the table was laid with attention to the linen, silverware and china. Gerald loved gaily colored geraniums, which were planted out in pots and urns for the summer months, and he sometimes filled a silver basked with pink and red geranium flowers as a pretty centerpiece; at other times he preferred to create an entertaining arrangement of tiny cuckoo clocks or swaths of Venetian beads.”

“He had very particular ideas about food as well – especially about his relationship with his cook,

“Lord Berners believes in conversing with his cooks. He thinks that a cook who is hardly ever spoken to becomes a bored cook. And a bored cook soon becomes a bad cook. His four tests of cooking were ‘the making of coffee, soufflés and pastry, and the roasting of a joint. A cook who can do these four things well, he thinks, can cook anything well.’ His cook, Mrs. Dora Nelson had been to America and made Johnny Cake*, ‘the American breakfast dish made with yellow cornmeal, eggs and butter, baked in a Yorkshire pudding tin [*a Johnny cake is a pancake – not sure what she is talking about]; and an apple tart sprinkled with cheese. ‘Apple tart without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze,’ said Mrs. Nelson roguishly. She also mentions soufflé de Berners, which sounds like Nesselrode, with cream, rum and mixed crystalized fruits soaked in brandy. Put into a charged ice cave and freeze for 2-3 hours. “

Sofia continued, “His preferred cuisine was French, and his partiality to rich sauces and extravagant puddings evokes the recipes of his childhood housekeeper, most of this began with instructions like: take two pints of cream, two dozen eggs and one pint of old liqueur brandy.” another cherished Faringdon dessert was Pudding Louise, with boiled marron glacés and raspberry jam, topped with ice-cream, although Gerald once listed his ‘favorite dish’ as pudding Nesselrode - a cream-filled, custardy ice, made with chestnut puree, candies fruits and maraschino liqueur invented by the eponymous Russian diplomat. (I made it HERE )

Since I’ve made the Nesselrode dessert already, I thought I would try the Pudding Louise. I was excited that it was so appreciated by frequent Faringdon guest Alice B Toklas that she included it in her eponymous cookbook in the rare company of the 'recipes from friends' chapter that she and Gertrude enjoyed and replicated. BUT, small problem, the recipe had no mention of those marron glacés and covered the current jelly (not raspberry jam) over with a sort of cake with no mention of ice cream and no mention of measurements. Well, I decided that I would visit Arabella Boxer’s recipe for her version of Tolklas' dessert which had measurements and then add the marron glacé mentioned in the Faringdon version. This a version of the Bakewell tart and it sounds lovely but not like the description with ice cream on top. That sounds like a jam tart with the marron glacé and ice cream.  

If you go back in time to Mrs. Marshall’s Cookery Book from 1894 in the time of Lord Berner’s fondly remembered childhood, this was a traditional English boiled pudding – a dish lined with glacé cherries and broken sponge cake and then filled with custard and boiled. It is turned out and decorated with rose colored whip cream and sprinkled with pistachio and coconut. His mother's cook would most likely have had this book in her kitchen.   This has NOTHING to do with the description of Pudding Louise from people who ate at Faringdon, "boiled marron glacés and raspberry jam, topped with ice-cream". 

Pretty much everyone who ate it there are no longer with us so it's difficult to get to the bottom of the dessert (I do wonder if Sofka had it with Robert in early visits to the house so the memory is a clear one).  In the end, I decided to make 2 versions.  One covered in cake, the other a mini tart open like a jam tart -both with the marron glacé .

Beware -- these are all terribly rich and good. Make them and devour them while you dream of confetti colored doves flying above green lawns that go on forever with Berners at his fine piano supplying the score for an endless summer party.

Pudding Louise (a la Berners, Toklas and Boxer)

180g/ 1 1/2 c flour ( use1 c white and 1/2 whole wheat flour)
85g (6T) unsalted butter 
iced water

4-5 T raspberry jam/jelly
100 g/3.5 oz (1/4 + 3T) unsalted butter
100g/3.5 oz (1/2 c) caster sugar
55g/1.9oz (1/2c) flour - sifted
marron glacé

Add Cream or Ice Cream or eat on their own - I found that scented parma violets were divine on top!

Make the pastry and chill.  Either roll out to make individual tarts ( it would make 9-12 using a 3" scalloped cutter or to make 1-23cm/9" pie plate. Bake at 190ºc/375ºf for 8 minutes- weighed down with beans. remove beans and cook 5 more minutes at 180º/350ºf

Cool pastry

Mix butter and sugar and then sift flour over it and blend (it has the consistency of cookie dough).  

There are a few choices to make the tarts. 

One is to spread jam/jelly over the bottom of the cooled tart, make a medallion of dough and put on top of the jam like a little pie. 
OR or put the Marron glacé on the jam, and make a rope of the dough and place around the marron  
OR  leave off the batter altogether and just bake the tart shell with extra jam/jelly with just the Marron on top which is how the original was described.  I put a little butter on top of the marrons just in case to prevent burning.

Bake for  30-45 minutes at 170ºc/340ºf  -  but watch the jam/marrons for burning.

ps If you buy pre-baked shells you can whip them up in a flash 


Parnassus said...

Hello Deana, Even the imaginations of exotic authors like Evelyn Waugh or E.F. Benson were no match for the reality that was going on all around them. I need to get hold of some of those books you mentioned, but I bet that most of the real shenanigans involved require a lot of reading between the lines. Concerning indoor horses, yes they would get talked about but I consider them neither clever nor amusing (not to mention unsanitary), but then I am an old grouch and certainly would never have been invited to those parties.
Speaking of people who did get invited to those kind of parties, a while ago I read two autobiographies of Donald Gallup, a curator of rare books at Yale. As a young soldier in WWII on leave in Paris, he got invited to parties by Gertrude Stein (and in fact was written into one of her plays under his own name), was photographed by Carl Van Vechten,and in general got to know the smart set of that day, which friendships he used later in guiding their manuscripts and archives to Yale. He never mentions what about himself made him so attractive to all those people, so you have to guess. I think you would enjoy those books* with their literary milieu and treasure-hunt aspect in rounding up all those letters and manuscripts.
*Pigeons on the Granite and What Mad Pursuits

Deana Sidney said...

thanks Jim , so good to hear from you again -- I look forward to reading about Donald.

I think you will enjoy the books in the blog. In a way, The Souls from the previous blog bleed into the 20th century set Berners belonged to -- there are many connections. It took a long time to write this one because I am out of practice but also because I just kept finding new rabbit holes. I think you will too. And the films are fun -- I do love Stephen Fry.

Diane said...

Hi Deana I am delighted to have seen this blog as I think we lost touch ages ago. I gave up on the Charente blog as it was taking such a long time to load on our rubbish wifi. I started a new blog called and we now have cable so life is much improved!
We have just returned from a 9 week holiday in Namibia so I have a lot of catching up to do. Always love your posts and the recipes that follow.
Very best wishes Diane.

Deana Sidney said...

thanks diane !! I have been doing this very rarely -- and so it takes forever to write one where I used to be able to whip them out. I'll put this over on your new site now.

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