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Lord Berners

Wild times with the “bonkers baron”

Life - Lord Berners
Lord Berners painting Penelope Betjeman in 1938. Hulton Archive/Getty

The eccentric Lord Merlin, played by Andrew Scott, steals the show in the BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, but he’s not a patch on the author’s inspiration for the role, says Alison Boshoff in the Daily Mail. Having inherited a fortune from his uncle, the 14th Baron Berners was in his mid-forties when he moved into 12-bedroom Faringdon House, Oxfordshire, in 1931. A pet giraffe roamed the grounds and he dressed his dogs in necklaces. He dyed his flock of doves the shades of the rainbow and urged neighbouring farmers do the same with their cattle.

In the garden, the “bonkers baron” erected a 140ft viewing tower for his lover, Robert “Mad Boy” Heber-Percy, who was 28 years his junior. (A sign on the tower read: “Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”) And he enjoyed startling his neighbours by wearing a pig mask while driving his Rolls-Royce, which had a portable clavichord under the driver’s seat.

The extravagance of Berners and “Mad Boy” made them the toast of British society for the next two decades. Guests at their house parties included the Mitfords, HG Wells, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky and Salvador Dalí. Cecil Beaton photographed John Betjeman’s wife serving tea to her white Arab horse, Moti, in the drawing room. The socialite Doris Delevingne tried to seduce the gay Cecil Beaton at Faringdon, telling him: “There is no such thing as an impotent man, only an incompetent woman.”

Berners died at 66, leaving the house to Heber-Percy. Only then was his final act of mischief revealed: he had drawn moustaches on every family portrait.