On April 12th the eclectic contents of the iconic Faringdon House will be auctioned at Christie’s. The walls (and objects) of this Country House have witnessed Lord Berner’s eccentric parties attended by luminaries like Salvador Dalí, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cecil Beaton, Aldous Huxley or Nancy Mitford.
Lord Berners playing the piano at Faringdon, circa 1930s
Berners indulged in many notable ‘teases’ of Faringdon’s stolid neighbours. These ranged from doves dyed in dainty pastels to the twinkling chandelier in the porch, from dogs wearing pearl collars to an invitation to tea for Moti, Penelope Betjeman’s Arab stallion. It was a summons that came with a request: namely, that the horse ‘sit’ for a Berner portrait in his drawing room.
Dyed doves are still to be found at the property
Easter 1939 at Faringdon. From left: Frederick Ashton, Robert Heber-Percy, Lady Mary Lygon, Constant Lambert, Lord Berners, Prince Vsevolod of Russia
The paintings and furniture at Faringdon reflect the unique personality and taste of its owner: a composer, writer, painter and life-long eccentric. The diverse collection includes Lord Berners own art as well as pictures and antiques he inherited and much that was acquired during a lifetime spent travelling and working in France, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
Two portraits of Robert Heber Percy, Lord Berners, oil on canvas-board
English school, 20th century. A view of the Drawing Room at Faringdon House
A pair of Bermantofts faience turquoise-glazed shell jardinières, late 19th century
A pair of painted and parcel-gilt hardwood large elephant figures mid 20th Century, the decoration probably later.
George III Giltwood mirror, c.1755
In 1950 Lord Berners passed away leaving the house to his longtime partner, Robert Heber-Percy nicknamed ‘Mad Boy’ for his uninhibited behaviour, which included horse riding naked through the surrounding woods. While still living with Berners Robert unexpectedly married Jennifer Fry, a lovely, high-spirited socialite whom he brought to live at Faringdon. This strange ménage a trois lasted just two years, until Jennifer departed, taking with her their baby daughter Victoria, to live at her parents’ house in Wiltshire. Faringdon’s current owner is Victoria’s daughter, Softka Zinovieff. She inherited her grandfather home when she was just 25. Since 2013, Softka and her family have properly been installed in Farindgon. The images below were published by House and Garden in 2016 (Photography by Andrew Montgomery)
(I thought Softka was still the current owner until I saw that the house has been sold by Savills )
Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Lord Berners, the Mad Boy, holding Sofka’s mother as a baby, and Jennifer.
The drawing room. Sofka chose fabrics and wallpapers that are not intended to be period but are similar in essence.
Sofka’s husband, Vassilis Papadimitriou, reading in the music room.
Vassilis and Sofka dine with her brother Leo and his wife Annabelle at Faringdon.
Robert added the en suite bathroom in the Fifties, with its flamboyant pink tub and Rousseau-inspired murals by Roy Hobdell.
The Red Bedroom
The sitting room
Elaborately decorated shelving displays delicate china
The music room
Faringdon folly, a tower that was Lord Berners’ tribute to his good looking and wilful companion. It is said that he hung a notice there that read: ‘Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.’ Robert gifted the tower, with the surrounding woodland, to the people of Faringdon
Faringdon is a real country house for all its elegance, not one of those pretty old-maidish town houses that sometimes occur in the English countryside, looking sweet but silly, and exhaling an atmosphere of afternoon tea. It is plain and grey and square and solid, and as much a part of the rolling Berkshire landscape before it as of the little old market town of Faringdon, to which it turns its back and which is hidden from view by the parish church and huge clumps of elm trees. Faringdon House has very little in the way of a flower garden, Lord Berners was not fond of flowers growing in beds, and considered that such things as herbaceous borders were more suitable to the half-timbered houses of Surrey stockbrokers than to a classical house, which should be surrounded by a plain expanse of lawn to enhance the perfection of its line. Indoors, his house, as we shall see, was always full of flowers but they were large brilliant tropical flowers in vases, not buttercups, the little children’s dower.
Faringdon acquired that which every respectable country house must have, a ghost. It also has, equally important, a rookery and a flock of pigeons. And such pigeons! They are Lord Berners’ famous multi-coloured birds, but it is no use asking for a sitting of eggs, for the secret of their brilliant plumage lies less in the breeding than in what used to happen to them every Easter Sunday, when they were dyed and dried in the linen cupboard, before being set free to flutter, like a cloud of confetti, between church and house, to astonish the students of bird-life in Berkshire. This bird motif, repeated over and over again inside the house, is the signature of its late owner, so to speak, who preferred feathered to many other sorts of friends. As with flowers, he rather disdained the modest English sparrow, eschewing it for something gaudier.
I can remember, during all the tedious or frightening but always sleepless nights of fire-watching in wartime London, that the one place I longed to be in most intensely was the red bedroom at Faringdon, with its crackling fire, its Bessarabian carpet of bunchy flowers, and above all, its four-post bed, whence, from beneath a huge fat fluffy old fashioned quilt one could gaze out at the view, head still on pillow.
Faringdon was solid and elegant and so was Lord Berners. So great was his sense of elegance, fantasy and humour that the solid quality of his talents, and above all the immense amount of hard work he did all his life, are sometimes overlooked, though a moment’s reflection would show that without great talent and hard work he could not, as he did, write and paint like a professional, in addition to shining as a composer of music. Stravinsky himself said that at one time the only important living English composer was Lord Berners. 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.
These fragments were written by Nancy Mitford in 1950 as ‘ a tribute to an artist, musician, wit and kindly host’ You can read the full article here