Friday, 17 June 2016

"Anyone for a spot of buggery?"; Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961), Brompton Cemetery

Ernest rests with his mother and father in the family vault at Brompton Cemetery

To the left of the main path, just before the catacombs, there is a part of Brompton Cemetery, which seems to be dedicated purely to the Thesiger family.  The substantial plot was bought by the first Baron Chelmsford, Lord Frederic Thesiger, PC, KC, FRS, to serve as the final resting place for the dynasty of military men, lawyers, colonial administrators and government servants he clearly hoped to found.  Despite his enormous wealth and influence the plot in Brompton does not border the main path and the monuments are relatively modest, solid granite slabs for the most part, nothing especially eye catching or flashy with not a single angel or other piece of funerary statuary.  Amongst the many graves lies that of the Hon. Sir Edward Pierson Thesiger KCB, whose memorial inscription records that he was the ‘Fifth Son of the 1st Baron Chelmsford’. He may have been the fifth son but he was the sixth child, the first born of the first baron being a girl, Augusta, she literally did not count in this patriarchal family census.  Sir Edward is buried with his wife, Georgina Mary,  and with his third son Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger who joined his parents in the vault as recently as 1961 (it seems recent to me – I was alive, just, in 1961).

Ernest Thesiger was a well known British character actor whose long theatrical career was supplemented by appearances in almost 60 films, mainly in Britain but also in Hollywood.  He is best remembered for his eccentricity and for his legendary role as Dr. Septimus Pretorius in ‘The Bride of Frankenstein.’  He was born in Chelsea in January 1879 (a week later his uncle, the 2nd Baron Chelmsford was leading the British army to defeat against the Zulu’s at the Battle of Isandlwana) and was educated at Marlborough College and the Slade School of Art.  At the Slade he met the painter William Bruce Ellis Ranken and began an intimate relationship that somehow survived Ernest’s rather odd decision to marry Ranken’s sister Janette in 1917. The three became almost inseparable but William died unexpectedly in 1941, leaving both Ernest and Janette grief stricken.   The couple continued to live together until Ernest’s death but unsurprisingly there were no children.  Despite her constant presence in his life Ernest fails to mention his marriage or his wife in his memoirs but there are frequent references to William.

Ernest gives his greatest ever performance as Dr. Pretorius in James Whale's 'The Bride of Frankenstein.'
In addition to the stage and beautiful young men, Ernest’s other abiding passion was needlework and embroidery.  He became a world expert in petit point embroidery, publishing his first book ‘Adventures in Embroidery’ in 1941, and could be found plying his needle in the most unlikely places – the trenches in the First World War, in London markets (Alec Guinness recounts a story of him being surrounded by mocking ‘toughs’ at an antiques market, he laid down his petit point with great dignity and facing them fearlessly said   “In Chelsea I’m known as the stitching bitch....now buzz off.”) and at Buckingham Palace where he would sit and embroider in companionable silence with Queen Mary.  He must have inherited some martial qualities from the family gene pool because in 1914 he enlisted at the outbreak of the war. According to his memoirs “I thought a kilt would suit me, so I applied at the London Scottish Headquarters, but my Scottish accent, assumed for the occasion, was apparently not convincing, and I was referred to another London regiment.  Getting into a taxi, I consulted the list of recruiting stations and found myself in a queue outside the Headquarters of the Queen Victoria Rifles in Davies Street.  I came away a few hours later a private in His Majesty’s Army.” He served on the Western Front and was wounded when an artillery shell hit an abandoned barn his platoon was taking shelter in on New Year’s Eve 1914.

Ernest indulges his passion for petit point
He made his film debut in 1916 in a spoof called ‘The Real Thing At Last’ in which he played one of the three witches in Macbeth. His last film appearance was in 1961, at the age of 82, when he had a cameo role in ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’ playing alongside Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty. In between he made almost sixty appearances including  ‘Nelson’ (1918), ‘The Adventures of Mr Pickwick’ (1921) ‘The Ghoul’ (1933) with Boris Karloff and  Ralph Richardson, ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935) directed by his friend James Whale, Lawrence Olivier’s ‘Henry V’ (1944), ‘The Winslow Boy’ (1948), ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (1951) with Alec Guinness, ‘The Robe’ (1953) with Richard Burton, and ‘The Horse’s Mouth’ (1958) based on Joyce Cary’s novel. He also enjoyed a long stage career, the greatest success of which was ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’. He appeared in this farce more than a thousand times, the London Evening Standard lauding his performance in “the character of Bertram Tully, with his overpowering innocence, his keen desire to be called Bertram and not plain Tully, his mission work, and his love of playing the flute, is one of the happiest seen on the stage for a decade past, and Mr. Ernest Thesiger achieved a real triumph as the young man who, when told by an imperious and rather vulgar young woman to pull his socks up, obediently bent down to the task.”

A lot of stories are told about Ernest Thesiger, many them are probably apocryphal, but like all legends the man has gradually become the myth.  It is often claimed that he laid lilies at the feet of a handsome doorman at the Savoy, that at a soiree consisting almost entirely of young men he gazed around the company and asked loudly ‘Anyone for a spot of buggery?’, that he once said ‘‘I should have liked to have a figure so beautiful that an Act Of Parliament would have been passed, forbidding me to wear clothes.’ According to John Gielgud it was said that he ‘always wore a string of very good pearls round his own neck, and never took it off for fear that the loss of the warmth of his skin might spoil their quality.’ And as his experiences in the trenches showed he was always cool under fire; “Henry Hathaway, the director, lunched at a film studio commissary with members of his cast.  One was Ernest Thesiger, over 80, a gentle man who used to spend afternoons doing petit-point at Buckingham Palace with the late Queen Mary.  At the studio luncheon a young actor, who’d gone berserk before, suddenly wheeled and placed the point of his steak knife at Hathaway’s throat.  Thesiger broke the tension:  He slapped down the knife with his own spoon, and said: ‘It’s very rude to point.’”  

Ernest retains cult status even today as the work of tattooist Lou Hopper of New Cross shows