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English eccentricity

Famous English eccentrics

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears." (Henry David Thoreau)

Many of history's most brilliant minds have displayed many unusual patterns of behaviour and habits. And a considerable number of Britain’s best writers, inventors, designers, actors and explorers can be described as highly eccentric.

“There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of uniquely British people that fall into this category, from William Blake, to Robert Clive, to Johnny Rotten, all have that peculiar English eccentricity that is found nowhere else in the world. Every country produces great men and women, but the English greats all seem to have this 'ever so slightly mad' air about them.” (ICONS reader)

We take a look at some of our greatest eccentrics – past and present…

Jack Mytton (1796-1834).

Edith Sitwell would probably have approved of ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton - one of the most unambiguous aristocrat eccentrics in history. Mytton carved out a career for himself as a hell-raising dandy capable of extreme extravagance after being expelled from both Westminster and Harrow.

From an early age he drank five bottles of port in the morning and, on two occasions when none was available, drank bottles of eau de cologne “to forestall the bad effect of the night air” (Great Political Eccentrics).

His wardrobe contained 1,000 hats, 700 pairs of boots and 150 pairs of riding breeches, plus over 3,000 shirts. He had 2,000 dogs, which he fed on steak and champagne. He also owned 60 cats, which he dressed in livery.

Clothes and pets (in clothes) aside, Mytton spent most of his time concocting ways of putting his life at risk. He regularly injured himself on the hunting field, attempting jumps that were clearly impossible. He also liked nothing better than taking his carriage out, gathering great speed and deliberately turning it over. On one occasion he was observed running stark naked over heavy ice in pursuit of some ducks, and he was often spotted stripped down to a thin shirt lying in deep snow awaiting the arrival of wildfowl at dusk.

He wreaked havoc upon his own dinner guests one evening when he appeared in full hunting costume mounted on his pet bear, Nell. The bear took offence to Mytton’s antics, turned on him and ate part of his leg, whilst the guests simply concentrated on jumping out of the window in terror. Unsurprisingly, Jack Mytton died young, with his eventual demise arriving after he set fire to himself in a bid to cure his hiccups.

William Blake (1757-1827)

William Blake replica by John Linnell, 1861.
William Blake replica by John Linnell, 1861. © National Portrait Gallery.
Visionary poet, philosopher, engraver and painter, William Blake tended to act out his artistic 'visions'. As a result, he would make his wife sit out in the garden with him naked and read Paradise Lost by John Milton to each other out loud. He also claimed to have seen an angel in a tree in Peckham Rye…

Blake was very much seen as a mystical outsider before taking his rightful place in our hearts and minds as one of the greatest Briton’s of all time (he made it to number 38 on the BBC's public vote for the 100 Greatest Britons).

In the past however, Blake was described as a ‘nutter’, ‘mentally ill’, ‘a crank’ and ‘marginal’, and it has only been in the past 180 years that Blake has been fully celebrated and embraced by his nation. Now the ‘everyman’s mystic’s art, takes pride of place in the Tate Britain (which created the first ever Blake Gallery in the 1920s), his poetry is taught in schools, and any art student worth their tuition fees should be more than familiar with his hauntingly unforgettable paintings and engravings.

A considerable amount of Blake’s popularity surely lies at the root of his epic poem “Milton”, that became the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ during World War I. Every couple of years the (for many) patriotic song is proposed as a national anthem for England, although it never quite makes it.

Despite the strong nationalistic connotations derived from ‘Jerusalem’, Blake should however not be idealised as a hyper patriot. For notably, whilst conceiving the poem’s rousing prose, he was awaiting trial for allegedly making insulting remarks about the king and praising Napoleon to a soldier.

As afore mentioned, Blake’s popularity was late coming and many of his contemporaries thought his ideas so radical many considered him mad. A view not helped by Blake's claims to have seen visions from an early age of God, various angels and, on one occasion, Satan himself, in an encounter on the staircase of his home in South Molton Street.

Indeed, by today’s standards Blake’s bizarre idiosyncrasies and hallucinatory acted-out visions would be less inclined to fall under the description of ‘eccentric’, and instead would likely see him diagnosed with a form of mental illness. Nevertheless, his reputation as a dissenter and mystic rebel has boosted his appeal no end over the years and among many significant others, he’s said to have inspired the likes of writer Aldous Huxley, The Doors and Van Morrison. Plus thousands of school kids too, if only they could stop banging on about the fact that “what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry" is rubbish because it doesn’t rhyme…

Speaking the epitaph that has rung down the years, his contemporary William Wordsworth said of Blake:

"There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

And the poet A.C. Swinbourne described him as “a man perfect in his way, and beautifully unfit for walking in the way of any other man…No one, artist or poet, who had any insight or any love of things noble or lovable, ever passed by this man without taking away some pleasant and exalted memory of him.”

And finally, in the words of visionary artist, Samuel palmer, “If Mr Blake has a crack, it is a crack that lets in the light.”

High praise indeed, and for all his alleged and highly possible ‘madness’, Blake undeniably had admirable and important beliefs. In particular, he believed in children’s and women’s rights, imagination (particularly our “sixth sense of perception”) and the intrinsic worth of humanity. He was fiercely independently minded and anti authority – in particular he disagreed with organised religion, and royalty didn’t fare well in Blake’s opinions either.

A revolutionary visionary, no doubt ahead of his time, William Blake is probably beyond mere eccentricity - both in terms of his mental stability and his seminal work – and yet attempt to describe William Blake and the word “eccentricity” shortly follows…

Click here to find out more about William Blake.

Dame Vivienne Westwood (OBE)

Dame Vivienne Westwood by Anne-Katrin Purkiss, 1992.
Dame Vivienne Westwood by Anne-Katrin Purkiss, 1992. © National Portrait Gallery.
“Vivienne Westwood is a national treasure and people have always felt warm towards her because of her eccentricity and her unique sense of Britishness.” (Mica Paris, BBC’s Living Icons poll.)

Arguably the grand dame of British fashion and a true punk at heart, Vivienne Westwood stands as one of the most influential and innovative fashion designers of all time.

Her bold and original sense of style has seen her revolutionise British fashion and her edgy and risqué designs are some of the most iconic and inventive ever made. For a start she gave us the bustier, leather trousers covered with zips and chains, Westwood tartan, the puffball skirt, ripped anarchic tees and the 10-inch platform shoes (which famously caused Naomi Campbell to topple over mid catwalk strut.)

Notoriously eccentric and - in her early career - anti-establishment, Westwood’s work as an ambassador for Britain’s fashion industry was nevertheless recognised and celebrated in the form of an OBE from the Queen in 1992. Upon collecting her medal she famously arrived clad in a flesh coloured, transparent dress with no knickers and a strategically placed fig leaf – Westwood that is not your majesty…

Later on in her career, Westwood did an about turn and embraced all things British, even the establishment – and especially the Royals. She began incorporating traditional English tailoring into her work, a skill that continues to underpin her designs to this day. A number of her most famous collections saw the use of quintessentially British materials such as Harris tweed and tartan, as well as the re-working of Victorian garments such as the corset and crinoline. Of the Harris Tweed crown Westwood has been quoted as saying, "It's comic, but terribly chic. I like to keep it on when I'm having dinner. It's so English."

Vivienne Westwood 'Anglomania' 10-inch platforms.
Vivienne Westwood's 'Anglomania' 10-inch platforms. © Victoria & Albert Museum
Many of these design elements (including the tartan, the towering 10-inch platform shoes and bustiers) were displayed in her “Anglomania” collection shown in 1993, and the Victorian & Albert Museum in London played host to a retrospective exhibition of Westwood’s seminal work in 2004. 

Wonderfully unconventional and fearsomely non-conformist, Westwood is without doubt a stalwart of English eccentricity. She also backs her beliefs with action. She performed her revolutionary manifesto, Active Resistance to Propaganda, at the London Transport Museum in February 2008. Calling for a return to the universal human values to be at the core of great art, she issued her challenge for better culture - 'the exploration and cultivation of humanity through art'. Click here to find out more about Westwood’s manifesto.

Isabella Blow

Unequivocally one of the fashion industry’s most striking and eccentric stylists and muses, not to mention one of its most influential figures (she’s credited with discovering not only her beloved milliner Philip Treacy, but also Alexander McQueen and Julien McDonald.) She also helped launch the careers of a wave of upper class models that included Stella Tennant, Honor Fraser and Sophie Dahl.

Notorious for her fierce obsession with bizarre headgear, Blow wore hats fashioned to look like crocodiles' teeth, lobsters, flying saucers, a mourning hat with 100 veils designed to absorb the tears, and a hat like a pheasant.

Mentor and friend to many in the world of fashion, art and pop culture (she was affectionately known as dizzy Izzy and listed Andy Warhol, Anna Wintour, Roy Lichtenstein and Bryan Ferry as pals), Blow nonetheless had very robust views about designers, models, trends…etc and never shied away from punctuating them in her load, aristocratic cut-glass English accent. Her blood-red lipstick was as much a trademark as her queer and quirky hats and she’s been quoted as having said: "If you don't wear lipstick I can't talk to you."

Her family background sounds suitably bohemian and colourful, if not tinged with heavy tragedy. Born into the notorious Delves Broughton family, Isabella's life was blighted from the offset by the scandal for which the Delves Broughtons will always be remembered. Her grandfather was the notorious Sir Jock, who was at the centre of the famous White Mischief case in Kenya's Happy Valley.

Blow’s younger brother drowned in the family pool aged two, and a young Isabella recalls her mother going upstairs and putting on her lipstick as being one of her first reactions to her son’s death. Indeed, Blow attributes her obsession with hats and lipstick to her mother.

The family never got over their loss, in particular Isabella’s mother, who left the family having shaken her daughters smartly by the hand. Fondly remembered is Blow’s eccentric grandmother, an intrepid woman explorer who had eaten human flesh in Papua New Guinea and whom Isabella used to call 'the cannibal'.

Isabella Blow died in 2007 aged 48. She was being treated for ovarian cancer and reportedly very depressed. Like her grandfather and father-in-law before her, Blow took her own life – with weed killer (paraquat) as her chosen method of suicide.

Gilbert & George

Gilbert & George, Tate Modern.
Gilbert & George, Tate Modern. © Isla Harvey/24 Hour Museum
The fact that this couple come as a pair offers the biggest clue about their overall eccentricity. The two artists - best known for their autobiographical and self-explanatory 'Naked Shit Pictures' - are completely inseparable. They wear matching business suits, every day, and they have their own dance called the 'bend-it'. 

They share a home in east London, where they also own a workingmen's café. Apparently they like to serve behind the counter. They eat out at the same Turkish restaurant, at the same time every night. George walks there while Gilbert takes a cab.

Initially known as performance artists, Gilbert and George stand out as a stark comparison to the YBA (Young British Artists) pack, who are arguably far too contrived and driven by monetary success and fame to be any where near as genuinely intriguing as these two oddball veterans.

Jimmy Savile

Jimmy Savile by Barry Ernest Fantoni.
Jimmy Savile by Barry Ernest Fantoni. ©National Portrait Gallery.
The hyperbolic cigars, gold jewellery, mad platinum hair and of course – the jingoistic track suits, could simply be described as showbiz gimmicks, but the star of Jim'll Fix It nonetheless stands as a true icon of eccentricity in most people’s minds.

A former miner, wrestler, dancehall manager, cycle racer marathon man and hospital porter at Broadmoor, Savile never married but instead lived with his mother (who he calls 'The Duchess') right up until her death. He would never bring girls back home out of respect to ‘The Duchess’ although he did have a caravan outside in case he struck lucky. He has kept his late mother’s bedroom and wardrobe exactly as it was the day she died (as Louis Theroux discovered when he met the bizarre star whilst filming When Louis Met Jimmy for BBC2), and he has all her old clothes dry cleaned every single year.

Savile lives a spartan life – he takes only the one pair of underpants when he travels (he washes them every night though) and he prefers sleeping in his camper van (he must have had an upgrade from the caravan) to sleeping indoors.

He enjoys creating his own turns of phrase and finishes many of his sentences with “Thank you, good morning." He also likes to refer to himself as the Godfather. He has a bench in memory of himself with the words 'Jimmy Savile - but not just yet!' engraved on it, in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

Karl Pilkington

For 10 years, Pilkington produced The Ricky Gervais Show on Xfm, gradually becoming engrained in it - the star of the show, even - as he joined in with his deadpan, eccentric and often idiotic musings.

Testament to his natural ability for the latter: when Ricky Gervais suggested Pilkington have a doppelganger for a day, Pilkington asked: “How would I know which one I was?” Another Pilkington musing: “People who live in glass houses have to answer the door.”

He is described as unwittingly funny and doesn’t comprehend why others find him amusing. Gervais regularly dismissed him as 'an idiot' but there is arguably something almost philosophical about Pilkington’s humour and eccentric musings on life.

Helen Bonham-Carter

Married with two kids they may be, but archetypal English rose and actress Helen Bonham-Carter and her equally oddball director husband Tim Burton, live next-door to each other in separate houses (although they do have an adjoining door).

As well as her highly esteemed acting skills, Bonham-Carter is well known for her wonderfully idiosyncratic and experimental approach to fashion and no writer seems able to put fingers to keyboard with her in mind without typing the word ‘eccentric’.

Her highly individual style is obviously seen as being the wrong side of quirky by the mainstream press however, as she’s regularly mocked in the papers for what she’s wearing, and plonked in the “miss” section in far too many magazine fashion jury’s “hit” or “miss” line-ups to keep count.

The beauty is, you can tell Bonham-Carter does not give a flying…Anti-Christ of fashion she may be to some, to others she remains in a league of her own – and a celebrated one at that. After all, when did refusing to adhere to the latest trends and dressing as if your (and your stylist’s) life depended on it every single minute of the day become a heinous crime?

Bonham-Carter is comfortable enough in her own skin to stand out from the crowd (shock horror dress herself) and live unconventionally – eccentric she may be – and she’s all the better for it.

William Buckland

William Buckland was a renowned Oxford geologist and eccentric who gave us the first scientific description of Megalosaurus, the first named dinosaur. He became the first Reader in Geology at Oxford University and was generally a bit mad...

Charles Darwin called him a 'buffoon'. Suitably strange, Buckland allegedly had a table made of fossilised poo, used to ride around with a live bear on the back of his horse, ate his way through the animal kingdom and ate the heart of the (deceased) King of France.

There's a special display in his honour at the University Museum of Natural History.

And who could forget…

Albert Einstein by Walter Benington for Elliot & Fry, 1921.
Albert Einstein by Walter Benington for Elliot & Fry, 1921. ©National Portrait Gallery.
Another famous eccentric (although not English) was renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who in addition to being widely recognised as a genius and the originator of the theory of relativity, was also known to pick up and smoke discarded cigarette butts on the street, pilot his sailboat on windless days ("for the challenge"), and lecture his 8-year-old nephew on advanced physics (including a 2-hour exposition on the fascinating Newtonian properties of soap bubbles).

Other well-known eccentrics, too good to be missed (regardless of the fact they are not home grown) include:

James Joyce by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1935.
James Joyce by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1935. ©National Portrait Gallery.

James Joyce (1882-1941)

Irish novelist, poet and playwright, James Joyce used to carry a tiny pair of lady's bloomers with him at all times. He would wave them in the air to demonstrate approval. He was also prone to using words and spellings that he’d made up, simply because he preferred his own.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) This reclusive American writer allegedly always worn white, never left her room and hid her poems in little boxes.

Salvador Dali (1904-1989): Dali apparently ate masses of ripe Camembert cheese so he would dream more vividly and more weirdly. He did this in the hope that it would help him generate more and more of his hallmark surreal and strange paintings. He also reportedly kept lobsters in his swimming pool.

Pablo Picasso by Cecil Beaton, 1965.
1935. ©Cecil Beaton Archive

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): The eminent Spanish artist and sculptor possessed an artistic style that was deemed eccentric before the world caught up.