Dark art of Soho

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 14

A hangout for dissipated artists, the Colony Room was brutal, witty and egalitarian, as Sophie Parkin explains. Now this bohemian home from home is celebrated at Bonhams in an exhibition of works drawn from the collection of Pallant House Gallery

Not everybody who went to the Colony Room was an artist, but when in London all artists found themselves in the Colony. The club started life in 1948. On the first floor, at the top of some smelly backstairs in Soho's Dean Street, a room was turned into an afternoon drinking club. In those days, licensing laws were notably strict, with bars, restaurants and off-licences forbidden to sell any alcohol between 3 and 6pm. The only premises that could serve booze outside these times were private members' clubs, and in this small, dangerous square mile of Soho there were more than 500 private members' clubs dodging the regulations pubs had to observe.

Artists have always been notorious drinkers. The Colony's argument was that their artistic members worked unusual hours, so they couldn't be expected to live in the same way as someone with a normal job. Francis Bacon was certainly an example: he would get up at 5am or 6am, paint until noon, go to Soho, have a drink at the French, lunch at Wheeler's fish restaurant in Old Compton Street, more drinks at the Colony from 3pm to 11pm, gambling until 2am, sex, bed, and start again. Anyone who was a member, or with one, could get a drink in those forlorn, empty afternoon hours.

From the very beginning, the Colony Room was renowned not only as an drinking club, but as a place for clever conversation. It became known for its open-minded acceptance of all races and sexual orientations, kindness to destitute poets like Oliver Bernard, Louis MacNeice, George Barker and David Gascoyne, and black humor towards the older, rich and titled. The likes of Tom Driberg MP, Earl Cawdor, Lord May, Lord Montagu and Michael Pitt-Rivers were told by Muriel Belcher, the owner, to "Get your bead bags out, Lottie!" They were expected to pay for the poor younger artists – and even aging ones like "the two Roberts", Colquhoun and MacBryde.

The club also attracted establishment artists like Rodrigo Moynihan, Head of Painting at the Royal College of Art, his artist wife Elinor Bellingham-Smith, and Johnny Minton, who taught there. Augustus John was chairman of the Gargoyle Club opposite, where the walls were decorated with work by Matisse. The patrons there were older, but John would sometimes tag along to the Colony with Dylan Thomas and his old friend Nina Hamnett.

Many artists were introduced to the Colony by their tutors. John Minton first took Molly Parkin there in the 1950s. Peter Blake recommended Ian Dury for membership. Bacon took Freud. By the mid-1950s, "The Colony Room was the nearest thing to a Paris café this bleak city could offer since the great days of the Café Royal," wrote George Melly in the catalog for Artists of The Colony Room, a 1982 exhibition at the Parkin Gallery. He joined the club when he was a surrealist art dealer playing jazz on the side in Ham Yard.

Muriel Belcher was the formidable old-fashioned owner, always stationed at the bar, a hostess introducing and dismissing each member. In 1949 she had paid Francis Bacon £10 a week – and all the booze he could drink – to lure the rich and titled to this unprepossessing watering hole. It wasn't long before a notorious gang had formed, known informally as 'Muriel's Boys': they included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Tim Behrens and occasionally Keith Vaughan.

It was in the Colony that Bacon found photographer John Deakin, sweeping him up to photograph his muse Henrietta Moraes; East End photographer Harry Diamond (the subject of Freud's portrait Interior at Paddington of 1951) shot the famous photo of Freud with Bacon on Dean Street. That was in the early '70s, before Bacon stopped speaking to Freud.

Daniel Farson, the TV presenter and writer, was a key figure in creating the legend of the club, its owner and patrons, though he wasn't the only one to paint Muriel as a goddess of goodness with a viper's vitriol. Colin MacInnes did it too. You had to be funny and sharp to survive an afternoon of cocktail conversation; being pretty or famous was never enough in the Colony. Charisma was the currency, and of everyone Muriel Belcher and Francis Bacon had the most.

Why did so many artists spend so much of their time in a smoky little room, painted a bilious green and covered in years of post-World War II memorabilia? It wasn't just for Michael Andrews' nicotine-stained mural, or to spot the carpet stain where Dylan Thomas had been sick: it was Muriel and the conversation. In whatever decade, it remained the place people went to talk. You never knew who you would meet. William Burroughs met Bacon there.

Bacon brought Giacometti and Graham Sutherland (his one-time hero) in for champagne. George Melly brought in Edward Burra and 'Slim' Gaillard. My mother, Molly Parkin, went in with Cedric Price, Patrick Hughes and Anthony Earnshaw. Art dealer James Birch went with Dickie Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, and then took Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry. And so on it went.

With Muriel's illness and death, the club limped into destitution, and people took sides. Frank Auerbach later wrote a moving explanation in a letter to me:

"I spent far too much time in the Colony Room; between 1956 and 1976, one or two evenings a week. Like most of us, I drank too much, talked drivel, had some stimulating conversation – often with Francis Bacon – some arguments – always with Francis Bacon. Some pickups, usually but not always injudicious. I was aware of Muriel Belcher's moral stature, her courage, her instinctive assessment of people. She was for honesty, for generosity for the vulnerable, against the self-righteous and self-protective, the smug and pretentious. When she was gone, the Colony lost its attraction for me."

When Muriel died in 1979, the long-time barman Ian Board – Ida, as he was known – took over, and he and his fellow barman Michael Wojas, whom he'd rescued from the gutter, set upon attracting young artists. Few braved the terrifying interview process, as Ida climbed into his Muriel impersonation. In the 1990s, when Board died, Wojas assumed control and reinvented the club as a rock 'n' roll hangout for artist and musicians. It worked too well, eventually sweeping him into a lifestyle that finished him off.

What was the allure the club held for all the Turner-nominated – and unnominated – YBAs, who adopted it as their '90s hangout? John Maybury, the director of Love is the Devil, a film about the Colony and Francis Bacon, explained: "The appeal was that the Colony was a cocoon. You could go there for a drink whether you were Nureyev, Fonteyn, Princess Margaret or Kate Moss and not be recognized or people didn't give a shit. That was the quality and the aspect of the place. It wasn't elitist or snobby, and yet it was super-elitist." A few of those '90s rock-star artists became regulars – Gary Hume, Sue Webster and Tim Noble, Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood, Angus Fairhurst, the Wilson twins, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas and Sebastian Horsley, to name just a few of them.

The Colony finally closed in 2008, but through the 60 years it had existed it remained the one place in the West End where you could feel uninhibited and unjudged, celebrated and loved, where you could count on meeting like-minded people. As Bacon described it, the Colony Room was "an oasis where the inhibitions of sex and class are dissolved". In other words, it was a home from home.

Sophie Parkin's The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho (£35, Palmtree Publishing).

The Colony Room: An Exhibition of Paintings from Pallant House Galleryruns from 2 - 11 October at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London W1. 9.30am - 4.30pm. Admission free.

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