O ne night in 1972, Francis Bacon tried to climb up the smelly Soho stairwell at the Colony Room Club and came a cropper. He’d just enjoyed a long session in the Caves de France, another palace of regrets in London’s bohemian district. Bacon was muddled with sedatives and pickled in drink. “He slipped on the stairs and one of the metal strips hit the right side of his eye and put it half out,” recalled one his friends. “Francis forced it back in and went to a hospital.” No drama. Just another night at the Colony Room.
The club opened above an Italian trattoria at 41 Dean Street in December 1948. Its proprietor, Muriel Belcher – a wit to some, poison to others – intended to animate London’s grey, restrictive post-war atmosphere (homosexuality was illegal, the licensing hours were tight). It consisted of one room painted a “bilious green”, a small bar, some bamboo furniture and an upright piano.
From day one, Belcher recruited Bacon to her mission, letting him drink for free if he introduced like-minded customers (he once brought Giacometti). “Perhaps she thought I knew a lot of rich people, which was untrue,” Bacon remarked. He remained the club’s bibulous talisman until his death in 1992.
In its 60 year history – to the dismay of counterculture junkies, the club closed in 2008 – the list of its patrons follows the development of British art from the Fifties’ School of London to the YBAs of the Nineties and early Noughties.
Early members included Augustus John, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Caulfield and Michael Andrews (whose 1962 painting of the club looks like a group portrait of vampires); later came Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Mat Collishaw, Sam Taylor-Wood and Sarah Lucas (who worked shifts behind the bar).
But it was the image of Bacon and Freud – the latter of whom provided a calm eye to the storm – sitting in the corner discussing Velazquez, that epitomised the club’s reputation as an artistic cloister. Not that it was ever a monastic retreat, however.
“Artists like drinking”
There are whole books dedicated to the outrageous behaviour witnessed within its walls (most recently Darren Coffield’s bracing oral history Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia). Bacon described it as “a place where we came to dissolve our inhibitions.” This resulted in police raids, feuds, friendships and a tenacious mythology surrounding the place.
Often, the revelry spilled outside. One evening, Bacon was called on to help paint the window of Janus, a sex shop around the corner on Old Compton Street (champagne was served as the paint dried). And there was a lot of Soho gambling, recalled Frank Auerbach, who observed that Freud was particularly reckless. “He would get into debt with people like the Krays, which was not a healthy thing to do, and for years he was nervous opening his door.”
International figures also popped in. Jeff Koons arrived with an “obscenely fat roll of banknotes” recalled Fred Ingrams, a painter who kept a studio above the nearby Coach and Horses pub. “At which point every single person in the club emptied their glass. The day descended into a monumental session of drinking Jeff Koons’ money.”
The tone of that cramped, ratty space, it’s walls crazy-paved with pictures, was set by its founder. For Belcher, anything went, apart from the commonplace. “Just don’t be dull and fucking boring, that’s the golden rule,” she once remarked. Muriel greeted men with a jaunty “Hello Mary” and women with a surprisingly convivial “Hello Cunty”. And she filled the room with seedy characters sporting nicknames like ‘Foreskin’, ‘Butter Legs’ and ‘Brian the Burglar’.
"Muriel was a benevolent witch, who managed to draw in all London's talent up those filthy stairs,” noted the Surrealist jazz singer George Melly. “She was like a great cook, working with the ingredients of people and drink.” For members the bar was simply known as “Muriel’s”. Hardly a beauty, she was catnip to Bacon’s brush. He produced several acidic portraits of the woman he called “mother”. Considering all the roistering, drinking, and sniping, it’s remarkable that anything got painted at all.
All clubs can be unpleasant to outsiders – Muriel would stop people at the door with, “Members only dearie, and get a face lift on your way” – but the Colony Room was just as dreadful to its members. An equal-opportunities rudeness prevailed. The Liverpool poet Brian Patten described it as "a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other". You wiped your feet when you left the club, said one regular.
Following Muriel Belcher’s death in 1979, the club passed to its barman, Ian Board – popularly known as “Ida”, he was even more jagged-tongued than Muriel. One regular during Board's tenure was Christopher Howse, author of Soho in the Eighties, who credits the club with a strange sense of security. "There was a sort of mutual support in being accepted after decades of laughing with people and shouting at them," he notes. "I wouldn't mind diving back into such a society if it still existed somewhere." On Board's death in 1994, the establishment passed, in turn, to his barman, Michael Wojas, for its last hurrah with the YBAs.
Asked why the group descended on the Colony Room Club, Damian Hirst replied simply: “Artists like drinking”. Indeed, spirited boltholes were a fixture of 20th century art history, often appearing when a combination of social and economic ingredients crystalised (less salubrious locations and more liberal times provided low rents and low expectations).
In Paris in the 1910s, Picasso, Braque and Modigliani drank at Café de la Rotonde, the giant red awning of which still hangs like a vast eyebrow over Boulevard du Montparnasse. A decade on, in Berlin, pretty much every German artist loathed by the Nazis partied in Weimar-era nightclubs, such as Eldorado and Moka Efti.
And in New York, during the 1950s heyday of Abstract Expressionism, the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, which was as downmarket as it was downtown, hosted Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Another patron – well sort of – was Nat Tate, the fictional artist created by novelist William Boyd. In his mock-biography, Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928 – 1960, Boyd describes the Cedar Tavern as a den of “famous artists drinking at the bar, talking and quarrelling about art, turkeycocking, eyeing up the art groupies that were drawn to the place.” Something similar – albeit with a more camp cadence – could be found at the Colony Room.
While in London artists have also enjoyed the Cool Britannia hotspot of the Groucho Club and the more traditional Chelsea Arts Club (co-founded by Whistler), the Colony Room Club was, undeniably, the longest running and most storied of all these haunts. While it didn’t inspire a great deal of art – although Bacon turned his eye-popping accident into a gruesome self-portrait – for six decades it provided a potent primer for its members.