Muriel Belcher

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Left hand panel from Francis Bacons' 1966 triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of Muriel Belcher

Muriel Belcher (Edgbaston 1908–1979) was the founder and proprietress of a private drinking club known as the Colony Room (also known as Muriel's) at 41 Dean Street, Soho, London.[1]

Belcher is the subject of several paintings, including Seated Woman (Portrait of Muriel Belcher) by Francis Bacon, which was sold at Sotheby's in Paris in December 2007, for €13.7 million.[2]

The Colony Room[edit]

Main article: The Colony Room

Belcher had previously run a club called the Music-box in Leicester Square during World War II. She managed to secure a 3pm-to-11pm drinking licence for the Colony Room bar as a private members club, whereas public houses had to close at 2:30pm. Francis Bacon was a founding member, walking in the day after it opened in 1948. He was "adopted" by Belcher as a "daughter" and allowed free drinks and £10 a week to bring in friends and rich patrons.

The club had a certain notoriety for its decor as well as its clientele; its bilious green walls were as famous as the club itself. In addition to its vile colour, the staircase that led to the establishment was described as foul-smelling and flanked by dustbins. The Room was operated by Belcher between opening and her death in 1979.

The Museum of London website says of the Colony Room, "The Colony Room was one of many drinking clubs in Soho. The autocratic and temperamental owner Muriel Belcher created an ambiance which suited those who thought of themselves as misfits or outsiders."[3] One former customer remembered her as a "handsome, Jewish dyke"; another, George Melly, said of her, "Muriel was a benevolent witch, who managed to draw in all London's talent up those filthy stairs. She was like a great cook, working with the ingredients of people and drink. And she loved money."[4]

Her sexuality attracted many gay men to the club, many of them brought to the club by her Jamaican girlfriend, Carmel. She had a knack for attracting or discovering interesting and colourful people, and the patronage of men like Melly and Bacon helped to establish the Colony Room's close-knit community. Lady Rose McLaren, one of Bacon's friends, was a habituée of the club in her London days. In line with the camp atmosphere of the club, men would often be referred to in the feminine. Melly once remarked, "Muriel made everything sound good, even when it wasn't exactly a Wildean epigram. She was camp, and the very delivery of camp makes your sentences sound witty."[4]

However, Belcher was also famous for her rudeness, a trait which rubbed off onto the club and became part of its culture. Her favourite word was "cunt",[5] and this she delivered in distinctive and ringing tones. According to Belcher, "cunt" was a term of abuse, "cunty" a term of affection. Her ultimate accolade and sign of acceptance was the endearment "Mary".

According to Christopher Hitchens:

Muriel, arguably the rudest person in England (“shut up cunty and order some more champagne”), almost never left her perch at the corner of the bar and was committed to that form of humor that insists on referring to all gentlemen as ladies. Occasionally this routine was still funny. “Yes,” she would screech if someone mentioned the London Blitz, “that was when we were all fighting that nasty Mrs. Hitler.” O'Toole's favorite was a rejoinder she made when he'd described some ancient and absent member as a bit of a bore. “He was a very brave lady,” insisted Muriel, “in the First World War!”

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22, 2010 Atlantic (2011), p. 152

After Belcher's death, the club continued under the stewardship of her long-term barman Ian Board, known as Ida, until his death in 1994. In turn, it then passed to his veteran barman Michael Wojas, and from him to Dick Bradsell. Until it closed, the Colony Room remained popular with artists of all types, in particular those who have come to be known as Young British Artists (YBAs), including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin.

Belcher was portrayed by Tilda Swinton in the 1999 film Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Lewis, Roger. Join Our Club and Die a Horrible Death, Daily Mail review of Sophie Parkin's The Colony Room Club, Palmtree Press, 2013, published 3 January 2013, accessed 5 June 2013.
  2. ^ Bacon painting sells for 13.7 million euros - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
  3. ^ "The Colony Room". museumoflondon.org.uk. Retrieved on 20 February 2010.
  4. ^ a b Lacey, Liam. "Bacon's portrait of seated woman ; Altered images: Francis Bacons iconic painting of feisty barmaid Muriel Belcher". Daily Mail, December 8, 2007. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  5. ^ Muir, Robin. "A Maverick Eye". London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. 30. ISBN 0-500-54244-9.

External links[edit]