The Colony Room
The Colony Room was a private members' drinking club for artists and other creative people at 41 Dean Street, Soho, London. The club was founded and presided over by Muriel Belcher from its inception in 1948 until her death in 1979. The artist Francis Bacon was a founder and lifelong member, and the club attracted Soho's alcoholic, artistic elite, including George Melly, Peter O'Toole, and Lucian Freud. After Belcher's death, the club attracted a new generation of young British artists including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin; it finally closed its doors in 2008.
In 1948 Muriel Belcher managed to secure a 3-to-11pm drinking license for The Colony Room as a private members club, whereas public houses had to close at 2.30pm. The artist Francis Bacon was a founding member, walking in the day after it opened. He was 'adopted' by Belcher who called him "Daughter", and gave him 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 famous. In addition to its vile colour, the staircase that led to the establishment was described as foul-smelling and flanked by dustbins. Indeed, many members referred to it as “going up the dirty stairs.” The Room was operated by Belcher between opening and her death in 1979.
The Colony Room was located in a tiny first-floor room in Dean Street, and played an important role in Soho society as a drinking club for major British talent. Members included Peter O'Toole, Michael Andrews, Lucian Freud, John Deakin, Jeffrey Bernard and Henrietta Moraes, whose portrait by Bacon sold for £21.3 million in February 2012. In the 1990s, Lisa Stansfield, Tracey Emin, and Damien Hirst became members. Hirst explained the attraction of the club: "It's because artists like drinking".
Belcher's open attitude towards 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 George Melly and Bacon helped to establish the Colony Room's close-knit community. Lady Rose McLaren, one of Bacon's friends, was a habitueé of the club in her London days.
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". Belcher has been described as "an imperious lesbian with a fondness for insulting banter". 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."
Poet Brian Patten described the Colony Room as "a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other". For journalist Molly Parkin, the club was "a character-building glorious hell-hole. Everyone left their careers at the roadside before clambering the stairs and plunging into questionable behaviour’".
After Belcher's death in 1979, the club continued under her long-term barman Ian Board, known as "Ida", until his death in 1994. It then passed to his veteran barman Michael Wojas, who had been employed at the club since 1981. The Colony Room Club attracted low-lifes as well as artists of all types. It was a cultural magnet for the Young British Artists group (YBAs), including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. As a promotional device, Wojas persuaded famous members, including Kate Moss and Sam Taylor-Wood to serve drinks from behind the bar.
Bacon, Belcher and the club are featured in John Maybury's 1998 film Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, in which Belcher was played by Tilda Swinton.
A fictionalised version of the club appears in the first story ("Foie Humain") of Will Self's collection Liver. The club was used as the set/venue for the ITV show Suggs in the City. The club is also parodied as "The Colonial Club" in Matt Berry's Toast of London.
In 2008, Wojas announced that financial pressure would result in his not renewing the lease of the club, and it would have to close. He auctioned off some works of art, including a large Michael Andrews painting, which Wojas argued were under his control because of the Board's statutes. The sale raised £40,000. Wojas's actions triggered furious opposition from some members who believed the club belonged to them, the members, rather than Wojas. They took Wojas to court to freeze the proceeds of the auction, and a new governing committee was elected amidst scenes of violent conflict between pro and anti Wojas factions.
A campaign to keep the club open was funded by Colony Room members and fronted by dandy and artist Sebastian Horsley, attempting to secure the use of the premises in the future. According to Horsley: "it has been a vibrant, unique and historical drinking den for artists, writers, musicians, actors and their acolytes. There is nowhere else like it in the world." He also said: "The Colony is a living work of art, it's a tragedy what's happening. From Bacon to Beckett, Rimbaud to Rotten, the Colony must not be forgotten".
Despite acrimonious in-fighting, Wojas kept the keys to the club and the Colony Room closed forever at the end of 2008.
In his epitaph for the Colony Room, novelist Will Self argued against the view that the closure demonstrated that "the old Soho is being killed off by smoking bans and other sanitising measures. The truth is that there was another criterion for membership: the hardcore members were first and foremost raging alcoholics."
"Ian Board died of cirrhosis; I suspect Muriel Belcher did too. What has done for the Colony as much as anything else is 24-hour drinking. To begin with it was an afternoon club, where a select group could indulge in the naughtiness of drinking after-hours. Now anyone can get a drink from an offie and stand in Old Compton Street swigging it."
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Colony Room members
Well known clients of the Colony Room have included:
- Michael Andrews (artist)
- Frank Auerbach
- Francis Bacon (artist)
- Tom Baker
- Tallulah Bankhead
- Timothy Behrens
- Jeffrey Bernard
- Isabella Blow
- Patrick Caulfield
- Darren Coffield
- Robert Colquhoun
- Joshua Compston
- William 'Bill' Corbett
- Keith Coventry
- John Deakin
- Tom Driberg
- Paul Duane
- Tracey Emin
- Daniel Farson
- Barry Flanagan
- E. M. Forster
- Lucian Freud
- Christian Furr
- Anthony Haden-Guest
- Nina Hamnett
- Damien Hirst
- Christopher Hitchens
- Sebastian Horsley
- Trevor Howard
- Christopher Isherwood
- Alex James (musician)
- Mary Kenny
- R. B. Kitaj
- Ben Langlands
- Charles Laughton
- Sarah Lucas
- Robert MacBryde
- Lady Rose McLaren
- Louis MacNeice
- John Maybury
- George Melly
- John Minton (artist)
- Henrietta Moraes
- Tim Noble and Sue Webster
- Frank Norman
- David Remfry
- Jo Self
- Will Self
- Elizabeth Smart (Canadian author)
- Lisa Stansfield
- Patrick Swift
- Dylan Thomas
- 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..
- 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.
- "Gallery Talk: Francis Bacon's 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes', King Street Sale, 14 February 2012". Christie's. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
- "Francis Bacon, 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes', Christie's auction results 14 February 2012". Christie's. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
- "The Colony Room". museumoflondon.org.uk. Retrieved on 20 February 2010.
- Willetts, Paul (11 June 2010). "Michael Wojas obituary". theguardian.com. Retrieved May 21, 2014.
- "Toast of London gets second series". theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 27 August 2014.
- Tweedie, Neil (15 December 2008). "Soho's bohemian Colony Room Club faces extinction". telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
- Self, Will (13 September 2008). "The Colony Room". will-self.com. Retrieved 21 May 2014.