The Colony Room Club

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The Colony Room Club was located at 41 Dean Street, on the far right of this picture

The Colony Room Club was a private members' drinking club 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 a mixture of Soho's low-lifes and alcoholic, artistic elite, including George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard, and Lucian Freud. Visiting non members included many names from aristocratic, political and artistic circles, including Princess Margaret, William Burroughs, David Bowie and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the 1990s the club attracted the Young British Artists.[1]

1948-1979 Muriel Belcher[edit]

In 1948 Muriel Belcher secured a 3 to 11pm drinking licence for The Colony Room Club as a private members club (public houses had to close at 2.30pm). The room was operated by Belcher between its opening and her death in 1979.

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.[2]

The Colony Room Club was located in a tiny first floor room in Dean Street and was notorious for its decor as well as its clientele. Originally smartly decorated in a colonial style, it was repainted in the 50s and its green walls became famous. Members described the staircase that led to the establishment as foul-smelling and flanked by dustbins talked of "going up the dirty stairs".

The club played an important role in Soho society. Members under Muriel's time also included Daniel Farson, Michael Andrews, John Deakin and Henrietta Moraes, whose portrait by Bacon sold for £21.3 million in February 2012.[3][4]

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. Belcher had a knack for attracting or discovering interesting and colourful people, and the patronage of men like George Melly and Francis Bacon helped to establish the Colony Room Club's close-knit community. Bacon's friend, Lady Rose McLaren, was a habituée of the club in her London days.

According to the Museum of London website, "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".[5] Belcher has been described as "an imperious lesbian with a fondness for insulting banter".[6] 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."[2]

1979-1994 Ian Board[edit]

After Belcher's death in 1979, the club was passed to her long-term barman Ian Board (known as "Ida"), until his death in 1994. Brian Patten described the Colony Room Club as "a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other". For Molly Parkin, the club was "a character-building glorious hellhole. Everyone left their careers at the roadside before clambering the stairs and plunging into questionable behaviour".[1]

1994-2008 Michael Wojas[edit]

The club then passed to Ian Board's barman Michael Wojas, whom he had employed since 1981. He had the club repainted in a bilious green. It became a cultural magnet for the Young British Artists group (YBAs), including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Joshua Compston, as well as musicians such as Lisa Stansfield. As a promotional device, Wojas persuaded famous members, including Kate Moss and Sam Taylor-Wood to serve drinks from behind the bar.[6] Hirst explained that the attraction of the club was "because artists like drinking".

Closure[edit]

In 2008, Wojas announced that financial pressure would result in his not renewing the lease of the club, and it would have to close.[7] He auctioned off some works of art, including a large Michael Andrews painting, which Wojas argued were under his control. The sale raised £40,000.[6] Wojas's actions triggered furious opposition from some members who believed that the assets belonged to the members and took Wojas to court to freeze the proceeds of the auction. A new governing committee was elected amidst scenes of conflict between pro and anti Wojas factions.[7]

A campaign to keep the club open was 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 that "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".

Wojas kept the keys to the club and closed the Colony Room Club at the end of 2008. Dick Bradsell was working as barman at the time of closure.[6]

In his epitaph for the Colony Room Club, 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."[8]

Cultural Depictions[edit]

  • 1962 Michael Andrews painted Colony Room I, which depicted Muriel Belcher, Ian Board, Daniel Farson, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. The painting, on loan from Pallant House, was included in the exhibition "All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life" at Tate Britain in 2018.[9]
  • 2008 A fictionalised version appeared in the first story ("Foie Humain") of Will Self's collection Liver.
  • 2012 The Colony Room Club 1948 - 2008: A History of Bohemian Soho was written and published by Sophie Parkin.
  • 2013 Harpers & Queen published Carla Borel's photo series Stillsoho, which included documentation of the club and its members such as Sebastian Horsley.[10]
  • 2018 The club under Ian Board is described in detail in Christopher Howse's Soho in the Eighties, published by Bloomsbury.
  • 2018 Tales From The Colony: The Lost Bohemia of Bacon, Belcher & Board, was a history of the club based on interviews with former members written by Darren Coffield.[12]

The British Museum holds a collection of prints, Colony Room Suite[13], depicting Muriel Belcher, Francis Bacon, and Ian Board, amongst other members of the club, made by the artist Michael Clark.

Notable members[edit]

Well known members of the Colony Room Club have included[14]:

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b 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. ^ 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.
  3. ^ "Gallery Talk: Francis Bacon's 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes', King Street Sale, 14 February 2012". Christie's. Retrieved 20 May 2014. 
  4. ^ "Francis Bacon, 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes', Christie's auction results 14 February 2012". Christie's. Retrieved 20 May 2014. 
  5. ^ "The Colony Room Archived 2012-09-19 at the Wayback Machine.". museumoflondon.org.uk. Retrieved on 20 February 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d Willetts, Paul (11 June 2010). "Michael Wojas obituary". theguardian.com. Retrieved May 21, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Tweedie, Neil (15 December 2008). "Soho's bohemian Colony Room Club faces extinction". telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 21 May 2014. 
  8. ^ Self, Will (13 September 2008). "The Colony Room". will-self.com. Retrieved 21 May 2014. 
  9. ^ Prodger, Michael (9 March 2018). "oo human: How Bacon, Freud and the postwar British painters made realism both new and personal". New Statesman. Retrieved 16 April 2018. 
  10. ^ "Carla Borel: Still Soho: Bazaar takes a look at Carla Borel's 'Still Soho' photographs". Harper's Bazaar. 20 March 2013. Retrieved 15 May 2018. 
  11. ^ "Toast of London gets second series". theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 27 August 2014. 
  12. ^ "Londoner's Diary". standard.co.uk. 3 April 2018. Retrieved 4 April 2018. 
  13. ^ Clark, Michael. "Colony Room Suite". British Museum. 
  14. ^ McEwen, John McEwen (16 April 2018). "Flying Colours". The Spectator. Retrieved 16 April 2018. 
  15. ^ Sherwin, Skye (17 February 2017). "Michael Andrews' The Colony Room I: Soho's cultural history frozen in time". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 April 2018. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°30′48″N 0°07′56″W / 51.5133°N 0.1322°W / 51.5133; -0.1322