Last week the British painter Darren Coffield published Tales From the Colony Room – an oral biography of Soho’s pre-eminent drinking den. Normally, this is a project that could be seen as a bit superfluous: re-churning the waters of a topic much discussed, one that’s been embellished and eulogised in the corners of London pubs for the last fifteen years, in order to self-indulgently revisit the halcyon days of Bohemia. However, given our current predicament, returning to the days of Dean Street decadence and debauchery, to the days of Francis Bacon and the wonderfully Dickensian Muriel Belcher, is a much needed tonic.
The Colony Room Club, at 41 Dean Street, was a private members drinking club established in 1948 by the self-styled “Queen of Soho” Muriel Belcher. Belcher had managed to secure a 3pm-11pm drinking license which, at a time of Draconian alcohol laws, made the Colony Room (or Muriel’s, as it would come to be affectionately known) exceedingly popular. As in any linchpin of Bohemian society, the club played host to a wide gamut of eccentrics, among them professional gamblers, professional alcoholics, artists, writers, poets, sailors, African chiefs, lords, landowners, barrow boys, musicians, singers, strippers, stagehands, and petty crooks. Christopher Hitchens, a Colony Room member, once claimed that Bohemia should be “the preserve of – in no special order – insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships.” The Colony Room Club, a small room up a dingy staircase on Dean street, with a bar at one end and a toilet at the other, managed to accommodate them all.
The Colony Room Club, (Credit: https://www.artlyst.com/news/dont-be-dull-and-fucking-boring-muriel-belcher-colony-room-club/)
Despite such a diverse clientele, it was two people that made the Colony Room what it was: Francis Bacon and Muriel Belcher. The latter was described by Hitchens as a “bat-like old lesbian” who “would perch by the bar, screeching obscenities like the pirate captain’s parrot that she somewhat resembled, terrorizing all bores and all those who were too slow to order a round.” The autocratic and temperamental proprietress would brashly greet her customers with “Hello c*nty”, swiftly followed by her trademark linguistic flourish of referring to men as if they were women. Many great artists drank at the club, Coffield lists: “John Minton, Cragie Aitchinson, Michael Andrew, Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake, Edward Burns, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Patrick Caulfield, John Craxton, Barry Flanagan, Lucian Freud, Alberto Giacometti, Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, RB Kitaj, John Latham, Eduardo Paolozzi, Isabel Rawsthorne, Keith Vaughan, Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Michael Clark” – among others. However, it is Francis Bacon – who drank in the Colony Room Club for four decades and was referred to by Belcher as ‘daughter’ – that is most entwined with the Club’s story. Bacon realised the Colony’s potential as a melting pot for creative thinking. Viewing the club as a kind of artistic salon with Belcher as its grande dame, he would introduce promising young artists to her – much like Picasso did with Gertrude Stein – hoping this community would give them some creative impetus. As Coffield notes “No matter where Bacon travelled and worked – Tangier, Paris, Monte Carlo – the one constant in his life, to which he could always return, was the Colony. It was his lodestar.”
Francis Bacon; Muriel Belcher, by Peter Stark, bromide print, 1975, 16 x 24 cm (Credit: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw57212/Francis-Bacon-Muriel-Belcher)
Bacon – who was once quoted as saying “I find the worse the hangover the more the mind seems to crackle with energy” – used the club and its members as a creative launchpad, it was somewhere he could drink and think and learn. This creative debt is evident in the triptych Three Studies of Muriel Belcher (most likely painted from photos taken by John Deakin); Miss Muriel Belcher and Seated Woman (Portrait of Muriel Belcher) which sold in 2007, one year before the Colony Room closed, at Sotheby’s in Paris for €13.7 million. The triptych is perhaps best known, each of the panels is set against a flat dark background and aims to capture Belcher’s personality through her flowing hair, arched eyebrows that’re suggestive of a level of acerbity, and her prominent nose. From left to right, the panels show her in half profile, full profile, then in half profile again, evoking a sense of movement and three dimensional understanding. She’s rendered with long and wide brushstrokes, her face distorted and grotesque, different contrasting colours in each depiction: this was Bacon at the height of his powers.
Three Studies for a Portrait of Muriel Belcher, Left hand panel, 1966, (Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Belcher#/media/File:Muriel_Belcher_by_Francis_Bacon_1966-.jpg)
Seated Woman (Portrait of Muriel Belcher), 1961, Oil on canvas, 165 x 142 cm, (credit: http://www.artnet.com/artists/francis-bacon/seated-woman-portrait-of-muriel-belcher-h-vCS_rOIH85MXAM4_HWRg2)
So why is this relevant now? Bacon’s artistic legacy is self evident, his influence on the art of today is omnipresent (not least Unit London’s Ryan Hewett and Oh de Laval); however, the societal shifts that have taken place in the last two months make revisiting stories of the Colony Room with a rose-tinted view very attractive. It was a place where two metres distance between customers would not just be a physical impossibility, it would be anathema to the ideology as a whole. As Coffield so elegantly outlines: “The Colony was not just a bar, but also an artistic support centre, psychiatrist’s couch, local post office (members left notes and letters to one another behind the bar), unemployment bureau and marriage guidance centre (“It will all end in tears, dear.”) The members came and behaved as a wayward family. They were empathetic to one another and would help each other out.” As we continue to be distanced from each other, creative communities and the art of dialogue are suffering. We’re trying to remedy the situation by leaning on technology, incessantly zooming everyone we know at different times and in different combinations; but we seem to be coming to an impasse in the form of a joint and rather inevitable conclusion: that it’s not enough, that there’s no substitute for physical interaction. The Colony Room embodied the importance of this kind of connection, not just for art, but for what art is really all about: namely, the soul. And so, Bacon’s boozy vigil one story up on Dean Street is something we can all learn from post-lockdown – to take the superficial vices of status and ego and replace them with some things that are altogether more worthwhile: face-to-face conversation, empathy and heavy drinking.
Francis Bacon and others at The Colony Room Club, (Credit: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/337840409531728537/)