THE COLONY ROOM
( ENLARGE )
For half a century, the tiny Colony Room bar has been a second home to some of the great names in British art. Today, the faces have changed, but its boozy charm remains.
By Oliver Bennett
You walk up a dingy, stygian stairwell into a small, slightly claustrophobic room full of paintings, posters, yellowing cuttings and artworks. A piano lies on one side, a bar the other. The green carpet has fag burns all over it. If the ageing banquettes could talk, they'd insult you.
This is the Colony Room, a private-members club in London's Soho that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It is a small and rather intense place, with an intimidating reputation for rudeness.
Its walls - where they can be seen behind the jumble of artworks - are painted bright green, which compounds the sense of being in a world apart; one that is either restful, womblike and gem焧lich, or intense and claustrophobic, depending on your bent.
The Colony has a small but unique position in British post-war culture, despite being a place that, as its incumbent manager, MICHAEL WOJAS, puts it, is "just a front room with a bar in it".
It is best known for being the second home of FRANCIS BACON - much of John Maybury's recent film about Bacon, Love Is The Devil, was filmed in a Colony Room set. It has also been the bar of choice for LUCIAN FREUD, MICHAEL ANDREWS, the ROBERTs COLQUHOUN and MacBRYDE, the JOHNSs DEAKIN and MINTON, Barry Flanagan, FRANK AUERBACH, Patrick Caulfield; many of whom became known, to use RON B. KITAJ's 1976 soubriquet, as the "School of London".
Images: at left, photograph of Michael Wojas at The Colony Room bar
Left to right: Lucian Freud, Robert MacBryde, and Robert Colquhoun
John Deakin, Ronald B. Kitaj and Daniel Farson
Over the years, it has also attracted bibulous journalists such as DAN FARSON and JEFFREY BERNARD, as well as a rich, maverick pageant: odd names include TOM BAKER (the best ever Doctor Who); Labour MP TOM DRIBERG; SUGGS from Madness, and his mother; actor TREVOR HOWARD; singer LISA STANSFIELD. "Licorice Allsorts," is Wojas's word for them, and he adds that "everyone is treated with equal contempt". The Chairman (a regular who wishes to be called just that) calls them "non-conformists". Like other places with arty-boho reputations, such as Paris's Les Deux Magots, the Colony has international word-of-mouth.
"Sometimes students from art schools or abroad turn up in groups to look around," says Wojas. Unlike Deux Magots, however, it is not on tourist heritage trails. You can't just walk in, which is why, says GEORGE MELLY, "it hasn't turned into a place where a coffee costs �". Not even its 250 members, who currently pay � a year, can all come at once; it is far too small.
Painting of George Melly by Maggi Hambling, 2000
It has a certain heaviness of atmosphere, which, says Wojas, divides its visitors. "They either walk in and go, 'Wow, this is brilliant', or sit there with their head in their hands." In his waistcoat, dark glasses and scar up one cheek, Wojas is continuing the club's reputation for colourful proprietors, as the luminous figure in Colony legend remains MURIEL BELCHER - "A handsome, Jewish dyke," as one member recalls - who started the club in 1948 and ran it till her death in 1979.
Image at right: photograph of Muriel Belcher by John Deakin.
"She had been running a war-time club called the Music Box in Leicester Square, got together some independent means, found the room and secured the 3pm-11pm drinking licence," says Wojas. "Pubs closed at 2.30pm then, and you had to have somewhere to go." That club licence persists to this day, and, while London's opening hours have been liberalised, a sense of iniquity in the afternoon still pervades the Colony. It somehow turns the day into night, rather than Soho's new glossy pubs, which turn the night into day.
Image above: Belcher (detail from "Colony Room") by Michael Andrews.
Belcher had a charisma that attracted people, and the Colony's older clientele still refer to it as "Muriel's". "Its reputation was all initially down to her impact," says Melly. "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."
Belcher attracted many gay men to the club - a lot of them brought in by her Jamaican girlfriend, CARMEL - and the Colony became one of a few places where it was safe to be openly homosexual. Julian Cole, who, with Akim Mogaji, is making a film about the club, says, "She realised the power of the pink pound in the Fifties, 30 years before everyone else. It was a forerunner of gay Soho."
Eminences such as CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD drank here.
But, as Wojas says, "It has never been a gay club as such. It is better to have a mix." IAN BOARD [Belcher's successor from 1979 to 1995] was homosexual, and used to say, "I don't mind those poofs, as long as they keep their distance." The same dyspeptic formula applied to artists. "There's always been that tendency, probably due to Francis," says Wojas. "But it would be really boring if it was just artists talking about art all night long. Muriel always said, 'I know fuck all about art.'"
By some strange symmetry, the Colony Room now attracts the Sensation! generation of Young British Artists (or YBAs, as the acronym has it). Members include Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, while Sarah Lucas once worked as a bartender here for a couple of months. "It just came about as an idea between me and Michael [Wojas]," she says. "I'd been going there for quite a time, and had always liked the way it has been going on for so long and was that traditional and historical." Their patronage has helped to renew the Colony.
"Two-thirds of the selection committee are young artists, which is lovely," says the Chairman. Indeed, the youngest member is Damien Hirst's son, Connor, given an honorary membership at three weeks old.
Could this be an example of what the art critic Matthew Collings, in his YBA chronicle, Blimey, calls "retro-bohemianism"? All the Colony's manifestations of Fifties épatant la bourgeoisie - the boozing, the smoking, the swearing - have now been given a certain continuity. "They're paying homage to Francis," says Melly. "People are nostalgic about the idea of old Soho, and the Colony is the last of the lot."
Also, the club retains the allure of discovery. Art dealer James Birch, who recently put on a 50th anniversary Colony Room show at his Clerkenwell gallery, says, "It's like a secret society, which is why Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons and Dennis Hopper all wanted to go there when they came to London."
Perhaps it should be made an annexe of the Tate Gallery, as over the years it has built up quite an art collection, including a nicotine-stained Michael Andrews mural (there is an Andrews painting at the Tate called The Colony Room) and various newer pieces, including Gavin Turk's blue plaque, made for his graduation show. But space is limited. "When Damien [Hirst] wanted to give us a picture, I said you've got to size it accordingly," says Wojas, who keeps the overspill at his home.
The real thread that runs through the Colony's 50 years, however, is drink. "In the Fifties, we drank all day long and went to Muriel's every day," said the late HENRIETTA MORAES, an ex-Colony regular. "Muriel was a very powerful personality. She was so funny, and could keep up the wit for hours at a stretch. She sat on a mock-leopardskin high chair, and she would vet everyone that walked in." Fatefully, one of those people was FRANCIS BACON.
Photograph of Henrietta Moraes by John Deakin.
"There was an immediate affinity," says Wojas. "Francis didn't have money at that time, but he had an outrageous streak."
Belcher had good antennae for interesting people, gave Bacon free drinks in return for new custom and established the Colony's close-knit member profile. "She loved money, and people who spent money," says one long-standing regular. "'Put your hand in your handbag,' she would cry," recalls the Chairman. Older members also recall her as kind-hearted, raising funds raised for the local school and ailing confreres.
She also established a cult of rudeness. Belcher's favourite word was "cunt", delivered in ringing tones, and a hierarchy of insults ensued. "'Cunt' was a term of abuse, 'Cunty' was meant affectionately," says the Chairman. "And if she called you 'Mary', you were really in." Men would be called "she". "Muriel made everything sound good, even when it wasn't exactly a Wildeanepigram," says Melly. "She was camp, and the very delivery of camp makes your sentences sound witty." The Colony thus became a kind of anti-Cheers, where everyone may have known your name but instead called you "cunty"
above: Muriel Belcher & 'daughter' (Belcher's name for Francis Bacon) at Wheeler's Resturant, photograph by Peter Stark
When Belcher died, her protégé, Ian Board, took over, and the Colony sustained its withering reputation. "You had to be resilient, and you'd gain respect," says the Chairman.
"If you weren't tough, it was harsh. There would be cries of 'boring'."
Melly says Board was as rude as Belcher, but not as witty, and many walked out, despising the place and its large, red-nosed proprietor. Now, though the Colony retains a forbidding edge, those days are gone.
"The people here are very friendly and interested in new people," pleads Wojas, and members laud it as a place where strangers talk to one another. "It's gentler now, and that's not such a bad thing," says the Chairman.
In the early Eighties, it had a sticky patch. "Ian was finding it difficult," says Wojas. "He was worried about whether he could cope, and was drinking very heavily. Also, the generations changed one lot had died and drifted off and the younger ones hadn't yet come along." This coincided with the era when Soho's new members clubs such as the Groucho and Black's were opening. The landlord wanted to change its use, and a petition was drawn upto save it.
But then new members started to come, and, at Francis Bacon's funeral wake-cum-party at the Colony in 1992, a new generation became evident. "The fucking worms crawled out of their holes, but the extraordinary thing is that the younger generation came in full fucking bloom," recalled Board in Dan Farson's biography of Francis Bacon, A Gilded Gutter Life. When Board died in 1995 - "He had a scarlet nose, just like WC Fields," says member CHRISTOPHER MOORSOM, "and when he died his nose went white" - he received huge obituaries, and it showed that the Colony had become a national institution.
The world has changed outside, but the Colony has militantly remained the same: no late licence, cocktails, draught beer, coffee, tea or ciabatta sandwiches - though Wojas admits, he "begrudgingly serves the odd glass of mineral water". As for Soho, Wojas says that he doesn't particularly like it on Friday or Saturday night any more. "All those drunken idiots on their night out up West."
The Colony now lures acolytes and drinkers with the promise of an oasis of authenticity in the midst of office London. And all the people who walk in - some drawn by its reputation, some drunk, some thinking it's a clip joint - will be subject to the same routine.
"I sit on the perch [as Belcher's chair is still called] and suss each person as they arrive," says Wojas. "You've got to catch them at the door. Once they're in, you've lost them."
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