THE GREEN DOOR TO THE COLONY OF ARTISTS

Zinovy Zinik

Article: 
MEETING POINT
Magazine issue: 
#3 2009 (24)

Of the many informal locations that have come to be a joint meeting point for artistic groups in their time, few have been more distinctive than London’s Colony Room, which closed its doors after 60 years in 2008. Novelist and broadcaster Zinovy Zinik recalls the times and personalities of one of Soho’s most remarkable meeting places, one that provided a creative home to Francis Bacon, the centenary of whose birth was marked in October 2009, and many other artists of the School of London.

It’s an old wisdom that the imposition of censorship provokes writers into inventing new devices and unusual forms of expression in order to circumvent restrictions. similarly, a new mode of life, as well as new art, is often born as a result of the imposition by society of stricter rules of public behaviour.

The birth of the so-called "school of London”, which is also known as "The Colony Room School (Soho)” was due in good measure to the most preposterous and retrograde licensing laws that had existed in England since the First World War. The Defence of the Realm Act of August 1914 forced pubs to shut their doors for three hours in the afternoon. These restrictions, although much relaxed, continued to operate - to the consternation of foreigners and tourists - until the late 1990s.

The launch of the Colony Room in 1948 was necessitated by this midday break. With the ring of the publican’s bell and the loud cry, "Time’s up, ladies and gentlemen!”, the regulars, thirsty diehards of Soho, were pushed out into the street and left to their own devices. There were loopholes, of course: these licensing laws didn’t apply to private clubs, let alone private apartments. This prompted Muriel Belcher, a lesbian socialite, to open a private bar in a first floor flat she rented above an italian restaurant on Dean Street. It was to be open exactly when the pubs would close. This type of establishment became known in Soho after World War II as "afternoon drinking clubs”.

In the popular imagination, Soho is the very embodiment of all that is seedy and sensual, clandestine, illegal and brutally exhibitionist. This square-mile magic island has for generations attracted to its shores all kinds of shipwrecked refugees, sexual minorities and other outlandish types of undesirables - French Huguenots and Spanish Jews, italian anarchists and Marxist philosophers (including the eponymous Karl himself) have all happily co-existed alongside the peddlers of sleaze and neighbourhood nuns. The crowd of Soho habitues still treat it as a village, perambulating steadily between a few drinking establishments that have hardly changed since the 1950s. The Colony Room Club was in its time the most idiosyncratic of the holy alcoholic "trinity” of Soho - alongside with the French House and Gerry’s - especially in those days when the uncrowned king of Soho was Francis Bacon.

Right from the beginning, the Colony Room was shrouded in a romantic aura mainly because of the enigmatic personality of its founder, Muriel Belcher. After her death in 1979, her pale, raven-like features looked down on its drinkers from numerous photographs on the walls, dominating the room. (Belcher is the subject of several paintings, including "Seated Woman”, by Francis Bacon, which was sold at Sotheby’s in Paris in December, 2007 for € 13.7 million.) in her day, she was notorious for cutting short any cant utterance or snobbish gesture, and drowning the sacrificial tippler in a torrent of obscenities of such force that he or she often didn’t dare turn up again. Who would have thought that she grew up in a strict and solid household? Her father, of Jewish Portuguese extraction, was a prosperous impresario in Birmingham, the owner of the legendary Alexandra Theatre. That family background was totally forgotten when Muriel settled in London after the war, accompanied by her lesbian lover, a Jamaican named Carmel, whose colonial origins may have influenced the naming of the club The Colony. In those days Francis Bacon was neither rich nor famous. He made up for this shortcoming with a wide variety of rich and famous friends whom he introduced to the Colony, which got him free drinks in perpetuity.

My first guide to the world of Soho was James Birch, an art dealer and the owner at that time of an avant-garde gallery Birch & Conran in Dean Street, next door to the Colony Room. in 1988 James, with his uncanny gift for creating art events, managed to set up a major retrospective of Francis Bacon in Gorbachev’s Moscow (it was later followed by the retrospective of Gilbert and George, who were also fond of the Colony Room’s atmosphere). James had asked me for help in checking the Russian version of the catalogue, and when we met, he suggested that I interview Bacon for my weekly radio show "West End” on the BBC Russian Service.

The interview itself, conducted in the Marlborough Gallery, went not very well. Bacon began telling old stories about his fascination with Mayakovsky’s yellow cardigan and the proverbial nanny’s shouting mouth in Eisenstein’s "Battleship Potemkin” - the image that haunted him through a few paintings. But my question about the significance of the swastika in his "Crucifixion” Bacon perceived as a BBC political propaganda manoeuvre: an attempt to trap and push him, an arch-anarchist, into the camp of anti-Soviet right-wingers which would, in his view, damage the reception of his first art show in Russia. (In fact, Bacon, who had spent some time in Germany before the war, smuggled into his early paintings quite a few allusions to the atrocities of Nazism.) Was Bacon afraid, during the conversation with me, that my question implied that he was somewhat fond of Nazi paraphernalia? Libertarians are sometimes very censorious, if not paranoid.

All this didn’t - during our encounter - prevent Bacon from regularly re-filling my glass of whisky. To reassure Bacon that i was not an agent provocateur, i told him a few stories about my Moscow past and my emigre life in London. That cheered him considerably, and the tempo of the glass refilling was increased. He reciprocated with a whole set of tall tales of his adolescent years in ireland, amongst proverbial stable boys and under his father’s whip. Bacon - a migrant from ireland and an openly gay man when homosexuality was a crime in England - was fond of being seen as a social rebel and outcast, a foreigner of a kind.

It was not accidental, therefore, that the ironical dubbing of Bacon and his fellow artists from the Colony Room as "The School of London” (the nickname first used by Patrick Heron, a good friend of Bacon and a member of the artistic colony in St. Ives, Cornwall) was circulated in the famous manifestos by Ronald Kitaj. Kitaj, an American in London , a somewhat tragic figure who eventually committed suicide, interpreted his Jewishness as a symbol for the quintessential role of the artist in society - as perpetual pariah - a status he ascribed to the drinking companions who frequented the Colony. Amongst them, Lucian Freud was born in Vienna and Frank Auerbach in Berlin, Bacon was an irishman from Dublin, Kitaj was a native from Cleveland, Ohio, and Leon Kossoff’s parents were Russian Jews. But regardless of ethnic origins and disparate artistic styles, they were united in one thing: their fondness of drinking and talking.

Forty years on, when my interview with Bacon was finished, and the bottle of "Famous Grouse” done with, i was invited to join Bacon and Birch in the legendary green room on Dean Street. if Soho is an independent island the size of a square mile within London, the Colony Room was a separate republic of this island state, with its own laws, privileges and rituals, totems and taboos. Pretty much every drinker among Soho diehards had a story to tell about the Colony, although many have never been inside.

First, one had to find the entrance. The green door that leads to the Colony was squeezed between two nondescript restaurants (whose names and owners were constantly changing). This door opened onto a badly lit staircase, painted racing reen. Climb two breakneck flights of stairs that pose mortal danger to life and limb. Human anatomy has always played a major part in the Soho oral tradition. Every member of the colony knows by heart the story of Bacon’s fall down the stairs in the last throes of inebriation. Some stories say his eyeball popped out, but he shoved it back with a thumb. Others insist that it was not his eye but his nose that was put out of joint, but that he pushed it back into place with a single blow of his fist. He himself was so drunk that he couldn’t remember whether it was his eye, nose, or right ball. if you safely reached the top of the stairs, you would face, on the tiny landing, another green door. You opened it, and entered something very much like a theatre set, all painted green.

It looked like time had stood still here for generations. The bar room was crammed with dusty memorabilia, the walls plastered with photographs, old posters and pin-ups, framed newspaper cuttings referring to famous disturbances of the peace and public quarrels, old fan letters and postcards on the mantelpiece, pictures of "the inner circle” celebrating acts of outrageous behaviour, framed and unframed fragments of a glorious past - all of them like omens of a no-less exciting and scandalous future.

It was in the Colony Room that James Birch signed a contract with Bacon to set up his exhibition in Moscow. James heard about the Colony Room in his youth, straight from Francis Bacon, a friend of his parents. Bacon’s stories were so engrossing that James imagined the club to be an enormously spacious venue, populated by crowds of eccentric geniuses. When you entered the place you were quite shocked to discover how small the room was. The only other green door which, Birch thought, might lead to a bigger room turned out to be the toilet (which in later years was infrequently used for consuming illegal substances).

Verbal surrealism was part and parcel of the Colony Room mentality. One day in the 1970s, a wife of the former owner of Gerry’s club (a few doors down the same Dean Street) twisted her leg in a pot hole while crossing Shaftesbury Avenue. She put her leg up on the stool. it was bruised and swollen, purple in colour. Bacon came in, looked at her and said it was the most beautiful leg he had ever seen and later transferred its colours onto his canvases.

Such apocryphical anecdotes reflected his surreal attitude to art and life - but links with Surrealism were not limited to anecdotes and incidents. Bacon was brought to the Colony by Brian Howard, a surrealist poet, who was a friend of Nancy Cunard - a key figure in the surrealist movement in Britain, whose screening of “Un Chien Andalou” by Luis Bunuel in the nearby cinema in Soho created a public outrage. Later the Colony was firmly occupied by George Melly who was not only a blues singer but the chief British connoisseur of the history of French Surrealism. The main wall opposite the bar in the Colony was occupied by a huge painting by Michael Andrews, depicting the major protagonists of the School of London.

The history of the Colony Room is divided, roughly, into three parts, each one associated, like in the history of a kingdom, with a particular ruler of the place. The post-war years up to the late 1960s and early 1970s were dominated by Muriel Belcher’s personality, by the myth and cult surrounding Francis Bacon and his circle of lovers, partners and friends, mostly associated with the art world. Many of them, for some inexplicable reason, were discarded as friends or had been ostracised in conversation by Bacon, such as the legendary photographer John Deakin (whose photographs Bacon frequently used as the starting point for his portraits), a chronicler of Soho life who was ubiquitous in pubs and bars of the 1950s; another was the former television presenter Daniel Farson, a memoirist and historian who had become to Bacon what Boswell was to Dr. Johnson in the 18th century.

The atmosphere of the 1970s nourished on a diet of undercooked Marx and raw Freud marinated in vodka and whisky was epitomised by Jeffrey Bernard in his column in “Low Life”- “a suicide note delivered weekly” - in the “Spectator” magazine who recorded his daily descent into alcoholic stupour with wit and profundity. An episode in his life saga, when he fell asleep in the Coach & Horses and got accidentally i locked in, was immortalised in the play “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” by Keith Waterhouse, his friend and competitor in alcoholic consumption. Despite that all-night carousing, all these artists worked hard. Bacon was famous for his strict routine: he would get up at six in the morning, worked till midday and then would head from his cluttered studio in Kensington to Soho as if it was a religious duty, or like clocking in at the factory; lunch with friends was often in Wheeler’s restaurant, frequently on oysters and champagne (Bacon’s bar bills would on one occasion be settled by donation of a picture).

The character of the place changed with the death of Muriel and the rise to the Colony Room throne (a chair in the corner near the door outside the bar) of Ian Board, Muriel’s barman, protege and inheritor. The Colony Room was, and always has been, a bastion of political incorrectness. You had to learn there how to be immune to the verbal abuse of newcomers which was a kind of litmus test of your anarchist credentials. It was Bacon who, alongside Belcher, introduced certain mannerisms and patterns of speech that went on to dominate the mode of communication in this little space.

Francis called Muriel “mother”; she called him “daughter” and used the word “cunty” endearingly. The style of conversation here was always Rabelaisian on the subject of sex - a mixture of boyish rudeness, drunken witty banter, known amongst regulars as “extermination camp”. “You drop your inhibitions at the entrance,” was how Bacon tried to define the sense of freedom he felt each time he entered the Colony. The impression was that this green room had been for Bacon what the afterlife for those who believed in God might be. According to Farson, Bacon once said: “When I’m dead, put me into a plastic bag and throw it into the gutter.” (As if honouring this attitude to afterlife, the “Colonists” have never commemorated his sudden death - in his sleep - at the age of 82 which happened during a holiday in Spain in 1992.)

When I entered the green door for the first time 20 years ago and was introduced to Ian Board (whose nose looked shockingly like a rotten beetroot and was also an inspiration, no doubt, to the palette of Bacon), I was immediately greeted by him as “Miss Russia”. When a few days later someone, in attempt to imitate Ian, called me “Mr. Russia”; I had enough wit around me to reply that I had not yet had a sex operation. Everyone laughed and from that moment Ian stopped treating me as a stranger. With his grotesque proboscis and the foulness of his language he exceeded all limits of notoriety which were set up by Muriel; and yet, his bullying manners were a front for the kindest of hearts (only few in Soho knew that ian Board, despite his outward cynicism, was donating money to a children’s orphanage) and the child-like curiosity of his mind.

He was a clownish parody of his mentor Muriel Belcher. I, a professional foreigner and outsider, felt immediately at home. In this set-up of creative waste and wasteful creativity I recognised, to my own surprise, the semi-underground Moscow of my youth. Part of the undying charm of the place was that around the bar you could find a porn shop proprietor rubbing shoulders with a church charity fund organiser, a libertarian Tory happily mixed with Trotskyites and post-punk activists. Famous as you might have been, you were treated by Ian Board like the rest of the clientele. “It didn’t matter what kind of past you had, how famous you were. You leave your reputation at the door. That is, if you’re allowed inside,” says James.

The same “aristocratic egalitarianism” was preserved when Michael Wojas, Ian Board’s barman, inherited the Colony after Ian’s death in 1995. Himself a gifted artist and performer, Michael Wojas (whose parents were Polish immigrants) took care in making friends with the new generation of Sohoites. The Colony kept on attracting the artistic crowd - such as Tracey Emin, the Wilson sisters, Sam Taylor-Wood and Damien Hirst (who at the time when he was a technician at the Anthony d’Offay gallery was introduced to the Colony by the same James Birch), while Sarah Lucas once worked as a bartender here for a couple of months.

Later, the crowd was entertained by the stars of the art world serving in the Colony as barmen for an evening, for fun (“and it saved me some money, too”, Wojas said). A motley crowd of pop and jazz singers, eccentric dancers and outrageous performers followed. Could this be an example of what the art critic Matthew Collings, in his chronicle “Blimey” calls “retro-bohemianism”? All the Colony’s attributes, its epater la bourgeoisie poses - in philandering, boozing and swearing - have now been given a certain continuity.

Generations come and go but the biological species of the Colony Room Club membership has remained the same. Ever since the days of Muriel Belcher’s fierce reign, the Colony Room has upheld its shock-tactic tradition with newcomers, as if testing their moral rectitude and spiritual resistance by subjecting them to all manner of verbal abuse. It is the Soho version of Darwinism. Anarchists may be egalitarian, but even they have their own passport systems, hierarchical orders, and seats of privilege.

When Alexander Melamid, a co-founder of the Sots-Art movement and a friend of my youth, visited me in London for the first time, I took him to the Colony. That afternoon, the room was empty but for one young man who was standing at the bar, chatting with the barman, Michael Wojas. Michael introduced that drinker, already not entirely sober, as Damien Hirst. I introduced Alexander Melamid, mentioning, of course, Melamid’s famous brand - Sots-Art. “Socks-Art?” Mr. Hirst enquired, as if misheard the name. “I prefer Sucks-Art,” he quipped, finishing his drink and departing. An acute and cunning watcher of fashionable trends in modern art, he must have heard about the celebrated duo of Komar & Melamid who were at the apogee of their fame in New York at that time. But he arrogantly preferred to feign ignorance which was, as he understood, the exclusive mode of verbal exchange in the Colony.

Despite clear stylistic differences, it is difficult not to see the visual link between the generations of artists who were at the core of the so-called London School and those who came to the Colony Room half a century later and who became known as “Young British Artists”. There are distinctive signs that unite both generations: the existential obsession with death and world calamities, fascination not only with corrupted flesh - human bodies in the paintings of Bacon and Lucian Freud are like the animals in formaldehyde in Damian Hirst’s installations, or like Tracy Emin’s self-exposures and Sarah Lucas’ mock-erotic sculptures. And the magic realism of the squalidity of daily life in Britain - Kossoff’s painting of London’s seedy corners is echoed, for example, by depictions of “council housing estates” in Keith Coventry’s projects. (i mention only a few with whom I had an occasional drink in the Colony.)

Whoever they were - Jewish or Irish, Scottish or German, Turkish or American - they were bent on exposing a hidden layer of the shocking reality underneath the facade of respectability. But with the years, all these outrageous gestures had acquired a museum-like patina. It became almost obligatory to shock and fool an innocent newcomer.

The last, really outrageous, act of misbehaviour in the history of the Colony Room was again committed by a foreigner - by two of them, to be exact. i brought a couple of actionists - Alexander Brener, a Russian artist, and his partner Barbara Schurz, an Austrian - to the Colony’s Christmas party before the final closure of the club in 2008, after 60 years of its existence. This farewell vigil was more like a drinking binge than a wake but some people were really crying, embracing each other in brotherly sentimentality.

Suddenly, the drunken deafening noise in the tightly packed room was replaced by a dead silence. I looked around and to my horror I saw how Schurz dropped her silky trousers and, totally naked from her belly button down, climbed up on the mantelpiece in the centre of the room. Perching there precariously, she bent her knees and started peeing into a glass, deftly positioned between her legs by her husband Brener.
The public gasped, then booed and then cornered the couple, ready to physically attack them. Brener and Schurz departed in haste and i, drunk and angry, spoke to the crowd, saying that the colony was once an epitome for everything outrageous - a bastion of tolerance for everything which looked unacceptable to the eyes of the bourgeoisie - in the arts as well as in life. The crowd’s reaction to Brener’s and Schurz’s outrageous act was really a farewell boo to everything that this club stood for and a clear sign that time was up for the Colony. The green door shut behind me forever.

We now have to move to another room.

Illustrations

Francis BACON. Head of a Woman. 1960. © The Estate of Francis Bacon
Francis BACON. Head of a Woman. 1960.
Oil on сanvas. 84 × 67.5 cm. Private Collection.
© The Estate of Francis Bacon
John DEAKIN. Colony Room members at lunch at Wheeler’s restaurant in Soho
John DEAKIN. Colony Room members at lunch at Wheeler’s restaurant in Soho.
From left: Tony Bevin, the artists Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews.
Photograph The John Deakin estate
John DEAKIN. Francis Bacon, on the street outside the Colony Room
John DEAKIN. Francis Bacon, on the street outside the Colony Room.
Photograph. The John Deakin estate
Francis BACON. Seated Woman. 1961. © The Estate of Francis Bacon
Francis BACON. Seated Woman. 1961
Oil on canvas. 165 × 142 cm.
© The Estate of Francis Bacon
Nick Rogers. Photo: Ian Board. Michael Wojas' archives
Nick Rogers. Photo: Ian Board. Michael Wojas' archives
James Birch with Zinovy Zinik at the Colony Room
James Birch with Zinovy Zinik at the Colony Room. From Zinovy Zinik’s personal archives
 
Francis BACON. Study for the Nurse in the film “The Battleship Potemkin”. 1957. © The Estate of Francis Bacon
Francis BACON. Study for the Nurse in the film “The Battleship Potemkin”. 1957
Oil on сanvas. 198 × 142 cm. Private Collection (Madame Boulois, Paris) Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt am Main
© The Estate of Francis Bacon
John DEAKIN. Muriel Belcher, in a photograph Francis Bacon used for a portrait of her
John DEAKIN. Muriel Belcher, in a photograph Francis Bacon used for a portrait of her
Photograph The John Deakin estate
Francis BACON. Study for Portrait. 1971. © The Estate of Francis Bacon
Francis BACON. Study for Portrait. 1971
Oil on canvas. 198 × 147.5 cm. Private collection. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates
© The Estate of Francis Bacon
 
Michael ANDREWS. The Colony Room I. 1962
Michael ANDREWS. The Colony Room I. 1962
Oil on canvas. The estate of Michael Andrews Regulars of the Colony Room (from left): Jeffrey Bernard, journalist and legendary roue; photographer and chronicler of the Colony, John Deakin; Henrietta Moraes, in her time a model for Francis Bacon; Bruce Bernard, photographer; hostess Muriel Belcher, with Lucian Freud. In front of Belcher is Francis Bacon, behind him Muriel’s friend Carmel. Between them is the barman, Ian Board, Belcher’s successor at the Colony from 1979 to 1995

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