Words & Photography Robert Chilcott
“It was late afternoon. The place was freezing. Six or seven older men in overcoats were barking insults at each other. Suddenly the place went silent. One of the men looked at me and said “I like your face, would you care for some champagne?”
Mark O’Rourke was 19 or 20 when he found it “I stumbled up the stairs and poked my head in – there were three, maybe four faces, one behind the bar, with the daylight haze coming through the afternoon light. There was a beauty and a fear, all very palpable. I ran away immediately, and it was quite some time before I went back”. Michael Peel went there the first couple of times with Jeffrey Bernard, and remembers, in 1979, “…this little wizened woman sitting on what I came to know as the ‘perch’, looking up at me and saying “Hello, you fat cunt. Who are you? Twiggy?”. I believe it was the last time Muriel was ever in the Club – she died a few weeks later. The nickname stuck… Indeed, very few people in Soho knew my real name until 2008″. Sophie Parkin was taken there by mum Molly when she was 14 “Francis Bacon gave me champagne and I kept my mouth shut”.
Poet Brian Patten once described the venue as “a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other”. The Colony Room opened its doors at 41 Dean Street in 1948, founded by Muriel Belcher, as a private members bar with an afternoon licence. Attracting a social mix gelled together by drink, it was a refuge for resting actors and rent boys, and over its 60 year history its clientele included Lucien Freud, Peter O’ Toole, George Melly, Tom Baker, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
The walls of The Colony may have been painted in luminous projectile absinthe vomit. “A perfect finishing touch from the Green Fairy”, says Jupiter John. “I thought that this is how Dorothy must have felt when entering the City of Oz. It was a wonderful combination of the inebriate intelligentsia – artists, jesters and fools. Royalty and criminals, prostitutes and movie stars, market stall holders, shysters, transvestites and used dwarf salesmen.”
No-one could decide themselves to become a member. Darren Coffield was a student at the Slade School of Art when he first went there with Joshua Compston in 1988. “Most of my tutors had been abused and thrown out by Ian Board, they couldn’t quite believe I had successfully become a member. Ian took me under his wing and would often ask at the end of the evening “How’s your handbag dear?”, meaning are you going to be okay getting home or do you need money for a taxi. Francis Bacon was arguably the clubs most famous patron, and would do a daily morning stint at the canvas before coming out to lunch. Recalls Peel “He actually drank somewhat less than most realised. He tipped a lot of champagne on the floor by always holding his glass at an angle. He was very shrewd”.
Most artists like to drink heavily, and a lot of the younger artists went there because of Bacon. Coffield agrees “As an artist you have to feed on the painters that have gone before you, so you might as well feast on the best, of which I would regard the painters of the Colony to have been the greatest post-war figurative artists of the 20th century. Alcohol is one of the few intoxicating substances you can take and still produce visual work of a reasonable standard. Bacon would often paint whilst drunk, or with very bad hangovers. The problem getting intoxicated with other substances is that critical faculties are impaired by drugs but not necessarily obliterated by drink.”
John Hurt recently stated that “People go out today with the intention of getting smashed. We hated binge drinkers. They were boring and if you slipped into it, you’d be told to pull yourself together. We wanted to seek, to find, to be interested, heighten awareness, talk.” Coffield suggests the rot set in earlier “Hurt is partly right but I think he might be slightly over romanticising it. The great shame about Soho was in the late 1990’s it was completely taken over by the Brit Pop and YBA crowd, who flooded the area with cocaine. They were far more interested in ruthless self promotion and what they could get up their nose rather than pour down their throat. Drugs killed the conversation. People ranting high on drugs are never witty and make poor listeners.”
The Colony closed in 2008, amidst a characteristically unpleasant narrative of pro and anti Michael Wojas factions and a campaign fronted by dandy Sebastian Horsley. Considering Soho’s fate in 2015, did it just see the warning signs and bow out early? Peel disagrees “No way. It was a major beacon of the old Soho and its closure, at least for many of its older members, was the start of Soho’s decline”. Jupiter argues “It’s time was up because its lease was up. Nobody would have willingly given up the Colony. Those green eyes put up a fight but bowed out in funeral black”.
“Michael Wojas was a very astute man so probably yes” suggests Coffield “But no one else saw the warning signs and his decision to close the club ultimately cost him his name and reputation in some circles.” Peel continues “Wojas took it upon himself to close it – I suspect mainly to avoid too many questions about what had been going on and why the books hadn’t been done for several years. Cheques were being cashed fraudulently, Wojas was faking the Treasurer’s signature – presumably to fuel his rampant drug habits. Sebastian, Ian Freeman, Hamish McAlpine and others fought to keep it going. I sort of initiated and ‘led’ this but tried to keep in the background to avoid personality clashes with Wojas – so Ian & Sebastian were the face of the Save the Colony campaign. For Coffield “If the Club relied on the money Horsley put across the bar it would have shut down almost a decade earlier! Wojas had the lineage, through Ian Board to Muriel Belcher. The club could have probably been saved but it would have been a pale shadow of its former self without Wojas. He really had no heir apparent anyway to pass the club on to.”
Parkin simply states that “…It wasn’t up to Sebastian (who died of an overdose, poetically, on the day of Wojas’ funeral). The leaseholder didn’t want it to be a club. He wanted to get rid of the hassle and sell it off as flats”. Jupiter sees it all as merely a sign of the times “There is a callous disregard for London’s history. Damien Hirst could have stepped in, but he had sobered up by then so the Devon surf was more his brew”. Others are more pragmatic about its demise. O’Rourke surmises that “Saving it would arguably have meant turning it into some kind of museum showcase. The fundamental reason for its existence was drinking and working around the licensing laws! Now you can go into any supermarket and buy booze anytime and get sick in the gutter as you see fit. We are all in the gutter. The Colony was many clubs to many people, that was its great power. It was, in a sense, another England, one which the establishment was actually quite threatened by. Why would you save something that shows you an alternative when all you want is straight lines.”