Words Darren Hawes
Illustrations Ross Becker
“I’ve always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that is horrific.”
Famed for work that often reflected the human spirit’s boundless capacity for self-destruction, Francis Bacon’s relationship with Soho was an important and appropriate one. And nothing better exemplifies the artist’s love of the aesthetic and desire to capture the human in motion than the time he spent at Muriel Belcher’s The Colony Room at 41 Dean Street. But how did Bacon come to frequent this exclusive establishment that also played host to the likes of Jeffrey Bernard and Peter O’Toole? Well, the simple answer is this; he was the owner’s “daughter”.
But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Although he was born in Dublin, Bacon’s family relocated to London in 1914 to accommodate his father’s work with the Territorial Force Records Office. Bacon later attributed the strong references to violence in his work to this early experience of war, saying that: “I was brought to London during the war and spent quite a lot of time there, because my father was in the War Office then, and I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger even at a very young age.” Danger would follow him back home after the war as well: “I went back to Ireland and was brought up during the Sinn Fein movement.” As an artist who saw painting as a way of reporting on the human condition, Bacon wasn’t surprised that some saw his work as being full of horrors. He “always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that is horrific.”
The inter-war years saw Bacon travelling, from Dublin to London, from Paris to Berlin. The primary cause of this vagrancy was his sexuality. In 1926, Captain Anthony Edward Mortimer Bacon walked in on his son to witness the 15 year old modelling his mother’s underwear in front of a mirror. That was the final straw, and efforts were made to ‘make a man’ of young Francis, including farming him out to family friend Harcourt-Smith. Suffice to say, the two men spent their time sharing a double bed at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin – hardly the life lessons his father had in mind. “’We settled in Berlin for a time, it must have been 1926, and by way of education I found myself in the atmosphere of the Blue Angel.” The reference to the 1930 German film conjures up images of sexual promiscuity, decadence and punishment. After spending two months in Berlin, Francis decided to head to Paris. Harcourt-Smith had by now “grown tired” of him and “went off with a woman”. It was in France that Francis began to discover his true flair for painting; learning from masters such as Valazquez and Poussin, he began developing his own distinctly modern style out of a classical technique.
After a year and a half, he returned to London and set up a studio to work in. Unfortunately, prosperity did not follow – not least because World War II broke out not long after. The resourceful Bacon, however, had a trick up his sleeve to deal with this distraction: when conscription became mandatory, he borrowed a dog from Harrods and slept beside it for a night. Bacon suffered from asthma. Suffice to say, the dog hair worked wonders on ruining his health, and when it came time for his medical, he was in no fit state to fight for King and country. Instead, London in wartime became for him what he called a “sexual gymnasium”– blackouts provided particularly useful cover for him to engage in taboo acts; “Yes, and married men too,” he would joke.
And so we come to 1948 and the birth of a private members’ club in the heart of Soho, created mostly as a way to avoid strict licensing laws. Green was the colour chosen for the walls, an inspiration arising from that most potent beverage – the devil in a bottle – absinth. To enter into the tiny attic room you first had to climb a staircase lined with putrid bins. On the opening day of this less-than-esteemed establishment, Francis was to instantaneously become a permanent member. Muriel Belcher did not care for art, but she liked artists, mostly because they are usually last people who want to talk about art when trying to relax. It helped that Francis had some links with fame and fortune too. Muriel paid Francis £10 a week for him to “bring people you like”, and he would often spend £10 a week on the bar bill. Although free drinks were involved in his Colony Room ‘pay packet’, he was a strong advocate of picking up the tab: “real pain for sham friends,” he would announce, “and champagne for real friends.”
The clientele Bacon attracted to the Colony came in the form of other personalities from the art world; the most important of these were Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Tim Behrens, a group that very soon became known as ‘Muriel’s boys’. She had a way with names: ‘cunts’ were those she disliked, those she liked were given the sobriquet of ‘cunty’, those she really liked were ‘Marys’; but only one received the highest honour, and this was reserved for Francis, for he was Muriel’s ‘Daughter’. In return, Muriel was honoured to be the subject of three portraits by Francis: his Three Studies for a portrait of Muriel Belcher. She was a woman of such complexity that her multiple personality traits demanded to be represented in multiple ways.
All was not as it seemed however, and Francis Bacon did not always find comfort and solitude as centre of attention at the Colony. His friend Daniel Farson remembers clues that betrayed the tortured soul of the artist: “When he wandered off to the lavatory with his glass in his hand as if he could not bear to part with it, when he threw the contents away; he drank less while filling the glasses of those around him.” Other times, a discomfort with his self-made notoriety was expressed in more destructive forms. “An artist… came into the Colony one afternoon to present the club with his latest painting, which was still wet. This generous gesture was accepted politely until Francis made his entrance. He shook his bottle of champagne, aiming it at the picture, whose colours dissolved into an even more frightful mess than it was in the first place.” Of course this did not distract from a sometimes charitable and supportive side. “One afternoon an art student naively showed him a leaflet he had produced. Francis asked if he could buy a copy, adding that he would be grateful if the young man would sign it for him.”
Of the numerous private members clubs that sprouted in Soho after the wars, Muriel’s was different, and this is due in no small part to Francis Bacon. It was a place for those who identified as misfits, outsiders. With a lesbian proprietor and openly homosexual founding member, the Colony Room provided a safe space for those who wanted to remove themselves, even for a short time, from the norms of society and spotlight of modern celebrity – a true escape from the horrors of the world reflected in Francis’s art. It has been almost four decades since Muriel Belcher passed away, almost 25 since the death of Francis Bacon, and, despite outliving its founders, the Colony Room finally shut its doors in 2008. But the spirit of freedom from societal oppression can still be found in the nooks and crannies of Soho. The flame of decadence still burns, and sexuality is, if anything, more fluid and openly expressed than ever before. When Bacon shuffled off this mortal coil and the Colony Room closed its doors, it wasn’t the end of the flamboyance they had distilled: Francis and Muriel had shared it around in all its rawness, and their values – once hidden – have become values still to be found in Soho to this day.