Tag Archives: the colony room



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.



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.”