Darren Coffield on Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia
British painter and author Darren Coffield has exhibited widely in the company of leading artists such as Damien Hirst, Howard Hodgkin, Patrick Caulfield and Gilbert and George, at venues ranging from the Courtauld Institute, Somerset House to Voloshin Museum, Crimea. His new book, Tales from the Colony Room, is an authorized history of one of London’s most infamous arts establishment, the Colony Room Club in Soho, published to coincide with the tenth anniversary of its closure.
A hair-raising romp through the underbelly of the post-war scene during its sixty-year history of romance, death, horrors and sex scandals, Coffield’s oral history of London’s most notorious drinking den draws on his experience as a member of the Colony Room for over 20 years. The Club was home to the artistic circle of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, as well as Frank Auerbach, Clive Barker and Peter Blake, among others. The book contains previously unpublished and long-lost interviews with the characters who were central to the scene, from Bacon to Damien Hurst.
I caught up with Coffield to find out more about The Colony, the cultural significance of its artistic circle and the history of Soho’s lost Bohemia.
The Colony is renowned as a Bohemian Soho drinking den. Who started the Colony and who went there?
The club was dominated, indeed created, by two personalities – its owner and founder, Muriel Belcher, who opened the Colony Room in 1948, and the artist Francis Bacon, who was one of her first customers. In the book, we witness these future legends gravitating together and coming of age with their circle of friends, such as John Deakin, Lucian Freud, Daniel Farson, Frank Norman and Jeffrey Bernard. It’s a story of being adrift in a world of fractious friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire, deep in the heart of Soho.
As a young art student during this time, what was its appeal and how did you come to first visit the Colony?
I arrived there in the 1980s with my former sparring partner, the artist Joshua Compston. I had read about the club in a book of Francis Bacon interviews, Brutality of Fact. Most of my tutors were astonished and horrified as they had all been abused and thrown out by the then proprietor and former barman, Ian Board, who ruled the club with a rod of iron – like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Hitler. Fortunately for me, it was Ian himself who took me under his wing and made me a member.
What inspired you to write the book, and explain how the format works?
Before his early demise in 2010, Michael Wojas (the Club’s last owner) gave me some tapes, which contained interviews with old club members. A few years later, it occurred to me that an oral biography and interview format would work with a book on the Colony Room Club. I tracked down and interviewed many members, from its opening in 1948 to its closure in 2008.
The Club was at the top of a grubby staircase on Soho’s Dean Street. What was it like inside?
Pushing open the club’s heavy green door felt like a clandestine act in itself. The Club was tiny, the size of a small living room, decorated in a melancholic green, with a bar at one end and a single unisex toilet at the other. Like so many before me, I felt completely at home, washed up on the shore of a luscious green bohemian paradise.
Why were so many extraordinary artists attracted to a drinking club?
Well, alcohol is one of the few intoxicating substances you can take and continue to produce work of a reasonable standard while still having some control over it. In other words, their critical faculties would be impaired by drugs but not necessarily obliterated by drink. Bacon experimented with painting whilst drunk or with very bad hangovers. He would say, “I find the worse the hangover the more the mind seems to crackle with energy.”
The Colony attracted people from all branches of the arts, and of life, but was best known as an artists’ haunt. Why was this?
Bacon was the draw for the younger generation, such as Michael Clark, Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, who in the seventies, eighties and nineties beat a path to the Colony. As an artist you have to feed on those that have gone before you, so you might as well feast on the best, and the artists of the Colony were the greatest post-war figurative painters of the twentieth century. Many other well-known artists drank in the club including Craigie Aitchison, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Clive Barker, Peter Blake, Edward Burra, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Patrick Caulfield, Barry Flanagan, Lucian Freud, Alberto Giacometti, Nina Hamnett, Augustus John. The list goes on and on.
The Colony was famous for not tolerating ‘bores’, but how did it continue long after the introduction of all-day opening for bars in 1988?
The Colony was not just a bar, but also an artistic support centre, psychiatrist’s couch, unemployment bureau and marriage guidance centre (‘It will all end in tears, dear!’). The members came and behaved as a wayward family. They drank, caroused, gossiped and entertained one another with their anecdotes. They were empathetic to one another and would help each other out. If you really want to know what it was like to be there, pour yourself a large drink, imagine you are perched on a stool at the end of the bar eavesdropping in, and read my book.
Interview by Clive Jennings.
Darren Coffield lives and works in London and is the author of Factual Nonsense: The Art and Death of Joshua Compston.
For more information and to buy Tales from the Colony Room, visit Unbound’s website.
For more on Soho’s lost Bohemia, read Mother of Darkness author Venetia Welby’s contribution to The London Magazine’s long-standing series, My London.
For works form our archive and for original issues from The London Magazine back catalogue, discover our Legacy Issues from 1954 onwards.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.