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Visual arts: Tales from the Colony Room: Art and Bohemia

23 October 2020

Susan Gray visits an exhibition about the Colony Club members

© Frank Auerbach. Courtesy of the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art

Building Site Study (undated) by Frank Auerbach

Building Site Study (undated) by Frank Auerbach

SET on a pretty street just north of Hyde Park, with immaculately turned-out riders and horses filing past to the neighbouring stables, Dellasposa seems an unlikely venue to commemorate an infamous Soho drinking den. But step inside, and Tales from the Colony Room, curated by the artist and author Darren Coffield, instantly comes to life with the sombre-shaded paintings of Jankel Adler, Frank Auerbach, and F. N. Souza evoking the meagre years after the Second World War. Founded in 1947 by its acid- tongued landlady Muriel Belcher, with moral support from Francis Bacon, the Colony Rooms provided succour to the leading figures in post-war British art.

Auerbach’s Building Site Study (undated) drawing, with its stooped hod-carrier in black in the foreground, and strong black vertical axis against a sketchy, unformed background, reveals a London materially battered to its knees by the Blitz and wartime shortages and tentatively trying to stand again. Having worked with Paul Klee in Germany and Picasso in Paris, Adler was considered a driving force of modernism and was treated with great reverence by other Colony members. His work was displayed by the Nazis in the 1937 Munich exhibition of “degenerate art”.

After service in the Free Polish Army, Adler took refuge, first, in Glasgow, arriving in London in 1943 and befriending Kurt Schwitters. It was only after the war that Adler discovered that all nine of his siblings had perished in the camps and ghettoes. He died in 1949. In Adler’s undated Still Life with a Candlestick, oil painted on board, the primary-coloured fruit and flowers seem to be in a duel with the gloomy tones of the background, as if flourishing and nurture are not things that can ever be taken for granted.

Educated in Roman Catholic schools, the Goan painter Souza was the first internationally renowned artist of post-independence India. His 1962 portrait of the Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be playwright Frank Norman reduces the former Barnardo’s boy to series of planes, lightly reassembled to make a whole figure.

© the estate of Francis bacon. Courtesy of Marlborough GraphicsFrancis Bacon, Triptych 1972 (1979), lithograph

Coffield has planned “Tales from the Colony Room” to be roughly chronological. The works at the beginning emphasise how the club’s early members had unflinchingly looked at the horrors of the war, and, rather than turn the other way or bury their trauma, chose at great personal psychological cost to create art. It is small wonder that conventions about sexuality, censorship, and when you could and could not buy a drink were treated as relics from another world that had been destroyed in a fireball.

Francis Bacon was the artist most closely associated with the Colony Room and Soho, and his Triptych August 1972 (1979) lithographs relate to one of his so-called “black triptych” paintings (Tate Gallery) that reflected his outlook in the aftermath of the suicide of his lover, George Dyer. The seated and crouching amorphous figure, perpetually on the brink of being engulfed by the black rectangle behind, also naturally brings to mind Bacon’s pope triptychs and portraits.

As art historian and Bacon’s friend and biographer, Michael Peppiatt, underlined: “Bacon’s Popes are not only the centerpiece of all his paintings in the 1950s, but a centerpiece of the whole of twentieth-century art.” Popes were Bacon’s subject for more than 20 years after he first appropriated Velázquez’s 1650 Portrait of Pope Innocent X as his starting-point archetype.

© the estate of lucian freud. Courtesy of Marlborough GraphicsLucian Freud, Head of Bruce Bernard (1985), etching on paper

The lawyer-turned-artist Craigie Aitchison was similarly inspired (although he recoiled at the word) by seeing Salvador Dalíi’s Christ of St John of the Cross in 1951, when it was acquired by the Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow. Aitchison’s screenprint Crucifixion with Dog (2005) shows a naïvely rendered Christ, ramrod straight arms melding into the cross, against a summer blue evening sky where huge symbolic stars start to emerge. The titular dog is based on Aitchison’s own pet Bedlington terrier. Aitchison gave as his reason for continually returning to the theme of the crucifixion that nothing more significant had happened before or since.

Aitchison’s bright colourist palette marks a turning-point from the muted hues of the earlier expressionist works, and leads towards the younger artists exhibited on the shrine-like back wall. Coffield’s acrylic portrait of Molly Parkin (2010), resplendent in towering purple turban and fur-trimmed, royal-blue cloak, draws the eye. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Handbag, an old fashioned handbag filled with concrete pebbles, is similarly arresting. When Coffield was a 1980s art-student member of the Colony, the barman Ian Bord’s enquiry “How’s your handbag?” was code for: did he have enough money to get home safely?

© colony archive. Courtesy of Darren CoffieldMuriel Belcher (front, second from right) and Colony Club members in its early years

On the way downstairs to the photographs, a film poster for Danny La Rue, in full drag, starring in Our Miss Fred, alongside Alfred Marks and Lance Percival, marks a point where memory and history merge and are hard to prise apart. In hindsight, the camp and saucy 1970s look anything but innocent. La Rue was a devout Roman Catholic, and on tour always sent lilies for Our Lady to the nearest church.

Photographers exhibited include John Deakin, whose drinking and ability to lose plum jobs, including one at Vogue, feature prominently in any account of the Colony Room. Also shown are Daniel Farson, Bruce Bernard, and Michael Wood. Subjects include Frank Norman, with his knife-scarred cheek, an ebullient George Melly, multiple Bacons, and a healthy-looking Jeffrey Bernard.

Coffield has made great strides to include the women who shaped the Colony Room’s early days, including Sonia Orwell — who supported writers, notably Jean Rhys — and Isabel Rawsthorn, sculpted by Jacob Epstein. Next year, Rawsthorne will move further out of the muse shadows with a book celebrating both her work as a black propagandist for the Political Warfare Executive, and her art. The memory lane leading from the Colony Club is only set to grow broader and deeper with passing years.


“Tales from the Colony Room: Art and Bohemia” is at Dellasposa, 2A Bathurst Street, London W2, until 20 December. Phone 020 3286 1017. Viewings must be booked in advance, and this can be done online. www.dellasposa.com

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