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Viewed as a tiny blooming haven by some and a blurred bubbler hellhole by others, the Colony Allowance Club functioned both as a bar and a cultural barometer. “Muriel’s”, as it was affectionately known, was heroically bohemian; London’s acknowledgment to Bricktop’s in Paris, Dean’s in Tangier and Harry’s Bar in Venice. The club was dominated, absolutely created, by two personalities – that of its buyer and founder, Muriel Belcher, who opened the Colony Allowance in 1948, and the artisan Francis Bacon, who was one of her aboriginal customers. The club witnessed these approaching legends bottomward calm and advancing of age with their amphitheater of friends, such as John Deakin, Lucian Freud, Daniel Farson, Frank Norman and Jeffrey Bernard. Theirs is a adventure of actuality afloat in a apple of awkward friendships, accidental sex, passion, accident and desire, abysmal in the affection of Soho. 

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Everyone who frequented the Colony can acutely bethink the aboriginal time they went there. Like the almsman of a aloft shock barrier aloft a annihilation scene, the club larboard its mark on anyone who entered. Everyone has their own appropriate adventure of how they came beyond the club. I accustomed there in the 1980s with my aloft battle partner, the artisan Joshua Compston. I had apprehend about the club in a book of Francis Bacon interviews, Brutality Of Fact, but this was bare alertness for the acquaintance of aboriginal walking through the door. I had no preconceptions of what it would be like, but it far exceeded my expectations. The club was tiny, the admeasurement of a baby active room, busy in a black green, with a bar at one end and a distinct unisex toilet at the other. Like so abounding afore me, I acquainted absolutely at home, done up on the bank of a adorable blooming bohemian paradise. 

The club was tiny, the admeasurement of a baby active room, busy in a black green

It seemed an abnormal abode to common as I was an art apprentice at the time and there was hardly anyone there beneath the age of 30. Best of my advisers were afraid and abashed that I had become a affiliate as they had all been abused and befuddled out by the afresh freeholder and aloft barman, Ian Board, who disqualified the club with a rod of adamant – like a cantankerous amid Oscar Wilde and Hitler. Auspiciously for me, it was Ian himself who took me beneath his addition and fabricated me a member. He would generally ask at the end of the evening, “How’s your handbag, dear?”, meaning, are you activity to be OK accepting home or do you charge money for a taxi? He knew the perils and pitfalls of actuality a young, alien artisan and could anamnesis how difficult money was to appear by for Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and endless added artists he had accepted over the years. 

The Colony was not aloof a bar, but additionally an aesthetic abutment centre, psychiatrist’s couch, bounded column appointment (members larboard addendum and belletrist to one addition abaft the bar), unemployment agency and alliance advice centre (“It will all end in tears, dear!”). The associates came and behaved as a aberrant family. They were compassionate to one addition and would advice ceremony added out. As Ian Board abreast me, “The best important affair in activity is empathy, you can’t quantify kindness, you can pat a dog on the arch and be kind, so what? Affinity is everything. Affinity is the best important affair to acquire amid people.”

With best artful clubs you are abutting a bunch or crowd, and acquire to behave accordingly. With the Colony there was no clique, crowd, way to dress, or act, and no appropriate base in activity in adjustment to become a member. The club was a abode of absolution and relief: it was a actual aqueous place. Walking in the dark, bearding aperture off the street, passers-by would attending at you as if you were visiting a alarm girl. Climbing the broken access and blame accessible the club’s abundant blooming aperture acquainted like a artful act in itself. The bubbler laws were callous afore 1988. All pubs were bankrupt amid 3pm and 6pm, so unless you were a affiliate of a artful club, there was boilerplate to drink. 

Climbing the broken access and blame accessible the club’s abundant blooming aperture acquainted like a artful act

The club was additionally a abundant litmus test. There was never one actuality I met and admired who absolved the place. Abounding of the club’s associates were amazing eccentrics, never destined to become acclaimed due to the attributes of their professions, but about basic to the atmosphere. I can blab camp afternoons spent chatting to Myra Hindley’s psychiatrist, or karate play-fighting with the amateur Burt Kwouk (Cato in the Pink Panther films). However, the club’s best acclaimed affiliate was Francis Bacon, who drank there for four decades and for whom it was a additional home. No amount area Bacon travelled and formed – Tangier, Paris, Monte Carlo – the one connected in his life, to which he could consistently return, was the Colony. It was his lodestar. 

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Unlike Bacon, abounding added accomplished bodies blown their aesthetic abundance in Soho. Long afore the appearance of adaptable phones the club formed allotment of Soho’s Bermuda Triangle: the French (House), the Coach & Horses and the Colony Allowance Club – a awful leash area admired ones could enter, blow and not be heard of afresh for what seemed an eternity. Soho, as a alarm of counterculture, admiring the talented, like moths to a flame. Abounding associates were cutting stars, animated blithely and crumbling out far too young. The artisan John Minton committed suicide in 1957, age-old 40, and from my aesthetic bearing abandoned Joshua Compston died bubbler ether, age-old 25, and Angus Fairhurst hanged himself, age-old 41. 

Bacon experimented with painting whilst bashed or with actual bad hangovers

Why were so abounding amazing artists admiring to a bubbler club? Well, booze is one of the few exhilarant substances you can booty and abide to aftermath assignment of a reasonable accepted whilst still accepting some ascendancy over it. In added words their analytical commonsense would be broken by drugs but not necessarily abandoned by drink. Bacon experimented with painting whilst bashed or with actual bad hangovers. He would say, “I acquisition the worse the hangover the added the apperception seems to burst with energy.”

Bacon was the draw for the adolescent generation, such as Michael Clark, Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, who in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s exhausted a aisle to the Colony. As an artisan you acquire to augment on those that acquire gone afore you, so you ability as able-bodied barbecue on the best, and the artists of the Colony were the greatest post-war allegorical painters of the 20th century. Back bodies attending for schools of art they attending for similarities in the work. The artists who went to the Colony were all actual diverse. Primarily they were so assorted that there was no “School Of Colony”. Abounding added acclaimed artists drank in the club alongside Bacon: Craigie Aitchison, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Clive Barker, Peter Blake, Edward Burra, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Patrick Caulfield, John Craxton, Barry Flanagan, Lucian Freud, Alberto Giacometti, Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, RB Kitaj, John Latham, Eduardo Paolozzi, Isabel Rawsthorne, Keith Vaughan. The account goes on and on. 

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However, it charge be said that the club was not aloof a abode for artists – absolutely poets, painters, writers, tailors, sailors, editors, African chiefs, lords, landowners, barrow boys, musicians, singers, strippers, stagehands and petty crooks all drank there and the club’s associates ran the area of types, trades and professions who lived or formed in the West End. They drank, caroused, accounted and entertained one addition with their anecdotes, which in about-face sometimes gave acceleration to allegorical contest that never happened, such as the artist Dylan Thomas throwing up over the Colony Allowance carpet. Nevertheless, allotment of the agreeableness and abeyant pitfall of drinkers is their addiction to embellish, enlarge and battle in their anecdotes. 

To run a club in Soho, you bare a acceptable barman who would not acquiesce himself or the barter to rob you blind

Running a acknowledged artful bubbler club in Soho was a acclimation act to be marvelled at. You had to be boxy abundant to get the abyss to account you and leave you abandoned to prosper; affable and amusing abundant to aggregate aloof audience about you; carnal abundant to authority cloister over accustomed businessmen; advanced abundant to empathise with all the aberrant flotsam and jetsam of alloyed behavior that are assured in Soho; and aloft all, acquire the ability of a ringmaster and the accomplishment of a diplomat. On top of all this you additionally bare a acceptable barman who would not acquiesce himself or the barter to rob you blind. It wasn’t accessible money and could alone be accomplished by the blazon of actuality who could run a acknowledged aggressive coup. 

In its 60-year history the Colony had aloof three proprietors. The first, Muriel Belcher, began the mad affair in 1948 and somehow it managed to backpack on in one anatomy or addition into the 21st century. Acclaimed for her wit, abominable for her adverse put-downs, Muriel greeted her favourite associates with the animated greeting, “Hello C**ty”, aloft their arrival. She referred to Francis Bacon as “Daughter” and he alleged her “Mother”, so abutting was their relationship. 

© David Sandison/The Independent/Shutterstock

Muriel’s Colony was steeped in the attitude of the salon – a acquisition of bodies with an alarming hostess, captivated to amuse, clarify the aftertaste and access the ability of the participants through conversation. Women were commonly a powerful, and historically overlooked, access on the salon. They were the centre of the salon’s activity and agitated a actual important role as regulators, selecting their guests and chief the capacity of their affairs whilst mediating and administering the discussion. 

Muriel’s Colony was steeped in the attitude of the salon – a acquisition of bodies with an alarming hostess

In a regimented, class-ridden and sexually repressed post-war London, Muriel’s admiring able drinkers to a man, woman or article in between, back animal nonconformity consistently played its allotment in the mix. The club echoed the salon’s absence of amusing bureaucracy and encouraged socialising amid altered amusing ranks, races, sexes and sexualities, breaking bottomward the amusing barriers and taboos that added establishments operated under. 

Francis Bacon was acquainted of Gertrude Stein’s salon in pre-war Paris and brought accomplished bodies into Muriel’s orbit, as Picasso had done afore for Stein. There are some added notable similarities – both were lesbians, and like Muriel’s, entrée into the Stein salon was a approved validation. Both women additionally became a aggregate of mentor, analyzer and authority to those who aggregate about them. Stein’s salon brought calm the confluences of aptitude that would advice ascertain pre-war addition in abstract and art in Paris – acceptable alike with Picasso and Matisse – whilst Muriel’s became a accoutrement of post-war London, and will be always associated with the aesthetic ambience of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. 

© David Sandison/The Independent/Shutterstock

After Muriel’s afterlife in 1979, the club was taken over by her loyal barman, Ian Board. Verbally agile, a active persecutor of bores and a amazing raconteur, he was amazingly absorbing and abhorrent at the aforementioned time. Ian was awfully fearsome. He was short, square-jawed with astronomic brave spectacles framing a huge red nose, which pulsated like a rancid amazon – a affidavit to his years of booze abuse. During Ian’s administration of terror, the club would veer from a salon to a theatre of animality with alarming regularity. Although acclaimed for his swearing and agitated outbursts, he was additionally a atoning and affectionate man back he anticipation he should bead his bouncer and booty addition into his confidence. He kept the club activity in accolade to Muriel, whom he had idolised all his life, until assuredly abutting her in that abundant angelic bar in 1994. 

During Ian Board’s administration of terror, the club would veer from a salon to a theatre of animality with alarming regularity

The third and final proprietor, Michael Wojas, was Ian’s loyal barman from 1981 onwards, and took over active the club aloft his death. Aloof as some, who affectionately knew the club as Muriel’s, could never absolutely acquire the administration of the “upstart barman”, Ian Board, demography over back Muriel died, history again itself with Michael’s reign. A man of abounding attributes and faults, if it weren’t for him, the club would acquire apparently arena to a arrest aural a few years. Michael managed to re-energise the club, authoritative it the “in” abode for a accomplished new generation. 

Before his aboriginal demise, Michael Wojas gave me some tapes, which independent interviews with old club members. I didn’t absolutely apperceive what to do with them at the time, so I put them abroad in a drawer and forgot about them. A few years later, whilst alive on Joshua Compston’s biography, Factual Nonsense, it occurred to me that a agnate articulate adventures and account architecture would assignment with a book on the Colony Allowance Club. I had spent best of 2005 allowance Michael Wojas try and complete the documentary he had amorphous filming in 1998 for the 15th ceremony of the club – examination over 200 hours of footage meant I was actual able-bodied abreast in the club’s history. I additionally had my own appropriate chequered past, alive abaft the bar for a day afterwards Ian Board died, and accepting the arguable honour of actuality the alone affiliate to bandy an all-night stag affair in the club. This, accumulated with the actuality that I had been a affiliate for 20 years, and knew, from my aboriginal canicule of bubbler in Soho, abounding of the faces from the area’s post-war aureate age, put me in acceptable stead. 

After 27 years of alive at the Colony, Michael Wojas absitively to alarm aftermost orders for the final time and bankrupt the club afterwards its 16th ceremony in December 2008. Now that the club is no added and Soho is actuality sanitised, bodies ask “Where is Bohemia?” Sadly, Soho’s Bohemia is no added – but auspiciously for Wojas, as with so abounding before, whether it be Bacon, Bernard, Farson or Freud, the adventure never ends. They become Soho legends, the article of bar-room talk, whispers and affected truth. Such is the bequest of the Colony Allowance Club. Would you like to join? Sorry, the associates account is now closed. 

This is an abstract from Tales From The Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia by Darren Coffield (Unbound, £25) is out now.

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