Viewed as a tiny green oasis by some and a blurred drinking hellhole by others, the Colony Room Club functioned both as a bar and a cultural barometer. ‘Muriel’s’, as it was affectionately known, was heroically bohemian; London’s answer to Bricktop’s in Paris, Dean’s in Tangier and Harry’s Bar in Venice.
The club was dominated, indeed created, by two personalities – that of 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 this remarkably tiny club, these future legends gravitated together with their circle of friends, such as John Deakin, Lucian Freud, Daniel Farson, Frank Norman and Jeffrey Bernard. All of whom found themselves adrift in a world of fractious friendships, passion, loss and desire, deep in the heart of Bohemian Soho.
Running a private drinking club in Soho was a balancing act to be marvelled at. You had to be tough enough to get the gangsters to respect you and leave you alone to prosper; urbane and witty enough to collect aristocratic clients around you; worldly enough to hold court over hardened businessmen; tolerant enough to empathise with all the strange flotsam and jetsam of mixed morals that are inevitable in Soho; and above all, have the knowledge of a ringmaster and the skill of a diplomat. On top of all this you also needed a good barman who would not allow himself or the customers to rob you blind. It wasn’t easy money and could only be achieved by the type of person who could run a successful military coup.
In its sixty-year history the Colony had just three proprietors. The first, Muriel Belcher, began the mad party in 1948 and somehow it managed to carry on in one form or another into the twenty-first century. Famous for her wit, infamous for her devastating put-downs, Muriel greeted her members with a cheery, ‘Hello Cunty’, upon their arrival. She referred to Francis Bacon as ‘Daughter’ and he called her ‘Mother’, so close was their relationship.
Muriel’s Colony was steeped in the tradition of the salon – a gathering of people with an inspiring hostess, held to amuse, refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. In a regimented and sexually repressed post-war London, Muriel’s attracted professional drinkers to a man, woman or something in-between, since sexual nonconformity always played its part in the mix. The club echoed the salon’s absence of social hierarchy and encouraged socialising between different social ranks, races, sexes and sexualities, breaking down the social barriers and taboos that other establishments operated under.
Francis Bacon was aware of Gertrude Stein’s salon in pre-war Paris and brought talented people into Muriel’s orbit, as Picasso had done before for Stein. There are some other notable similarities – both were lesbians, and like Muriel’s, entrée into the Stein salon was a sought-after validation. Both women also became a combination of mentor, critic and guru to those who gathered around them. Stein’s salon brought together the confluences of talent that would help define pre-war modernism in literature and art in Paris – becoming synonymous with Picasso and Matisse – whilst Muriel’s became a fixture of post-war London, and will be forever associated with the artistic milieu of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
After Muriel’s death in 1979, the club was taken over by her loyal barman, Ian Board. Verbally agile, a vigorous persecutor of bores and a tremendous raconteur, he was amazingly charismatic and repulsive at the same time. Ian was notoriously fearsome. He was short, square-jawed with enormous tinted spectacles framing a huge red nose, which pulsated like a rancid tomato – a testimony to his years of alcohol abuse. During Ian’s reign of terror, the club would veer from a salon to a theatre of cruelty with alarming regularity. He kept the club going in tribute to Muriel, whom he had idolised all his life, until finally joining her in that great celestial bar in 1994. The third and final proprietor, Michael Wojas, was Ian’s loyal barman from 1981 onwards, and took over running the club upon his death. Michael somehow managed to re-energise the club, making it the ‘in’ place for a whole new generation of artists, actors and musicians.