With rationing still in place from the wartime and your average pub not allowed to stay open past 2.30 in the afternoon, England in the post-war era of the 1940s and 1950s was a pretty stifling place. But against the odds, just up the road from genteel Westminster, the district of Soho became a bohemian utopia, a thriving counterculture where some of the most revered artists of the day were able to live out an alternative vision of the world.
Soho had always been a bit different – since the eighteenth century it has been home to intellectuals, immigrants, and outsiders – and was known for its unusual mix of ideas, languages, and sexuality. By the mid-twentieth century however, Soho could claim to be one of the bohemian capitals of Europe, rivalled only by the Left Bank of Paris.
Taking a tour through the Art UK collection, we can now look back at some of the famous artists and muses of the scene.
For the artists that frequented the area, much of life took place in The Colony Club on 41 Dean Street, opened by the famously formidable landlady Muriel Belcher in 1948, and where patrons could drink legally until the scandalous hour of 11.30pm.
Although later in his life he would be found propping up the bar here, Augustus John had lived a long life of bohemian adventure before he found his way to The Colony Club. One of the most renowned British painters of his day, John defied convention by travelling the country in a gypsy caravan with both his wife and mistress, as well as his children.
Quite how many children he had however, is still a matter of debate. Legend has it that while walking down London’s King’s Road, John would pat each passing child on the head in case they were his own, with some estimating that he fathered up to 100 illegitimate children.
John’s drinking and womanising led to him never really fulfilling the potential of his early paintings, which can be seen in this 1907 portrait of the poet W. B. Yeats at the Tate.
Another staplehead of Soho’s drinking dens was the painter and writer Nina Hamnett. Although not as famous as John (and weirdly, they were both also from the Welsh village of Tenby), Hamnett was a highly acclaimed painter in the 1920s, but descended into alcoholism as the century progressed.
By the 1930s and 1940s she was less likely to be found at her studio, and far more likely to be propping up the bar at The Fitzroy Tavern with the poet Dylan Thomas, where she would sing sea shanties and tell anecdotes for drinks. It was in her lifestyle as the ‘Queen of Bohemia’ that she became a muse for other artists, and here she can be seen in a painting by Roger Eliot Fry at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds.
Although an undeniably entertaining character, after she fell to her death from a 40 foot window in 1956, The Times posed the following question: 'Has the world gained or lost by the partial sacrifice of Nina Hamnett the painter to Nina Hamnett the bohemian?'
Another famous muse of bohemian Soho was Henrietta Moraes, whose distorted portrait by Francis Bacon can be found at the Manchester Art Gallery. The painting itself is based on a photograph taken by the former Vogue photographer John Deakin, who captured Soho life over many years living in the area, and was celebrated in 2014 with a critically acclaimed retrospective and accompanying book release at The Photographer’s Gallery. Like Hamnett, Moraes lived a wildly hedonistic lifestyle and endured a stretch in Holloway prison in the 1960s after unsuccessfully trying to begin a new career as a burglar. As well as modelling for Bacon, she often sat for artists such as Lucian Freud and much later, Maggi Hambling.
While the brilliant Lucian Freud was also a famous face on the scene, one-time friend Francis Bacon (the two had an unexplained falling out in the 1950s) was the real darling of Soho. Bacon became a member of The Colony Club in 1948 on the day that it opened, and was treated as family by landlady Belcher, who gave him free drinks, as well as the not-inconsiderable sum of £10 per week to bring artists and rich patrons to the club.
Bacon painted his c.1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which was later hailed by the art critic John Russell as a major breakthrough in British painting, with its bleak outlook on the human condition.
Landlady Muriel Belcher died in 1979, but The Colony Club continued until finally closing its doors in 2008. Although it was a centrepoint for Soho’s artist community for over half a century, its heyday of cultural significance was in the post-war decades of the 1940s and 1950s, when austerity and sexual repression loomed large. Soho during this time was a sanctuary from this bleak world, and its drinking dens provided an opportunity for local artists to express their individuality. Whether or not that was beneficial to their art is another debate, but their hedonism plays an important part in British countercultural history.
Robert Greer, writer