Strange Flowers guide to London: part 2

FITZROVIA TO ST JAMES

In the first half of the 20th century, the group posthumously labelled the “Fitzrovians” colonised the streets around Fitzroy Square, a stone’s throw from Bloomsbury but a world away in temperament. In any case it was more a loose band of drinking companions than a movement; according to the Times Literary Supplement, Fitzrovia was “a world of outsiders, down-and-outs, drunks, sensualists, homosexuals and eccentrics”. In short, the spiritual home of Strange Flowers.

Even during the area’s heyday there were people doing exactly what I did – stalking the streets looking for traces of bohemian life, much like their forefathers may have prodded lunatics in Bedlam. But making the circuit today is inevitably disappointing. Now thronged with ad agencies and media companies, Fitzrovia offers little to remind the visitor of the rich counter-cultural life which once thrived here.

French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine pitched up in Fitzrovia in 1872 during their riotous affair. Forty years later, artist and model Nina Hamnett lost her virginity in the same house; sadly it has disappeared, the block of terrace houses erased and replaced by glass-fronted mediocrity. The “Queen of Bohemia” started her long, messy decline after a libel dispute with Aleister Crowley in 1934, but she stayed loyal to Fitzrovia long after the party people moved on, propping up bars and exchanging drinks for memories.

One of Hamnett’s favourite destinations was the Wheatsheaf, an intimate pub which would satisfy anyone’s conception of a typically English drinking hole; Julian Maclaren-Ross was also frequently to be found at the bar. More successful men of letters, such as Dylan Thomas and George Orwell, liquefied their royalties in the pub which also lent its name to the “Wheatsheaf Writers”, including Philip “Public Baby” O’Connor. It was here and in other Fitzrovian haunts that magenta-haired Quentin Crisp first found the social acceptance that eluded him elsewhere, though he was still not entirely safe from harassment, as Andrew Barrow reports in Quentin & Philip: “At the Wheatsheaf, the landlord Mr Redvers was accused of running ‘a funny sort of place’ and when he replied, ‘How funny?’, the police pointed in Quentin’s direction.”

Even bohemians had to line their stomachs, and the eatery of choice was frequently the Eiffel Tower restaurant. A typical night might have seen Ronald Firbank entertaining Nancy Cunard; Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and fellow Vorticists trying to propel Britain’s arts and letters into the machine age; and caped crypto-fascist and self-styled King of Poland Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk hawking his eccentric verse. And, inevitably, Augustus John presiding over it all, making the first of several appearances on our journey. It was John who ultimately determined the Fitrovians’ look and lifestyle as well as the locations for their rigorous schedule of drinking and arguing. While he lodged at Fitzrovia’s northernmost periphery, he spent much of his time at its geographical and social centre. He was of inestimable importance in the development of the bohemian sensibility and many of us, whether we know it or not, live lives whose parameters were first explored by John and his fellow travellers.

And it was John who “discovered” the Fitzrovians’ social hub, the Fitzroy Tavern, in 1926. Like the Wheatsheaf, the Fitzroy still operates, but with its clean carpets and burbling slot machines it’s hard to imagine this corner pub as “the headquarters of London Bohemia”. Framed articles allude to the long list of illustrious drinkers who once patronised the pub, often the target of those rubberneckers I mentioned earlier. Nina Hamnett recalled seeing off one such pair of voyeurs: “The first thing they said was: ‘Are there any dope fiends here? We have been looking all over London for them.’ I said […] ‘Good gracious, no, the people in this quarter when they have a few pennies and want to feel excited only drink beer, or, if they can afford it, gin and whisky. I think you had better go back to Mayfair if you want to find people who take drugs.’”

The author toasts the halfway point in the Fitzroy Tavern

Soho, on the other side of Oxford Street, picked up where Fitzrovia left off after the Second World War, and of course it remains the centre of London’s gay life. Just across the road from the erstwhile Colony Room – where Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and John Deakin once drank themselves to the threshold of literal madness – is the ghost of the Gargoyle Club. There, on an evening in the late 1920s, you might have bumped shoulders with Noël Coward and Tallulah Bankhead, or encountered Brian Howard, Stephen Tennant and other Bright Young Things (Tennant’s brother David established the club in 1925). The Gargoyle was where the underworld really did meet the elite: its membership list once bristled with royalty, including the trendsetting Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, later still Duke of Windsor). But it was Augustus John (yes, him again) who led the charge to take this bastion of the Establishment and plant Bohemia’s flag in its turret. The sense of the old older being broken down and remade was brilliantly reflected in the décor which featured a mosaic of mirror shards taken from derelict chateaux and arranged by Henri Matisse.

Further south on Regent Street, just off Piccadilly Circus, lurks the grim, veiled hulk of a building which until recently housed the Café Royal. Its golden age was the 1890s, when literary and artistic royalty made the Royal the centre of London’s cultural life. James McNeill Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Sickert, Max Beerbohm, Arthur Symons, John Gray and – most famously – Oscar Wilde all sipped and supped here. And it was here that Frank Harris, in the presence of George Bernard Shaw and Lord Alfred Douglas, tried to convince Wilde to go abroad rather than face certain defeat in the libel case against Lord Queensberry. Douglas and Harris were still there when a subsequent generation came to relive the Wilde life at the Royal. Among the artists’ models and hangers-on you could find Ronald Firbank, Michael Arlen, Peter Warlock (a.k.a. Philip Heseltine), Betty May, Duff Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Evan Morgan and – naturally – Augustus John. The Royal only closed in 2008, and the building presents a mournful spectacle these days, wreathed in scaffolding as it is converted into a hotel.

Also gone are the New Burlington Galleries, which once sulked in the shadows of the Royal Academy and were the site of a Surrealist exhibition in the movement’s annus mirabilis, 1936. On July 1, Salvador Dalí arrived at the gallery accompanied by two dogs to give a lecture entitled “Authentic Paranoiac Fantasies” while dressed in a diving suit meant to symbolise his plunge into the depths of the subconscious. Unfortunately he had not thought to undertake this journey with breathing equipment, and only the urgent deployment of a wrench prevented his early demise. But who wielded said tool? Biographers of Lord Berners and Dalí’s patron Edward James each claim glory for their subjects. From Lord Berners, by Mark Amory: “Berners found a hammer and, though every blow was agonisingly loud for the victim, struggled to save him. Eventually, and not a moment too soon, a workman with a spanner succeeded.” Compare that with this passage form Surreal Eden, by Margaret Hooks: “Not long into the performance it became clear Dalí was having difficulty breathing through the helmet, which had become stuck. He had to be pried out of it by Edward using the billiard cue, both becoming hilariously entangled with the leashes of the dogs in the process.” A surreal mystery for the ages.

Strolling through the Burlington Arcade and past Ladurée’s gilded grotto you come to stately department store Fortnum & Mason, where camp couturier Bunny Roger once worked. The man born a hundred years ago as Neil Munro Roger enlivened and frequently hosted the great parties of his age, greeting revellers with rouge on his cheeks and a queeny quip on his tongue. Curiously it was as much modesty as ostentation that compelled Roger to make an after-dinner joke of his war record, which was in fact distinguished by bravery. Years later he claimed to have advanced into battle brandishing a rolled-up copy of Vogue, issuing the command “When in doubt, powder heavily”. At once fastidious and flamboyant, Roger was an influential stylist who cinched, tucked and starched to present a unique silhouette inspired by classic tailoring, drawing references from the Edwardian era right back to the dandies.

Count d’Orsay was proclaimed as the last of that breed. Like Roger, this French fashion plate was an unlikely soldier, having served under the Bourbon Restoration, subsequently pitching up in London to reside with Lord and Lady Blessington on St James’s Square in a precarious ménage. “The mansion,” sniped early d’Orsay biographer W. Teignmouth Shore, “was fitted and furnished in a style that only great wealth could afford or ill taste admire.” Something of which d’Orsay himself could never be accused; with his much-aped sartorial refinement the count was to the 1820s what Beau Brummell had been to the Regency. Shore: “His youth, his handsome face, his debonairness, his wit, were irresistible…He rode in Hyde Park perfectly ‘turned out’, the admired of those who were accustomed to receive, not to give, admiration.” D’Orsay inspired the haughty profile of New Yorker mascot Eustace Tilley, but is little remembered in his adoptive home. While the house bears one of London’s famous “blue plaques” denoting association with an historical figure, it actually commemorates another threesome: the trio of British Prime Ministers who lived there (not concurrently). It now houses the Chatham House think tank.

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32 comments

  1. Bruce

    Nina Hamnett related the following music hall song to John Heath-Stubbs, quite probably in exchange for a drink. It is of several Soho/Fitzrovia novelties contained in the eponymous chapter of his memoirs, ‘Hindsights’ (1993), and so far as I know yet to be attributed.

    Every Saturday afternoon,
    We likes to drown our sorrers.
    We always goes to the waxwork shows
    To see the Chamber of ‘Orrers.
    There’s a lovely statue of mother there
    What gives us pleasure, rather,
    With the same old smile on her dear old dial
    As the night she strangled father.

  2. Magnificent site. We recently did a post on The Cleveland Street scandal, a slightly earlier example of Fitzrovia louche-ness (link below).

    Would you be interested in contributing something to Esoteric London?

    http://esotericlondon.com/2011/03/17/no-274-cleveland-street-w1/

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  17. Chris Donovan

    great site! As strange Soho flowers may I commend the Chevalier D’Eon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevalier_d'Eon) and the King of Corsica (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_of_Corsica) to your attention

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