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The best books on Bohemian Living

recommended by Darren Coffield

Tales From The Colony Room: Soho's Lost Bohemia by Darren Coffield

Tales From The Colony Room: Soho's Lost Bohemia
by Darren Coffield

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The bohemian world of London and Paris in the 20th century was a fabled land, where people could go to get lost, reinvent themselves and live life as they wanted. Poverty, alcoholism and misery were often the frequent travelling companions on this journey but, Darren Coffield argues, these marginalised areas of society allowed for a freedom that is almost unimaginable in our own world. He picks the best books on bohemian living.

Interview by Benedict King

Tales From The Colony Room: Soho's Lost Bohemia by Darren Coffield

Tales From The Colony Room: Soho's Lost Bohemia
by Darren Coffield

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Before we get to your five books on bohemian life, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your book, Tales from the Colony Rooms: Soho’s Lost Bohemia. There’s a huge fascination with the bohemian world, which is reflected in the very extensive press this book got. But you can’t help but be struck, when reading it, that a lot of these people are interesting characters, but also deeply unhappy. What exactly is ‘bohemia’ and, why is it such an attractive place when so many of the people who inhabit it are quite desperate individuals?

Bohemia is a mixed bag. The classic 20th century bohemia is an area on the margins of the affluent society. It’s not necessarily lawless but it’s definitely on the edges, it forms an interzone, where the civilized meets the ‘uncivilized’—like a border town between two states where people get up to nefarious things.

But bohemia is itself borderless, there are no direct limits to it. Its borders are constantly being redrawn. Pockets of bohemia have existed in various different cities in Europe and they’ve migrated to different locations within those cities over time. In 19th century London, bohemia existed around Chelsea. It wasn’t a very expensive place to live because Chelsea was a clay pit and it’s where the potteries were. Kensington wasn’t expensive, either. It had previously been a gravel pit. So, these were places that were built on old areas of industry that were in decline or had been expended. This concept of regenerating poor areas, which we now call gentrification, goes back to 19th century Chelsea. Fitzrovia followed suit and then, after the Second World War, bohemia moved south, to Soho, because Fitzrovia had been so badly bombed during the war.

Bohemia itself is a fabled land. It’s an idea that people have. People came to London, Paris or Berlin in search of bohemia because they felt like misfits, because they were orphans or their families didn’t understand them or their sexuality was problematic or because of their aspirations to become an artist, writer,  poet or musician, or whatever, which would have been impossible if they stayed in the provinces. One of the benefits of escaping to a city is that you can literally rewrite your life. You can adopt a persona and become a whole new person. This is a huge part of the attraction of bohemia. They came in droves, like moths to the countercultural flame. There are no restrictions in bohemia, in the sense people don’t obey the religious or cultural norms of wider society and aren’t defined by gender, class or birth.

One of the things I noticed about the denizens of the Colony Room from reading your book was that a lot of them were involved in the arts in one way or another, but a lot of them were also homosexual and alcoholic and, in the club’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, drinking in the afternoon and being gay were completely illegal in England. So, the Colony Room was this place you could get round the law, and these things were accepted. You’ve subtitled your book ‘Soho’s Lost Bohemia’. I wanted to ask you, is it hard to live a bohemian life now because these marginalised ways of life are now mainstream, or accepted by the mainstream? I saw a quote from Daniel Farson talking about the conventionality of the 1950s in relation to issues of sexuality or class and how Soho was this heavenly place where you could get away from all that. But that’s not the case now. Hasn’t bohemian life been lost because its values have conquered the world or at least large parts of the western world?

People do say that; that bohemia has disappeared because it’s won the battle and helped create a more tolerant and inclusive society, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. We live in a much more regimented and repressed society in many ways than we did back then. For instance, a lot of people who were around at that time wouldn’t have liked to have been labelled as queer artists or having made ‘queer art’, but now they’re categorised as such at the Tate Gallery. It put on an exhibition of Queer Art, with artists like Francis Bacon, Keith Vaughan and John Minton. None of these people would have wanted themselves or their work to be labelled or categorized by their sexuality alone—because by doing that you’re ghettoizing them and they would have absolutely hated that.

“People came to London, Paris or Berlin in search of bohemia because they felt like misfits”

Bohemia disappeared because we live in a world where you can’t go to a part of town and just disappear. It’s impossible to lose oneself. Everything is categorised and everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Everyone’s traceable, from your credit card, your phone, your travel card, every journey you make, where you are, what you do. The sense of absolute dissolution and freedom that existed then has now gone. Dylan Thomas would come to London from Wales and disappear for a week. His wife would be phoning all the bars saying, “Tell Dylan to come back”.  He certainly couldn’t do that now!

That’s interesting. Again, one of the things that comes out in your book, which I suppose might be thought of as quite surprising, is that Francis Bacon, Ian Board and others had a very ambivalent attitude towards the whole gay liberation movement. It was almost as if they actually quite enjoyed being marginalized and socially disreputable. The Colony Room was the place where they had their gang and they could all be marginalised and disreputable together.

Yes, there certainly was a sense of camaraderie. Stephen Ward, of Profumo Affair fame, used to drink around these places. He knew everyone and who they were having sex with. Before she died, Christine Keeler said she wondered what he would have made of it all now that you can go into shops and buy pornography and watch it on television. She thought he would have probably found it incredibly dull, because the whole thrill of it was that it was risqué and illegal.

Let’s move on to the books. The first one is Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and the birth of Modern Art by Dan Franck. What story does this book tell?

This book offers you a sweeping vista of bohemian Paris. It sets the scene. It tells you who was who, how they got there and the circumstances of their existence. You have to remember that the bohemian sets in London, Paris and Berlin—the world of modern art at the beginning of the 20th century and until the outbreak of the First World War—was very small. Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, said that there were about 160 people in the world that were interested in modern art during that period. Some of those were artists and a few were collectors, but it wasn’t a very big world. It was very incestuous and everybody knew each other.

As with London, people went to Paris to escape their provincial background. Paris was full of foreign nationals, people like Modigliani, Brancusi, Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, Picasso etc. It was a real melting pot of talent. People from all over Europe wanted to go there because they felt it was somewhere they could express themselves and where anything was possible. They lived in incredible poverty on the margins of society. There was a whole bunch of people living in very shabby, very poor accommodation, which they had taken over because the area itself had been ‘left behind’ and degraded to the point where it could be colonised by artists.

“Bohemia itself is a fabled land. It’s an idea that people have.”

Most books about the period are incredibly boring because they’re written by academics and the problem with an academic treatment is that it doesn’t actually capture the spirit of what people were going through at the time, where their camaraderie came from and how they fought against adversity. The residence where many of these figures lived in Paris, Bateau-Lavoir, was almost like a commune or a students’ hall of residence, with people coming and going all the time. It had that kind of feel about it. And that’s why this book is so good. It really captures the spirit of what was going on. It brings it to the forefront in a way that you feel as if you’re actually there yourself. It’s won lots of awards and been much praised on both sides of the Atlantic. If you are interested in that period and you want to read just one book, this is the one. It’s full of wonderful stories—a real rollercoaster of a read. It’s incredibly well written.

You said there were only 160 people who were interested in modern art by 1914, and that includes dealers, collectors and the artists themselves. In the 18th and 19th centuries France had a very organised art market, with annual salons displaying work by all the artists who had been trained at the country’s art academies. The process of production and distribution was quite formalised. That system didn’t exist for Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and other avant-garde artists living in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. How did they hope to make a living? Did they have patrons supporting them? Or are they washing up in restaurants and painting in the evenings?

They mainly lived in extreme poverty. They weren’t managing to sell their art, or they were selling it very cheaply. When Nina Hamnett first went to Paris she bought one of Modigliani’s drawings and she wasn’t a rich artist. Lots of the people who bought his work were other artists, who had a few more francs in their pockets than Modigliani did. They weren’t doing very well at all.

But, as often happens, suddenly someone realizes that there might be a profit to be made. And if a few artists in the group die, that helps to create a market. Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, was a German. After the First World War, German assets, which had been confiscated at the outset of the war, were sold off by the French government to raise money to pay the war debt. So, all Picasso’s great cubist paintings that were in Kahnweiler’s gallery were taken away and put up for auction. Picasso attended the auction with Kahnweiler. His paintings were being auctioned for a few francs, but he didn’t bid for them. Kahnweiler told Picasso if he was mad, not  bidding for his own work. Picasso smiled and bided his time until the Cezannes came up for auction, again also for a few francs. Picasso bid and bought all the works by Cezanne and inadvertently became one of the biggest collectors of Cezanne in the world. That’s how small the art market was in Paris. There was no one else who was going to buy all these works. Picasso, to some extent, made the reputation of Cezanne as an artist. They really did create their own market, in a way.

Picasso died an incredibly rich man. Was he unique in that or did things change after the war?  When did the market for the avant-garde art of the early 20th century really take off?

It was the Americans who changed things. Once the Americans decided they wanted Picassos, he couldn’t produce enough work. He was making prints in the morning and then painting in the afternoon. A one-man art factory with multi-millionaires sitting in the foyer of his office building where he had his studio, waiting for days on end to talk to him because they wanted to buy one of his paintings before they caught the ocean liner back to New York.

When was this?

In the 1950s. He was already making money by the 1930s, but after the Second World War he became huge—everybody wanted a piece by him and he could name his price. In the end he never paid for anything because, if he decided he wanted to buy a chateau or a car he just left a painting in the bank as collateral.

Did Picasso continue to live a bohemian life? Can you be rich and stay in bohemia, or do you have to leave?

He’d really left bohemia soon after the end of the First World War. His lover was a ballet dancer called Olga and he started moving in much more exalted and wealthy circles.

Let’s move on to Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett.

This is an interesting book. It’s Nina Hamnett’s memoir of being in Paris during the period covered by Bohemian Paris although Hamnett doesn’t appear in Bohemian Paris. This is a first-hand account of what it was like to be in Paris during that period. Hamnett was a female artist who came from Wales. She went to London and became an artist’s model. She modelled for Roger Fry, the artist and critic—a sort of tastemaker for the Bloomsbury Group. She also modelled for Augustus John, who was probably the most infamous artist in England at the time.

She migrated to Paris and became very good friends with Modigliani, whom she met by accident in a café. She modelled a lot for him. He absolutely adored her. Later in life, when she got very drunk, she would boast that Modigliani said that she had the best tits in Europe, and pull her jumper up to show them to everyone.

“Paris was full of foreign nationals, people like Modigliani, Brancusi, Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, Picasso etc. It was a real melting pot of talent”

At the time she was a very well known figure and when you read the book it gives you a great sense of Paris’ café society. She talks about the café owners and how they operated. You get a really good nuts-and-bolts account of what it was like to be there. And it’s very well written. When it came out it was well reviewed and something of a best seller.

After Modigliani died she worked in his studio and became convinced it was haunted by his ghost. There are a lot of interesting stories in the book about strange occurrences that happened in the studio, that she took to be  signs from Modigliani in the afterlife. She was also good friends with Rodin and was sued by the infamous Satanist, Aleister Crowley, over what she said about him in the memoir—I won’t spoil it for you by giving you the details.

What’s interesting about Hamnett is not just that she’s an artist, muse and model, but she also links bohemian Paris to bohemian London. She talks a lot about both cities—the pluses and minuses of working and living in each. You get a real sense of this intellectual and cultural exchange going on between the two cities.

I’ve become more and more interested in trying to dig out these accounts written in the first person, because there’s a lot of information in them that art historians have just ignored, or never registered. Bad art historians tend to paraphrase what other art historians have said before, building upon an accepted narrative. It’s a rather like building a snowman, where different people just keep slapping bits on to it. But no one ever questions that maybe it’s a slightly asymmetrical snowman, with skewed foundations. It really needs to be knocked down and started all over again.

Did Nina Hamnett go to Paris initially because she knew about this world and she wanted to be part of it or did she just fall into it having gone to Paris for other reasons?

No. She knew about the Parisian art world, she wanted to be part of it.  She wasn’t alone. Lots of people made the same journey. There was a constant exchange, going back and forth, and a lot of that was mediated by women. Most books covering the period focus just on men, which is completely bizarre because the women were key to the whole scene. The muses saw it all through different eyes and often belonged to many different social circles. They tended to have quite a good, well-rounded overview of things because they were moving between all these different overlapping  groups of people.

When did Nina Hamnett die?

In 1956. The Laughing Torso was published in 1935 and after the war she tried to capitalise on the success of her first memoir by writing a sequel called Is she a Lady? That was a flop. Her death is something of a mystery. Some say it was suicide and that she jumped from her apartment window, others that it was an accident.

Although Hamnett had led this amazing life, she was a very unhappy person towards the end. What was her secret sorrow?

It was very hard to be taken seriously and make a living as a woman in the art world. Once your ‘looks had gone,’ people didn’t want to know you. It’s not just Nina Hamnett. People would often remark how Lucian Freud’s ex, Caroline Blackwood (who later married the poet, Robert Lowell) ‘lost her looks’ later in life. But what’s that got to do with anything? It does not affect her talent. But women were judged that way. It was a very misogynistic world.

You also have to remember that it costs money to spend the day indoors heating your home. Quite a lot of poor people hung around in bars or cafés all day to keep warm until it was time to go to bed. People inadvertently became alcoholics because they slowly drank all day, every day. So Hamnett’s gradual slide in to old age, alcoholism and poverty was an all too familiar one.

Next up is The Gargoyle Years by Michael Luke. The Gargoyle Club was a sort of hybrid, in the sense that it absolutely wasn’t at the poor end of the market, it was founded by David Tennant who was a member of the aristocracy. What story does this book tell about Bohemian life?

This book is written by a former member of the Gargoyle Club. He was helped by a chap called Michael Law, a documentary filmmaker who was a well-known Soho face but is now mainly remembered for being Henrietta Moraes’ first husband. The book offers a sweeping view of the changing face of British society, from the privileged ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s, as depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies—rich hedonists living in the moment—through to the 1950s.

When they opened the club in 1925 one of the chaps involved was related to Matisse, who told them about a chateau close to where he lived that was closing down. Its contents were being sold off. There were some 18th century floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Matisse advised that they buy them and have them all cut into hundreds of little circles and festoon the walls with them, which they did. So, Matisse actually came up with the concept for the famous interior of the club. There were also some paintings by Matisse hung there, including The Red Room, which is considered one of his great masterpieces.

“One of the great difficulties of trying to write historical books about bohemia is getting to the bottom of all the barroom talk to find out who did what and whether it really happened or not”

The Gargoyle was high-society but it wasn’t exclusive in the sense that you had to be rich to get in. It was full of titled people, but there were also plenty of people there who weren’t rich, like Dylan Thomas. It’s interesting because it straddles the pre-war and the post-war period. The club kept on going through the Blitz. People would arrive in uniform and stand on the roof of the club having a drink while watching London being bombed, having slightly surreal conversations—’Oh look, St Luke’s is on fire,’—while the city burned around them.

During the day you might have members of Parliament or the House of Lords dining in the club’s restaurant. Then, in the evening, the club really kicked off and all the debauched people turned up, completely drunk, falling over in tuxedos and getting up to the most risqué things.  Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist movement, was a frequent visitor. He used to hold fencing classes there. Someone once took the mickey out of his fascist ideology and they ended up having a duel on the dance floor. The club attracted communist too—such as the Soviet spies Burgess and McLean.

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But what was interesting about the club was that it wasn’t just artists, writers and the landed gentry. A lot of philosophers drank there too. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir visited. Suburban dentists would come up for the weekend. It was a real melting pot. Bohemia could be cliquey and exclusive but it was also a  tourist destination. One of the things I found interesting about writing my book, Tales from the Colony Room, was the number of people who have contacted me saying, ‘Yes, I went to the Colony Room once.” There was a whole swathe of people coming and going all the time who were essentially tourists wanting to clock the famous denizens of bohemia—rather like visitors to a zoo, or a freak show.

What made the Gargoyle a bohemian place? I’m curious to understand this mix of people. Why did Dylan Thomas, for instance, want to go to this club?

It was the proprietor David Tennant’s attitude that made it such a bohemian club. Most people went there after the pubs had shut. To get into the Gargoyle you had to go in through a doorway, then you got into a lift that took you up to the top floor of the building and then you had to walk across the building and down into a sort of big studio. It wasn’t easy to access, so it wasn’t easy for the police to raid. You could only get there by lift. A lot of other clubs were raided by the police, it was virtually impossible to raid the Gargoyle. So, people could indulge in the most outrageous debauchery there. They could take drugs, have sex in the toilets—all kinds of things went. Also, it was on different floors. You could go there and have your own social set.  The appeal for artists was that the rich who drank there didn’t mind buying other people drinks on their tab. You could literally sing for your supper. That attracted the talented poor, like Dylan Thomas, whose precarious existence  was entirely funded by sponging off people.

There was a pact between members that, no matter how bad or outrageous things got or how debauched they were, no one would talk about it outside the club. Eventually, when that that pact was broken, it killed the club. When David Tennant gave up his proprietorship in the mid-1950s, the new owner decided to get in a rock’n’roll band. He also invited in press photographers, paparazzi. None of the members knew this was going to happen. You had these rich people in tuxedos dancing, looking slightly ramshackle and drunk, suddenly blinded by these flashbulbs going off and their pictures appearing in the national press. It was considered completely underhand and the members felt their privacy had been compromised. That killed the club.

What happened to David Tennant?

He moved to Spain, near Torremolinos, which later became associated with the package tour industry of the early 1970s. But before that, it was a hippy hangout and people went there to smoke hash and have sex on the beach. A lot of very dodgy things went on there. This area became the playground of all these people that were originally part of the Chelsea and Soho set. Cyril Connolly, The Beatles, Brian Epstein, Elizabeth Taylor, even Timothy Leary ended up going out there.  Quite a few people bought places there, even though this was Franco’s Spain, it was a fascist country and we’d just finished the war. People went there because they could be completely free—although that sounds bizarre. The prototype hippies started off in fascist Spain.

“Once the Americans decided they wanted Picassos, he couldn’t produce enough work. He was making prints in the morning and then painting in the afternoon”

David Tennant married a woman 40 years younger than him called Shelagh. He gave her a bar as a wedding present, Shelagh’s Bar in Torremolinos, which became the most popular club on the coastline. He’d drink five bottles of champagne before lunch. They would get up at about 6pm or 7pm for breakfast. They’d have lunch at about 11 o’clock or midnight. Dinner would be at 7am. They led a completely nocturnal existence. Young Shelagh’s insatiable partying drove David to a nervous breakdown and he had to be shipped back to London to convalesce. When he eventually returned to Spain, it was not a happy homecoming. Someone spiked Shelagh’s drink at her bar and, returning home as high as a kite, she launched herself out of their bedroom window, breaking her back. David, despite his doctor’s advice, continued to drink excessively and died of a heart attack. All three of his ex-wives attended the funeral, including Sheelagh, still encased in 40 kilos of plaster.

Your next book on bohemian life is The Surrender of Silence: A Memoir of Ironfoot Jack, King of the Bohemians. Tell us about Ironfoot Jack.

He gained the moniker ‘Ironfoot Jack’ because he had a terrible accident and one of his legs became shorter than the other. They made him an iron shoe that was attached to his foot, so he could get around—hence the name. Like Nina Hamnett he was dismissed by the younger generation that took over Bohemia in the 1950s. In his book, Soho in the Fifties, Daniel Farson portrayed Jack as a wannabe and a wastrel, but he wasn’t that at all. He was known as the King of Bohemia and he did lots of interesting wacky things. He was also a very early proponent of mail-order scams. He would put adverts in the newspapers saying, ‘Secure everything with this amazing invention. Send in 10 shillings today and you’ll receive this life changing invention.’ He’d then send people a length of string by return post.

At one time he ran a French restaurant in Soho although it had no cook or even a  kitchen. People would come in and be given this wonderful menu by Ironfoot Jack with all these exotic dishes on it in French. But, no matter what they ordered, it wasn’t available until they got down poisson et pommes frites—fish and chips. By this time the diners were so exhausted and hungry that they’d just say, “Yes, yes, we’ll have poisson et pommes frites.” Ironfoot Jack would then send a boy round the corner to the chip shop for some fish’n’chips. He’d put them on a plate and serve them and charge an exorbitant price for it. The restaurant had no running water either, so he had to send the plates out to be washed again afterwards.

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Before the war he’d ran the infamous Caravan Club in Endell Street, which was raided by police. People smoked marijuana there and there was lots of cross dressing and scantily clad dancers. It became a huge cause célèbre when he was taken to court over the alleged debauchery at the club. It was covered extensively in the press and, on the day of the court’s verdict, there were hundreds of people milling outside the courtroom to offer him their support.

He became quite a mover and shaker in the bohemian world. After the war, he lost all his money and was having to hustle for cash. He’s a fascinating character. There was a young man called Colin Wilson, who’d come to London and was living in a tent in one of the parks. During the day, he’d go to the British Library to research his book, The Outsider. He spent a lot of time hanging around in cafés and in one of these cafés he met Ironfoot Jack, who often attended with Quentin Crisp. Colin Wilson was absolutely fascinated by Jack and persuaded him to have his portrait painted. Jack dictated his memoir during these portrait sittings. Colin Wilson was convinced that Jack’s memoir was going to be a bestseller. Colin’s book, The Outsider, had been published to much acclaim and he was one of the leaders of this generation of ‘Angry Young Men’. But, in the end, he couldn’t find a publisher. Ironfoot Jack died and Colin’s career moved on. He shelved the manuscript, thinking he’d get back round to getting it published at some point. But the manuscript disappeared into his paperwork. Although Jack appears in Colin’s cult classic autobiographical novel, Adrift in Soho, it wasn’t until after Colin’s death when his papers were being archived at the University of Nottingham, that Colin’s biographer and friend, Colin Stanley, discovered the manuscript. He realized what he’d stumbled upon and decided to publish it. The manuscript lay dormant and forgotten for over half a century. It wasn’t published until two years ago.

I love the restaurant story. One of the things I find fascinating about that is that it obviously worked because it must have been at least vaguely plausible to go into a restaurant after the decade after the Second World War and for there be so many shortages of different foodstuffs that there was only one thing on the menu. That would be absolutely inconceivable now, but it tells you a lot about how society has changed.

That anecdote was repeated over and over again in bars all round Soho. When Daniel Farson mentions it in one of his books, he talks about it as a fable, a myth. He doesn’t attribute it to Ironfoot Jack. The whole story about who did it and how it happened had all got lost in the mists of time.

One of the great difficulties of trying to write historical books about bohemia is getting to the bottom of all the barroom talk to find out who did what and whether it really happened or not. For instance, it seems very unlikely that Dylan Thomas did throw up on the floor of The Colony Room Club.

Was Ironfoot Jack just a guy who was trying to survive any way he could, or was he a campaigner? Did he see running the Caravan Club as a as a campaign against the absurd restrictions on what you could and couldn’t do in in England in the 1930s, or was he just trying to make a living?

He was trying to overturn the restrictions of British society. What’s very interesting about this period is that people romanticise gypsies. The artist Augustus John would travel long distances on horseback with a caravan in tow. So, rather like the Arts and Crafts movement harking back to a period before the Industrial Revolution, these bohemians wanted to live in a world that was free of restrictions, free from what they saw as the hypocrisy of the church, the state and the law. The whole point of Jack calling it the Caravan Club was to give it a sense that this was something that was moving, part of a travelling nomadic group that didn’t belong anywhere and didn’t have any roots. The romantic notion of the gypsy is of someone who lives on the margins of society and the state and doesn’t follow the rules. The Outsider was a potent symbol for them in a repressed post-Edwardian England. One can see the attraction of Jack for Colin Wilson.

Let’s move on to the final book, Francis Bacon’s Gilded Gutter Life by Daniel Farson. Francis Bacon is a fascinating person in all of this because he stuck with the bohemian life after he was famous, in complete contrast to Picasso, as you explained earlier. He was a denizen of the Colony Room Club and kept up with all these slightly desperate, marginal people all his life, in spite of making a huge amount of money. Why did he stick around in bohemia, even though he could have easily escaped it if he’d wanted to? Can you also tell us a bit about Daniel Farson, who was fascinating in his own right. He was a chronicler of that world, but he was one of its characters, too.

What makes Francis an interesting figure is that he knew Berlin in the 1930s, the time of Cabaret. He’d seen Picasso’s paintings whilst in pre-war Paris and that’s what made him want to become a painter. He started off as a designer, making tubular furniture which looked rather Bauhaus. He came back to London wanting to create things that were reflecting the latest aesthetic and ideological thinking in art and design that he’d seen on the continent.

His relationship to bohemia is interesting. He came from quite a monied background and rebelled against that. He hated his father, who was a horse trainer and got his grooms to horsewhip Francis. The whole thing was rather brutal and he wanted to escape its bourgeoise conformity, which he saw as a prison.

Who was his father and where did Francis Bacon grow up?

He grew up in Ireland. His grandmother married the head of police in County Kildare, which made him one of the most hated men in Ireland. They lived with sandbags all round their house, as they were under constant threat of being murdered by the IRA. He found the memory of Ireland problematical. He came to bohemia, like so many people did, and discovered a new family of misfits like himself. No matter where he went in the world, he’d always come back to Soho, because it was his home and the Colony Room was his front room.

Even after the club’s proprietor, Muriel Belcher (whom he called mother), died, he always went back there. What’s interesting about Daniel Farson’s biography compared to any other book on Francis Bacon is that Daniel Farson observed, caroused and got drunk with Francis during his rise to great heights in the 1950s. Daniel was also the first person to interview Francis on television. Although he’s completely forgotten now, Daniel Farson was a household name back then. He was one of the first independent reporters on television. Prior to Dan’s arrival, you had to have a script if you were interviewing someone on television and they had to vet and agree to the questions beforehand. You certainly weren’t allowed to ask any difficult questions. Dan was the first to interview people completely off-script. It made compelling television because no one had ever seen anyone being put on the spot like that. He was a great interviewer and a very interesting man. He coined the term ‘angry young men’ to describe that whole post-war generation of young writers—he was the first to recognise this new movement in British literature. In the early days of their relationship, he was far better known than Francis Bacon.

“What’s interesting about Hamnett is not just that she’s an artist, muse and model, but she also links bohemian Paris to bohemian London… You get a real sense of this intellectual and cultural exchange going on between the two cities”

Francis didn’t want anyone to write a biography of him during his lifetime. His good friend, Frank Norman, tired to write a book, but gave up. Other people tried to write biographies, but Francis took out various legal injunctions to block them. Then Dan was offered £10,000 to write Francis’s biography. So, Francis paid him £10,000 not to write it. But Dan was quite sly, going around asking people questions about Francis and doing some research while Francis was still alive. Then, the moment Francis died, there was a huge race in the publishing world to publish the first biography of Francis Bacon, which Daniel obviously won.

What makes Dan’s book so good compared to all the other biographies of Francis Bacon is that it’s written purely off-the-cuff, as an observer. It’s not talking about why Francis painted triptychs, or why he used orange in his paintings. He’s talking about what it was like to be with Francis, what influenced him, what he liked, what he didn’t like, where he went. You get a real sense of what Francis Bacon was like. Unfortunately, most books on him are tedious, boring and written by academic hacks who like to hold forth about Francis’s angst and existentialism, even though they haven’t really got the foggiest.

What is the ‘gilded gutter life’ that Farson describes?

Dan once asked Francis what would be a good title for his biography and Francis sent him a telegram saying he thought that ‘the gilded gutter life’ would be a good title. The other interesting thing about the book is that Farson knew all the people in Francis’s life. He knew Muriel Belcher. He knew George Dyer. He knew Peter Lacy, who was Bacon’s first lover. He went to Tangiers with John Deakin, who took a lot of photographs that influenced Francis’ paintings. He knew these people intimately. You get this very candid warts-and-all look at what went on and it’s absolutely fascinating.  People have tried to imitate it, but even after 25 years, it stands out as the best. It shows the attraction of bohemia for both Daniel Farson and Francis Bacon.

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Did you know Daniel Farson?

Yes, I used to see him often around Soho. He didn’t make much sense after six o’clock at night. By that time the drink had taken hold and he became a gnarling werewolf. But he was an extraordinary character. There are so many amazing stories about Daniel Farson—too many to include them all in my book, unfortunately.

He was a very successful media figure in the 1950s. What made him implode, do you think?

Homosexuality was illegal. He had to resign his television career in 1963 for fear of being exposed. He didn’t bother keeping it under the radar. He liked to go out at night, in Soho,  and get beaten up by sailors. His nickname was ‘mind-the-face’. He didn’t want to be punched in the face while he was being beaten up because he couldn’t appear on national television with two black eyes. He was into sadomasochistic practices like Francis Bacon and Ian Board, the barman of the Colony Room Club. It’s something that bound them all together. The idea of being tied up and beaten appealed to them.

When is your book on the lives of bohemian women coming out?

In 2022.  I’ve got so much information I might have to divide it into two books, one on Soho women and another on artists’ muses.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Darren Coffield

Darren Coffield is a British artist. He has exhibited at venues ranging from the Courtauld Institute, Somerset House to the Voloshin Museum, Crimea. In the early nineties Coffield worked with Joshua Compston on the formation of Factual Nonsense, the centre of the emerging Young British Artists scene. A book by Coffield about this period in British art, Factual Nonsense: The Art and Death of Joshua Compston, was accompanied by an exhibition curated by Coffield at Paul Stolper Gallery. In 2020 he published Tales from the Colony Room: Soho's Lost Bohemia. He lives and works in London.

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Darren Coffield

Darren Coffield is a British artist. He has exhibited at venues ranging from the Courtauld Institute, Somerset House to the Voloshin Museum, Crimea. In the early nineties Coffield worked with Joshua Compston on the formation of Factual Nonsense, the centre of the emerging Young British Artists scene. A book by Coffield about this period in British art, Factual Nonsense: The Art and Death of Joshua Compston, was accompanied by an exhibition curated by Coffield at Paul Stolper Gallery. In 2020 he published Tales from the Colony Room: Soho's Lost Bohemia. He lives and works in London.