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The Arts and the Café Royal

Between 29 June and 29 July 1956 the National Book League (whatever happened to this?) staged an exhibition entitled ‘London after Dark’ on the first floor of the famous Café Royal in Lower Regent Street. The exhibition was designed to tell the story, in books, manuscripts and pictures, of London night life between 1866, when the Café Royal opened its doors, and the present day, when Soho was still a vibrant bohemian quarter .It was this exhibition that three Soho habitués, Daniel Farson, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon visited one day in June or July, 1956. Many of the pictures on display were by, or depicted, celebrities connected to the Café Royal, and one example caught Freud’s attention. Farson takes up the story:

Lucian looked at the label on the back and reported ‘Sickert’. This set me wondering as we continued our circuit, and as we passed it again I rashly broke my silence, for I had not dared to venture an opinion before. 'If that’s by Sickert', I declared, 'he could never have painted a great picture.’ The two of  them looked at me with irritation, so with the hope of proving my point I bent down and looked at the back for myself, emerging triumphantly with the tactless cry---‘It’s not by Sickert, it’s of Sickert, by Nina Hamnett!’ They were not amused. Daniel Farson, Soho in the Fifties (1987)

Soho has changed, even in the last thirty years, as post punk singer Marc Almond complained recently on TV. But the Café Royal has perhaps changed most dramatically.  Around 2007 I paid a visit to its menu board outside with a view to getting a meal paid for by Rare Book Review as part of my ‘research’ for an article on its famous literary associations. It was, it seemed, still functioning, though probably on its last legs. A few months later I revisited it and found that this haunt of Wilde, Whistler, Sickert and Augustus John had closed its door to diners in preparation for a refit. A sly peep into what had been the Grill Room revealed little that would distinguish it from any other West End restaurant of a certain vintage. The tables and chairs had been removed. It looked sad and tired. I don’t know what the old Café Royal is now. And I don’t really care. [R.M.Healey]

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