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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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Stephen Graham—a prince among Soho tramps

Just a few minutes walk from Leoni’s Quo Vadis is Frith Street, now famous as the home of Private Eye, but for a century or more  the haunt of Soho journalists, writers and other near- do- wells, including Stephen Graham, who from 1912 to his death in 1975, lived in a flat at no 60, a handsome Georgian town house. In the days before adventurers in dangerous lands were accompanied by a TV crew, Stephen Graham, who described himself as ‘tramp’ before that word had gained unsavoury associations, explored a number of exotic lands, including Russia, on which he became an expert, recording his impressions in books and articles, until he could no longer finance his expeditions.

The letter, which was discovered among a batch of other unrelated correspondence, belongs to his most productive period, is written from Frith Street and is dated 4th December 1926. In it he invites a Miss Morley to an after-dinner ‘mixed party of various acquaintances who will sit around the fire & talk.’ He also invites her to bring along her copy of his recently published London Nights for him to sign.

In his latter years Graham’s reputation fell into decline, and there is a depressing description of him in poverty and disarray in his flat. He died at an advanced age in comparative obscurity in 1975, but today, however, thanks possibly to the popularity of TV travelogues and cheap holidays to exotic lands, there is renewed interested in his work. Two major online sites are devoted to him, and Abebooks shows that his books are beginning to be collected once again. A biography by Michael Hughes has just been published Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham. [RMH]

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Leoni’s Quo Vadis restaurant: ‘no better place in the world to dine or lunch’

Leoni printed this praise from the film actress Evelyn Laye in a tiny promotional booklet reprinted to coincide with the Festival of Britain in 1951.The year before, journalist, S. Jay Kaufman, a veteran American, in a letter to Leoni, revealed that from 1911 to July 1914 no 27, Dean Street, Soho, which under Pepino Leoni became the Quo Vadis restaurant in 1926, had been home to himself and the painter Horace Brodsky. Back then, Kaufman explained, the domestic arrangements might have been pretty basic, but the good company had made up for this:

'The cuisine ? Ours! The charwomen ? Ourselves! And to this Adam house came Harry Kemp, John Flanagan, Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, J.T Grien, Lillian Shelley, Nelson Keys, Lily Cadogan, David Burton, Louis Wolheim Arnold Daly, Sir Charles Cochran , Leon M Lion, Constance Collier, Granville Barker, and Frank Harris…’

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The return of the Italian Restaurants 1961

From 'Minder' circa 1982 - Arthur Dailey leaving Otello's

Found in The Good Food Guide 1961-1962, this review of an Italian restaurant in Soho. It shows  how restaurants reflect London's recent history, and although this was the beginning of the swinging 60s it was written only 15 years after WW2 ('war wounds are healing.'). Otello Scipioni died recently aged 91 and the restaurant is now called Zilli. He also owned the grander Italian restaurant Villa dei Cesari near the Tate Gallery.  As the 60s progressed the Italians came to dominate the catering scene - Italian trattorias being a great hangout for the beautiful, the rich and the famous. Fortunes were made. Note the GFG's feedback system -- the names at bottom being unpaid food enthusiasts who had written in - the bit about singing waiters is probably a quote from one of them them. Longo Intervallo = long gap.

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London Night and Day 1951

London Night and Day, illustrated by Osbert Lancaster, edited by Sam Lambert (Architectural Press, 1951)

Surely one of the most entertaining of the plethora of books brought out in the wake of the Festival of Britain. The coloured cover illustrations and the vignettes in black and white were by Osbert Lancaster, a friend of John Piper—the same John Piper who is named in a section devoted to the Festival, to which he contributed, among other things, a superb semi-abstract panorama. If you hadn’t been informed that Lancaster had designed the cover, you would have attributed it to Piper, whose style of portraying shop fronts is showcased in Buildings and Prospects, which had appeared just a few years earlier. Lancaster’s style is identical. Was Piper concerned that he was being flagrantly copied by Lancaster? Probably, but according to his biographer Frances Spalding, the two men were friends.

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Eating Chinese in late 1940s Soho

Forwarded to us by a loyal jot watcher. One restaurant was favoured by celebrities - Johnnie Mills, Bobby Howes, Coral Browne, Sandy Powell, Ivan Maisky and Lady Cripps - probably impressive names in their day. I especially like the bit about Lord Tredegar bringing his own jade chopsticks...

Stanley Jackson’s brief but brilliant Indiscreet Guide to Soho is crammed with so much colourful reportage on the immediately post-war night life, petty crime, Bohemian characters and restaurants in this popular quarter of London, that it is difficult to choose what to Jot down. In the end, I opted for two pages on Chinese restaurants. Jackson attributes our ‘craze‘ for eating Chinese to our sympathy for the nation’s stand against the ‘Jap Fascists‘, but the trend must surely pre-date this.

Incidentally, what happened to the redoubtable ‘Ley-On’s ?’

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