The Fitzrovians, Fitzroy Tavern, London

March 28, 2022

In 1919 Judah Kleinfeld, a former Saville Row tailor, took over a rundown pub called The Hundred Marks on the corner of Charlotte and Windmill Streets, in what was then known as North Soho. He renovated and reopened it as the Fitzroy Tavern and it soon became the hub of London’s bohemian life between the wars. A journalist borrowed the pub’s name to describe the geographical area bordered by Portland Place, Oxford Street, Gower Street, and Euston Road, dubbing it Fitzrovia. And if you were a Fitzrovian, you were part of an earthy, bohemian mileu.

Although geographically close to the Bloomsbury set, Fitzrovians were wilder in temperament, a loose knit gang of friends described in the Times Literary Supplement as a ‘world of outsiders, down-and-outs, drunks, sensualists, homosexuals and eccentrics’ At the Fitzroy Tavern, the Fitzrovians rubbed shoulders with criminals, detectives from Scotland Yard and locals. With a mixture of hilarity, seriousness and cattiness they would discuss their work and lives around the tavern’s long saloon bar.

Regulars included painters Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, Walter Sickert, and Wyndham Lewis, the occultist Aleister Crowley, and poets Stephen Spender and Ezra Pound. In the late thirties and early forties, journalists and playwrights working at the nearby BBC dropped by, including Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNiece and George Orwell (who conceived the Nineteen-Eighty-Four notion of absolute hell while doing a brief stint at the Beeb). Even Albert Einstein came for a pint.

Early Days

‘Pop’ Kleinfeld, who presided over proceedings in the twenties, was a large charismatic man with a fine imperial beard and a forceful personality. His wife Jane would stay upstairs and serve chicken soup to special customers like the novelist Louis Golding and the public executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, who was said to leave the black case containing his ‘tools of the trade’ downstairs. Pop’s granddaughter Sally Fiber remembered Albert as a ‘cheerful and unassuming’ man who sat her on his knee and sang her nursery rhymes.

On the ground floor Pop installed a pianola to liven things up. It attracted a local composer and friend of Lord Berners, Constant Lambert, whose ebullience masked his shyness. His friend, the writer Peter Quennell remembered him fondly and his description seems to sum up much of the spirit and people of these times:

…with his shapeless overcoat, his rough scarf and his heavy stick…Constant remained a hard-working, hard-living and almost invariably hard-up bohemian, whose powerful voice, whether he discussed the arts, sang a favourite folk song, or recited a lubricious limerick, penetrated to the farthest recesses, and startled the drowsiest habitués of a London bar parlour. He would have been perfectly at home in Paris during the Romantic 1830s.

There was a sense of congenial fellowship among this largely penniless crowd. Books and art were valued and conversation was knowledgeable and wide ranging. Pubs, previously the preserve of the working classes, became their preferred meeting places and there was a string of them within crawling distance of each other in or near Fitzrovia: the Wheatsheaf, the Marquis of Granby, the Duke of York, the Bricklayer’s Arms, and the Black Horse. But for now, the Fitzroy was the mecca.

The Queen of Bohemia

Artist Nina Hamnett, moving back and forth from Montparnasse to London, settled on The Fitzroy Tavern as London’s closest equivalent to the cafes of Paris. Having fled an abusive childhood in Wales she had taken to bohemian life in Paris and London with gusto and her vivacity and uninhibited ways earned her the title ‘Queen of Bohemia’.  Laughing Torso (1932), her first best-selling memoir, relates her adventures with the likes of Modigliani, who had been her lover, Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie. James Joyce said she was ‘one of the few vital women’ he had ever met. An average night might find her singing sea shanties to a delighted Andre Gidé, or downing a Kubla Khan Number 2, a laudanum laced cocktail mixed for her by the occultist Aleister Crowley. She took lovers of both sexes but was particularly enthusiastic about sailors and boxers, who would ‘go away’ afterwards.

After studying art in Dublin, London and Paris in the early part of the century, Hamnett was regarded as a promising Modernist artist. Walter Sickert thought her work exceptional, encouraged her and bought a number of her paintings. She painted still lifes and intimate portraits of her friends, exhibiting in solo and group shows throughout the 1910s to 1950s. In an interview for an art magazine in 1924, Hamnett said she wanted ‘to paint psychological portraits that shall accurately represent the spirit of the age.’

Always on the lookout for subjects who interested her, she focused a sometimes tough, satirical eye on certain ‘types’. In her painting ‘Gentleman in Top Hat’, 1919, she lampoons a snobbish prat sitting with his accoutrements of entitlement: his cane, top hat, spats and monocle.

The people she painted were often outsiders like herself and she enjoyed subverting expectations. Her take on Lady Constance Stewart-Richardson, known for her scantily clad dancing in the manner of Isadora Duncan, is of a grave woman, wearing a sombre black dress that covers nearly every scrap of flesh. She and Constance attended a public viewing of the portrait and watched with glee the look of bitter disappointment appearing on the faces of those who flocked to see it, expecting something salacious.

For six years Hamnett worked for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, a venture that gave expression to the Bloomsbury ethos in the decorative arts, and provided struggling artists with a decent income. Here she was involved in the production of murals, fabrics and rugs. She had an affair with Fry which was fraught. He was madly in love with her but she was terminally unfaithful. They posed for each other and she was the subject of one of his most successful portraits seen below.

Fry completed a second portrait of Hamnett wearing a dress designed by Vanessa Bell, standing beside furnishings swathed in Omega fabrics. These domestic details, so redolent of the Bloomsbury of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, never interested Hamnett. She married briefly and disastrously but her work was her mainstay. She led a peripatetic life, taking lovers as she pleased and living on her own terms. Such independence was extremely rare for her times.  

Portrait of Nina Hamnett by Roger Fry, courtesy of Wikicommons

Augustus John

Nina brought across to the Fitzroy Tavern some of her set from the Café Royale. Among them was Welshman Augustus John, the great artist, libertine and transgressor of the 1890 decadent scene. Like Nina he was born in Tenby. At fifty and past his physical best, he had earned a lecherous reputation. It was said that he patted every child’s head in Charlotte Street in case it was his own. At one of his parties, Dora Carrington wrote that he had

made many serious attempts to wrest my virginity from me. But he was too mangy to tempt me, even for a second.

John had a horror of being alone which may have had more to do with his reputation as a lady’s man than his sexual appetite. He was photographed gloating over many young beauties of the day, including the American actor Tallulah Bankhead pictured below.

Tallulah Bankhead wtih Augustus John 1929, courtesy of Wikicommons

In his memoir John describes the custom begun by Pop Kleinfeld to collect enough money to send poor children to the seaside every year. Customers would contribute if they felt like it by throwing money wrapped in paper lined with glue and attached to darts (provided by management), up to the ceiling. If correctly aimed, the darts stuck, so these acts of charity called ‘pennies from heaven’ were turned into a game of skill. John said that although Nina Hamnett often missed the target herself, she was always encouraging the practice for she was the ‘soul of generosity’, as many starving and forlorn artists of Montparnasse could attest.

It was at the Fitzroy Tavern that Augustus John met Dylan Thomas for the first time. He described entering the pub one evening when it was unusually crowded, full of theatrical comedians with Nina, seeming to appear in multiple places at once. He found a seat at some distance from the counter.

In the hurly-burly words were indistinguishable to me, but the peculiar miaulement of a group of epicenes could be recognized clearly, and nearer at hand the cultured ejaculations of Cambridge vied with the somewhat blurred but no less authoritative accents of South Wales.

His companion told him the Welshman was Dylan Thomas and John lost no time in ordering drinks all round to mark the occasion of their first meeting, foregoing his usual double rum and brandy for a pint of beer. He noticed Thomas’s ‘pleasant and slightly sardonic smile’ which conveyed amusement, and gave his round face with the snub nose and tousled auburn locks the look of a ‘happy schoolboy out on a spree’.

Falling from Favour

By the late thirties the Fitzroy, according to writer and critic Julian Maclaren-Ross, had become invaded by ‘tenth-raters’ and ‘might-have-beens’. The main players decamped around the corner to The Wheatsheaf, although they continued to drop by for a quick drink at the Fitzroy.

Nina Hamnett stayed on at the Fitzroy. She spent her later years trading anecdotes for drinks at the bar, occasionally vomiting into her handbag. As she grew older her work was increasingly side-lined, and she was viewed as a rather tragic relic of old bohemian decadence. She died in her sixties, after falling from the window of her flat and being impaled on a fence, forty feet below. Just two weeks before her death the BBC had broadcast a radio play about Fitzrovia featuring a fictional character based on Hamnett. The play was called It’s Long Past the Time.

Like Dora Maar, another talented artist, Nina Hamnett’s adventurous life became her story; her art much less visible. Hamnett’s biographer Alicia Foster points out that there were different rules for men like Augustus John and Picasso, artists whose rampant sexuality did not diminish their work or their critical acclaim. Foster believes that Nina came to realise that

it was not possible during her lifetime to be a woman and to be completely sexually and personally free without a backlash. To live without shame and not be somewhat feared and despised for it. For your reputation as an artist not to suffer because of it.

Music

Constant Lambert – ‘Elegiac Blues’ (1927) by Andreas Christakis

The man playing the pianola at the Fitzroy, conductor and composer Constant Lambert, was one of the most musically gifted and promising men of his generation. He was influenced by Satie, Elgar, Liszt and musicians as diverse as Stephan Grapelli, Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington (with whom he hung out in Soho dives).

Lambert became one of three founders of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet company, who shaped and nurtured principal dancers such as Margot Fonteyn (they had a long and tempestuous affair) and Robert Helpmann. Some saw him as the natural heir to Diaghilev in the way he could fuse music, choreography and design into one extravaganza. With the help of just a few friends and colleagues like Lord Berners, he established a tradition of dance in England.

His close friend Anthony Powell used him as the model for the composer Hugh Moreland in his 12-novel cycle about England in the 20th century, A Dance to the Music of Time (1955). It was a tribute in thanks to Constant who had influenced his writing, encouraging him to strip it of pretension and adopt a type of subverted orthodoxy that became a hallmark of his technique. Like Nina, Constant died before his time, his health wrecked by drink, overwork and undiagnosed diabetes.

Constant Lambert is perhaps best known for his jazz-infused piano concerto The Rio Grande (1927), but the jazzy, metropolitan sound of ‘Elegiac Blues’ is the piece I can best imagine him playing on Pop’s pianola, just before last drinks.

Notes

David, the manager of this beautiful pub told me it was closed for a year in 2015 and underwent a complete restoration. In the seventies its Victorian interior had been ripped out, so everything needed to be replaced, right down to the etched glass and mahogany snugs. They did a stunning job and it’s not surprising the Fitzroy Tavern won an award for best restored pub in the UK in 2017.

Arriving mid-afternoon on a stormy Friday, I was invited to have a coffee in the library. I walked up the stairs past walls lined with prints of paintings by Fitzroy clients and found myself in a cosy room with wood panelling and plush carpet. From the well stacked bookcase David gave me a copy of the biography of the pub by Pop Kleinfeld’s granddaughter Sally Fiber to read. I settled into one of the armchairs by the window, while the rain poured down outside. After a while I spied Caitlin Thomas’s clear eyed and fascinating memoir Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas (1986) on the shelf and a couple of hours passed in a flash. As the afternoon wore on the noise downstairs swelled, and by the time I left, people were three deep at the bar.  

I’ve reflected since about Nina Hamnett’s life and am reminded of certain parallels with the writer Katherine Mansfield who was just two years older. For both, their work came first, they took it seriously and they earned a living from it. They were sexual risk takers, and eschewed the type of domestic comforts on show in Bloomsbury houses, living their itinerate lives in flats and bedsits. Neither had in Woolf’s words, the essentials for creation: ‘money and a room of her own‘. But in Mansfield’s case, her husband John Middleton Murry conscientiously promoted her work after her death, editing her journals, letters, and writing a biography, keeping her writing current and uppermost in people’s minds. As her biographer Alicia Foster points out, many paintings of Hamnett’s were lost (presumably she had nowhere to store her art) or they disappeared into private collections, as only a few public galleries bought her work. Although Sickert and John encouraged her, she lacked someone like Murry to champion her work. This is why it’s so gratifying to discover that after sixty-five years, the first retrospective of Nina Hamnett’s paintings went on show at Charleston in 2021 (see the link below).

Fitzrovia is a fascinating area to explore. There are the swanky restaurants of gentrification but I kept coming across so many surprising places that betray its vibrant multicultural past. The writer/actor Griff Rhys Jones, who has worked and lived in Fitzrovia for much of his life, describes it well:

undiscovered nurses’ swimming pools and obscure modern art galleries, flute shops, play-script vendors and Cypriot tailors. Several wrecks that feature every year on the English Heritage ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ lean precariously close to millionaire mansions. An original toyshop that Dickens visited still thrives. Prostitutes and brothels discreetly hide in basements. Cartoon studios occupy premises next to corner fruit shops. Dentists, doctors and trichologists inhabit fine 18th-century townhouses.

Weblinks

The Fitzroy Tavern Facebook page.

The first retrospective of Nina Hamnett’s work was held at Charleston, the former home of Clive and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in 2021.

A wonderful discussion with the Nina Hamnett’s biographer Alicia Foster about her life and work.

An analysis of one of Sickert’s paintings of Nina Hamnett with a friend that sheds light on her relationships.

And the paintings of Augustus John.

Andrew Motion writes movingly about Constant Lambert here.

An interesting article about Aleister Crowley.

A short film about the ‘cheerful and unassuming’ Albert Pierrepoint who executed 400 people.

Sources

Fiber, Sally and Powell-Williams, Clive. The Fitzroy: The Autobiography of a London Tavern, DeSapinaud, 2014

Foster, Alicia. ‘Modern Women Artists 5: Nina Hamnett‘, Five Leaves Bookshop

Hamnett, Nina. Laughing Torso, Constable & Co. Ltd, 1932

John, Augustus. Chiaroscuro, Jonathan Cape, 1975

Maclaren-Ross, Julian. Memoirs of the Forties, Penguin, 1985

Motion, Andrew. The Lamberts: George, Constant and Kit, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987

Nicholson, Virginia. Beyond the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1903-1939, William Morrow, 2002

Rennison, Nick. Bohemian London, From Pre-Raphaelites to Punks, Oldcastle, 2017

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