Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club

Brian Howard gazes thoughtfully at the camera. Photo taken sometime in the 1930s by noted portrait photographer Howard Coster (not at The Gargoyle: this is The 500 Club.)

‘At least, my dear, I am a has-been. That’s something you can never be.’
Brian Howard in The Gargoyle Club, circa 1940s.

The Gargoyle Club was located at 69 Meard Street, just off Wardour Street. The club was located on the top three floors of a Lutyens-adapted Georgian townhouse and was founded in 1925 by the young aristocrat David Tennant as a place where he could go dancing with his girlfriend, the actress Hermione Baddeley. (In the 1970s, her sister Angela Baddeley achieved a kind of immortality as the plain-spoken cook Mrs Bridges in the 1970s Edwardian soap Upstairs, Downstairs.) By day the club was a straight-up venue for business lunches, but it came alive in the evenings, when the livelier members of London’s intelligentsia gathered to talk, drink and occasionally dance; no-one thought the resident band was any good but no-one seemed to care. The décor was especially noteworthy, having been supervised by none other than Henri Matisse: the ballroom was panelled with fragments cut from 18th century mirrors salvaged from a French chateau, and a pair of Matisse canvases completed the look. The Gargoyle immediately established itself as a very important cultural and social venue, even if Constant Lambert described the dance floor on Saturday night as being ‘packed with the two hundred nastiest people in Chiswick.’

Matisse’s Red Studio. The club also housed his Studio, Quai St Michel – both were sold in the early days of the war to pay club debts. The former is now in MOMA, New York, the latter in the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

The club’s members’ list is an impressive inventory of the great and the good, but this entry concerns itself with some of the sleazier regulars. The louche diplomat and traitor Guy Burgess became a member in 1943 and found the ambience particularly to his liking. At this time Burgess was working for the BBC and, covertly, the KGB, for whom he had already recruited sometime lover and occasional Gargoyle visitor, Donald MacLean. Their fellow Soviet spy in MI6, Kim Philby, was also a member of the Gargoyle but largely avoided the club during the war, possibly to keep Burgess’s conspicuous recklessness at arm’s length. Burgess was also close to another flamboyant Gargoyle fixture: Brian Howard, poet, professional failure, and one of the models for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Howard was, like Burgess, an old Etonian and a member of the gilded 1920s Oxford generation, which is where he encountered Evelyn Waugh. Later, he became associated with the party set beloved of twenties’ gossip columns. Unfortunately, Howard’s precocious poetic achievements petered out early and his youthful promise remained forever unfulfilled. Howard’s war time career was ignominious: thrown out of MI5 because he couldn’t keep a secret, he ended up in the public relations department of Bomber Command, a job title worthy of a Waugh novel. (Even in that post Brian Howard remained incorrigible. According to D.J. Taylor, in his book Bright Young People, Howard’s mother once interceded with her son’s RAF squadron leader concerning a uniform Brian had left in a pub toilet.)

Eaten up with bitterness, Howard functioned as the Gargoyle’s gargoyle, a sinister, mincing barfly who would assail people entering from the lobby with queeny insults (e.g.:‘Who do we think we are, dear, Noel Coward?’). Burgess, meanwhile, used the club as a pick-up joint, making passes at anyone who took his fancy, with mixed results. On one occasion he succeeded in luring an interior decorator back to his flat, whereupon he assailed him with coat hangers, but his approach to a young painter was less successful: ‘Would you like to come back to my flat? Would you like to be whipped? A wild thrashing? Wine thrown in?’ Howard and Burgess were occasional lovers, Howard indulging Burgess’s masochistic tendencies with enthusiastic firmness. There is also an intriguing episode in the summer of 1945, when Burgess and Howard went with their respective boyfriends to visit the ageing Lord Alfred Douglas at home in Brighton, thus squaring the circle: the louche gay spy and the Bright Young Person paying homage to Oscar’s beloved Bosie. Burgess wanted to show off his new boyfriend, who he believed was even more beautiful than Douglas had been in his fabled youth.

Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. Burgess found MacLean sexually unappealing, ‘white and flabby’, in sharp contrast to the rough trade he preferred.

The Gargoyle celebrated its silver jubilee in 1950: later that year Donald MacLean was made a full member of the club. The troubled bisexual diplomat had recently returned from a calamitous posting to Cairo and was proposed for membership by a friend who thought it might cheer him up. Unfortunately, Maclean was deeply unstable: unhinged by drink, his confused sexuality and the pressure of his own treachery. He was by now head of the American desk at the Foreign Office but his behaviour in the club seemed designed to bring about his own unmasking. Club regulars were subjected to the unedifying spectacle of Maclean slurringly announcing that he worked for ‘Uncle Joe’ (Stalin). But they thought it was a joke. In the end, Burgess and MacLean were tipped off by Kim Philby and fled before they were exposed. They defected to Moscow in 1951, living miserable self-pitying, and booze-addled lives thereafter. As for Brian Howard, he went even more to seed, and lived a peripatetic life bouncing cheques across Europe, before dying of an overdose of sleeping pills at 52. By the time all this happened the Gargoyle was in terminal decline, and by the end of the fifties it was a strip club. It remained a club of sorts until the 1980s, and for a while was the home of The Comedy Store, that notorious bear-pit where anyone could try telling jokes in front of a baying audience and the demonic emcee, Alexei Sayle. (What does this tell us? Anything? Discuss.)


Decadents at The Crown, 43 Charing Cross Road

A London pub, circa 1893.

‘Do not think it was an ordinary saloon bar. One entered and the narrow space opened out and disclosed a bar-parlour. … My friends were of the intelligentzia; [sic] they talked learnedly about the ballet and Walter Sickert and the latest art movement in France …There were settees round the wall and we sat on them and drank hot gin and water. Certain celebrities you were quite sure of finding … These last you could expect to turn up within a few minutes of the closing of the Empire and the Alhambra. Ernest Dowson would, as likely as not, be the first to arrive. … The visit to the Crown was not a dissipation, it was the end of the day’s work, a chance of meeting and talking with congenial friends, of exchanging ideas. It was far better, if less comfortable, than the Café Royal that succeeded it, for its limited space made it necessary that much of the conversation should be general.’ Grant Richards, Memories of a Mis-spent Youth, Heinemann, 1932.

One of the many casualties of our current locked-down life is the shuttering of art galleries; one major exhibition that has been rendered unavailable is Tate Britain’s survey of Aubrey Beardsley’s career. As a total sucker for the 1890s in general and the London ‘decadents’ in particular, I had been greatly looking forward to this; sadly, I will have to settle for the Tate’s video of the show (in the link above). But this does at least give me a cue to offer a snapshot of ‘aesthetic’ pub-going, circa 1890.

Decadent‘ London is defined for us by Beardsley and Oscar Wilde: creators of ornate, precious and sinister works of art, whose respective genius was laid waste by disease, the hypocrisy of society and ill-advised liaisons at the Savoy Hotel. But the languid image of the local decadent scene is misleading, as its members were, on the whole, very determined pleasure seekers, fully characteristic men-about-town of the era. Also, there was a split in the movement between the gay or sexually ambiguous ‘green carnation’ axis – Wilde, Alfred Douglas, Robbie Ross, etc. – and the louche, energetically heterosexual tendencies of a number of heavy drinking poets and artists, notably Ernest Dowson, Charles Conder and Arthur Symons.

Ernest Dowson by Charles Conder, presumably well into an evening’s drinking. Dowson is credited with the quip ‘Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.’

In the early 1890s, the centre of operations for the Decadent/Bohemian movement was The Crown in the Charing Cross Rd. This pub was convenient for West End theatres and within easy walking distance of the Decadents’ digs; and as it stayed open until 12.30 a.m. on weekdays, its saloon became their salon. Although not a regular at the Crown, Wilde would sometimes hold court there after performances of Lady Windermere’s Fan, which played The St. James’s Theatre in 1892. (Wilde’s more serious party-going went on elsewhere.) After The Crown closed for the night, Dowson might invite interested parties back to his digs in Fitzroy Street. These night drinkers called themselves ‘The Bingers’, and the company might include actresses or dancers they’d picked up at the Crown. If Wilde and Douglas were fond of stable boys, Dowson was fond of waitresses, prostitutes and distressed girls in general. There is a touching story concerning Dowson and his circle coming to the aid of a girl in their midst, the lover of an actor who had picked her up on a theatrical tour of Scotland. She quickly became a cherished ornament to the Crown set but ran into trouble when she got pregnant. She attempted to abort the pregnancy with a quack medicine and nearly killed herself in the process. As her boyfriend, one Lennox Pawle, was still appearing on stage, it was mostly left to Dowson and another actor friend to look after Marie and get her on a train home. When they heard that the girl had arrived safely, Dowson, Pawle and company went to celebrate at the Crown. Their celebrations are bound to have been partly motivated by the sheer relief at the thought that they would not be party to a girl’s death from a botched abortion; the collateral damage of the ‘naughty nineties’ is glimpsed in the margins of such memoirs. But it also sounds like Dowson was a bit in love with Marie, which would be fully characteristic of him.

Lennox Pawle circa 1900.

In a letter, Dowson described the rest of that weekend:

‘Yesterday Pawle went off to join his company at Derby. Goodie and I met in the evening. He had a charming man with him, a twenty-ton opium eater, who had run away with his cousin and is now about to marry her. We met at seven and consumed four absinthes apiece in the Cock till nine. We then went and ate some kidneys – after which two absinthes apiece at the Crown. After which, one absinthe apiece a Goodie’s club. Total seven absinthes. These had seriously affected us – but made little impression on the opium eater. … This morning Goodheart and I were twitching visibly. I feel rather indisposed: and in fact we decided that our grief is now sufficiently drowned, and we must spend a few days on nothing stronger than lemonade and strychnine.’

(The Cock was another Decadent hangout, located on Shaftesbury Avenue. Like The Crown, that has also gone, but it will get its own entry here in due course.)

Lennox Paule as the ‘pixilated’ Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, MGM, 1935.

Fights and Festivities at Hockley Hole


From The Annual Register, January 15th 1763:
A man was found in Fleet Ditch standing upright and frozen to death. He had, it seems, unfortunately mistaken his way in the night and slipped into the mud; and being in liquor could not disentangle himself.’

(It seems that this unfortunate was a barber from Bromley, which only goes to show that people from the suburbs have always been coming to grief on nights out ‘up west’.)

A photo – circa 2010 – showing the Coach and Horses pub (now just ‘The Coach’) on Ray Street, reflected in a traffic mirror. In the 18th century the site was known as ‘Hockley Hole’.

The Coach is a recently renovated pub in a curious backwater just west of Farringdon Rd. The pub used to be known as the Coach and Horses and it sits in a strange depression where three roads meet: Ray St., Back Hill and Herbal Hill. You can usually hear running water coming from a grating in the middle of the road: it is the sound of The Fleet, the greatest of all London’s lost rivers, now subsumed within the Ministry of Works’ drains. The section where it runs beneath Ray St. is the only stretch where it maintains its original course from its headwaters in Hampstead all the way to the Thames, where it spits out below Blackfriars Bridge. The Victorian sewer sits 14 feet under Ray Street; when they were laying it they found traces of a Roman pavement and, underneath that, the petrified remains of a mill dam.

Supposedly, an earlier incarnation of the Coach and Horses afforded access to the Fleet from its cellars, providing Georgian fugitives with an escape route to the Thames, or certain death in a fetid sewer, whichever was more likely. This can’t be too easily dismissed as an urban legend, as the sinister house ‘of Jonathan Wild’ was a few yards south of here, and the cellar of that dive definitely connected to the filth of Fleet Ditch. But the Coach is interesting for other reasons, as it occupies the site of Hockley Hole (or Hockley-in-the-Hole), one of the most scabrous entertainment venues in London’s history.

‘Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured, a form of sport that doubtless did not appeal to him.’ (The Fascination of London: Holborn and Bloomsbury by Sir Walter Besant,1903.)

Hockley Hole was famous for its bull terriers, which were bred and trained on the premises. In 1710 there was ‘… a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull … Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.’ On match days, bulls and bears were paraded through the streets to promote the carnage; there’s even an account of a tiger being baited by six dogs, that was a premier attraction in 1715.

Hockley in the Hole was referenced by Ben Jonson and Henry Fielding, and also gets a mention in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. It was swept away in 1756, after which bull-baiting moved to Spitalfields; but its memory lingered, an echo of a more primitive townscape. In Oliver Twist, Dickens has the Artful Dodger leading Oliver this way, en route to Fagin’s headquarters, which he placed a bit further south in Field Lane: ‘… down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole … the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels’

In the late 1980s and early 90s this end of Clerkenwell was a media boiler room, outwardly nondescript but bristling with energy; churning yet hidden, like the Fleet. A district of studios and print shops and publishers and dilapidated warehouses hastily re-purposed as temporary art spaces. A sense of something exciting happening, even if you couldn’t quite work out what it was. Opposite The Coach and Horses is a massive Art Deco factory block that was then Holborn Studios, a vast, labyrinthine lair for photographers, designers and printers, with a drinking culture to match. And, in his art scene memoir Lucky Kunst (that’s a pun, in case you weren’t clear), gallerist Gregor Muir identifies an event at The Coach and Horses as a moment of coalescence for the scene associated with the YBAs. One night in 1992, after the opening of a show in a Farringdon warehouse curated by nascent impresario Jay Jopling, the art mob invaded this unfamiliar pub to celebrate. The mood turned sour when someone picked a fight with the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, and a glass was broken over Dinos’s head. Muir asserts that, in the wake of this seemingly trivial pub fight, a new, collective spirit developed that dissolved pre-existing cliques and art world boundaries. ‘Something new was coming round the corner, something larger in scale’.

Jake and Dinos Chapman’s riff on Goya’s Disasters of War: an original set of Goya’s lithographs with 21st century elaboration.

So: Georgian cruelty to YBA punch- up, bull baiting to Mother and Child Divided, etc., where does that get us, you ask? If I subscribed to the Ackroyd/Sinclair school of psychogeography, I might conclude with a paragraph devoted to the mysterious, subterranean forces of ‘the terrain’, throw in a mention of Guy Debord and generally risk getting kicked in the head. (A woman of my acquaintance recently observed that seeing ‘psychogeography’ listed under hobbies on a guy’s dating profile was the ultimate turn-off. Thus the term joins ‘spiritual’, ‘salsa’, ‘yoga’ and ‘angling’ as a romantic deal-breaker.) Instead, I leave you with this lovely portrait by the late John Londei. The subject is Clerkenwell mascot ‘Little Jimmy’, posing next to Holborn Studios in 1983. Jimmy was like a wizened Artful Dodger, a relic of old London amidst ‘80s media chancers. His uniqueness and his attitude – a kind of formal defiance – make the Dickens comparison inevitable. But I make no apology because this is one occasion where ‘Dickensian’ may be used with absolute conviction.

Little Jimmy by John Londei.