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.

Jonathan Wild’s House, Chick Lane

The Gordon Riots, 1780: a jamboree of anarchic, xenophobic mayhem. A Victorian imagining (painted by John Seymour Lucas in 1879) of ‘King Mob’ being put in its place.

From an account quoted in The Citizen’s Monitor, Jonas Hanway, 1780:

‘One of our detachments visited Chick Lane, Field Lane and Black Boy Alley, and some other such places. … These places constitute a separate town or district, calculated for the reception of the darkest and most dangerous enemies to society; and in which, when pursued for the commission of crimes, they easily conceal themselves. … the owners of these houses make no secret of their being let for the entertainment of thieves.’

Further to last week’s gin-soaked look at The Gordon Riots, here’s a further slice of Georgian low-life. In the aftermath of the great riot, there was great concern over the hidden incubation of revolutionary intent afforded by the city’s slums, and the above account comes from a soldier sent into the rookeries of Smithfield to flush out seditionaries. At that time Chick Lane formed part of a rookery succinctly known as ‘Little Hell’, which sprawled across Smithfield and the Fleet valley. Chick Lane is cited in over 300 cases at the Old Bailey during the course of the century and, at the western end, near Saffron Hill and backing onto Fleet Ditch, stood an ancient pub that was notorious for its criminal connections. It was known, variously, as The Old House, The Red Lion Tavern or, for our purposes, Jonathan Wild’s House. Jonathan Wild, the self-styled ‘thief taker general’, was the early Georgian prototype for every subsequent bent copper. The pub bore his name because he stored stolen goods on site, but it was also popular with other celebrity criminals, including Jack Sheppard (the model for Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera) and Dick Turpin, highwayman of romantic legend. This boozer offered ample opportunities for the concealment of people and plunder; a fugitive could take advantage of any number of hidden exits into adjoining houses and alleys, and the basement allegedly afforded access to Fleet Ditch – as an escape of last resort, perhaps, or just a handy way of getting rid of an inconvenient corpse. (In 1758 mother and daughter Sarah and Sarah Metyard came all the way from Hanover Square to dump the remains of a starved apprentice in Fleet Ditch. They found it harder to access the Fleet than they had supposed, so they left their victim’s head and torso in the mud of Chick Lane.)

Hogarth’s ‘Idle Tom’ in a tavern cellar, about to be taken.

Fortunately, Hogarth has preserved this fabulously lurid milieu for posterity. In his narrative series Industry and Idleness, his ne’er do-well apprentice ‘Idle Tom’ turns to crime and is betrayed by his lover, a prostitute. The setting for this scene is a nightmarish pub, wherein a syphilitic barmaid (her false nose is the giveaway) attempts to serve brawling customers whilst ‘Idle Tom’ assesses the spoils of a robbery with his accomplices, one of whom is disposing of a body through a trapdoor. Meanwhile, Tom’s girl is pointing out her boyfriend for the pursuing sergeant, who is giving her a coin for her trouble. Hogarth’s model for his tavern is, according to some, Jonathan Wild’s House – while others assert that it depicts The Bowl of Blood in Black Boy Alley. (Black Boy Alley had its own gang of murderous thugs, who targeted sailors and other incautious pub-goers.) But as our pub’s name was something of a moveable feast it is at least possible that it and The Bowl of Blood were one and the same. So how bad was this dive? Was Hogarth exaggerating for the purposes of a morality tale? What would its TripAdvisor score be today?

The Fleet Ditch seen from The Red Lion (a.k.a. Jonathan Wild’s House), drawn in the 1840s and reproduced in Thornbury’s Old and New London vol.2.

The pub gave up some of its secrets following its demolition in 1844, by which time Chick Lane had been renamed West Street in a vain bid to shed some of its former associations. Exposed to the light, its sinister intricacy became a tabloid sensation, a period ‘House of Horror’. Hidey-holes, secret passages, a still for making gin and a blast furnace for counterfeiting coins were all revealed: and in the basement there was indeed a tunnel giving onto Fleet Ditch – alongside a skull and a quantity of human bones. The Old House made good on its reputation. This is a prime example of a pub as an emblem of projected fear. Just as Rats’ Castle fascinated Dickens in the 19th Century, and modern tourists visit The Blind Beggar and other pubs on the Kray Twins nostalgia trail, so Jonathan Wild’s House – or The Red Lion – or The Bowl of Blood – represents the theatre of Georgian crime: zeitgeist fears projected onto a physical space, the trapdoor drop into the filth of Fleet Ditch the ultimate terror. You can’t fall any lower than that.

Jonathan Wild throws an opponent to his doom: an illustration by George Cruikshank
for Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard. The unfortunate victim is being hurled into
an ancient well hidden inside Wild’s house. Concealed water = oblivion.

As for Jonathan Wild, he rather came unstuck after he arrested Sheppard, who had become a folk hero on account of his startling escapes from Newgate and various other prisons. Wild’s duplicity was exposed and he followed his former confederate to hang from Tyburn tree just a year after Sheppard, in 1725. The legends of these Georgian thugs retained a strong hold over the English imagination, fostered by the ‘Newgate Novels’ of the early Victorian era. Harrison Ainsworth wrote one about Dick Turpin and another of his successful potboilers was simply called Jack Sheppard. The young Charles Dickens was put out by the latter as he had not long published his own Newgate novel: Oliver Twist.

(I am indebted to Jerry White’s wonderful book London in the 18th Century for much information regarding Chick Lane.)