In Daniel Farson’s 1954 photograph of Lady Caroline Blackwood and Cyril Connolly, the writer, heiress, and muse stands next to the critic and editor at the entrance to Wheeler’s fish restaurant in Soho. Here we are at the capital of bohemian London in the 1950s. Blackwood smokes. Connolly appears bemused (he has a laundry case by his feet). Both knew unhappy marriages. Blackwood, then only 22, had just separated from her first—the painter Lucian Freud—while Connolly, 50, would carry on unhappily with Barbara Skelton, who in her unkind memoir of 1987, Tears Before Bedtime, revealed that he would soak for an age in his bath and wail about the fading of his talent, until they divorced in 1956.
Wheeler’s was a place where guests, whether they drank to dissolve their sorrows or to gild their successes, did so as if there was no tomorrow. It was Freud’s favorite restaurant. Francis Bacon’s, too. Both men gave paintings to the owner, Bernard Walsh, so as to settle debts. The British painter Michael Wishart once said to Caroline Blackwood that he thought Bacon had two major ambitions: “He wanted to be one of the world’s best painters,” Blackwood recounted in The New York Review of Books following Bacon’s death in 1992, “and he wanted to be one of the world’s leading alcoholics. Whereas most people discovered that these two ambitions were contradictory and self-defeating, he felt that Francis had pulled them both off.”
“Shot in Soho”—an exhibition of Soho scenes taken from the mid-1960s to the 2000s—opens at the Photographers’ Gallery next week. Like Farson’s photograph of Blackwood and Connolly, the images are a reminder of how little lasts in Soho, although when was low life ever invested in institutions? Wheeler’s has gone. So has the Colony Room Club, whose long-reigning governess Muriel Belcher’s way with a welcome was to swear at the membership. The French House, a pub on Dean Street, its walls covered with old photographs, remains. So does Ronnie Scott’s, the jazz club, along with Andrew Edmunds’s print gallery, restaurant, and upstairs club, the Academy. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s favorite lamppost is on Carlisle Street, near Soho Square—earlier this year she pointed it out to an interviewer from Vogue.
A reminder of how little lasts in Soho.
Nostalgia and complaint are often two sides of the same coin: It’s as easy to say Soho isn’t what it was as it is to disparage those who appear to be changing it forever—developers, arrivistes, etc. But when wasn’t Soho a place of transactions, or trans-action, cash and cashing in? Hasn’t it always been both?
I used to play on Harold Pinter’s cricket team, the Gaieties, named after a West End theater of the 1930s. For a number of years, Pinter, who was eternally generous, hosted an annual supper for his team at a private room in the Groucho Club, in Soho. The drinking was of Hogarthian proportions. The next day no one remembered the night before, and I am confident that while drinking no one thought too much about the drinkers of another Soho era—Freud or Bacon, Blackwood or Connolly. There are no footsteps to follow if you drink as if there will be no tomorrow. —Inigo Thomas