The 'Twenties'

This piece first appeared in William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990). © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.

In the Twenties there were still many slow-moving horse-drawn vehicles and bicycles on the roads, and pedestrians were able to cross from one side of the street to the other without the help of Zebra crossings. In the matter of woman's dress the tight hobble skirt was the favourite garment worn by the ladies of fashion; here too any attempt at fast movement was suitably slowed down. To have appeared on the streets in the shrill variegated colours of modern clothes, with their sky-blue bell-bottomed trousers, would have caused the arrest of the wearer for creating a public disturbance. Although it is true that Nina Hamnett, a celebrated woman artist and a Bohemian of the period, did challenge convention by walking down Regent Street one night wearing trousers, but of a sober masculine cut. However that was as far as the Bohemians of the Twenties dared to go. In spite of this the men too were concerned to give their suits a modern look by introducing an excessively wide trouser-leg, which became known as the 'Oxford Bags' from the fact that the fashion originated among the students there, but the Bags were not regarded favourably by the Workers, and were soon discarded.

The Diners, 1919

The Diners (oil on canvas), 1919
(Tate Gallery)
© The Estate of John David Roberts

Lacking the Talkies and Television the public got its chief entertainment at the Music Halls from such stars of Variety as Marie Lloyd and Harry Weldon. Sport was not yet the mainstay of the Newspapers, not was there any football mania with its gangs of hooligan fans.

This was the period of Ragtime and Jazz when at their bottle parties the Bohemians shuffled and shimmied round the room to some ragtime song played on an old gramophone, until the dawn brought the parties' end. Gatherings of this kind were frequent in those days. The large studio at Thackeray House in Maple Street was the scene of many of these Rags, where before the night was out one would find a nude Bohemian or two. Sir William Orpen occupied this studio whilst a student at the Slade. Later on Adrian Allinson became the tenant and slept there in a large four-poster bed. A noted Bohemian of the time, John Flanagan, together with some companions, attempted to capture the bed, but failed. No doubt he felt that such a piece of furniture was out of place in a studio that had witnessed so many lively parties. Flanagan himself gave many parties in his rooms in the old Cumberland Hay Market. It was in his rooms that the London Group was founded. Other artists too had rooms there, that looked out upon this wide cobbled square with its loaded hay wagons. Bernard Meninsky, Christopher Perkins, and Geoffrey Nelson, who later died in a French internment camp in the second world war, were also housed round about.

The Café Royal in Regent's Street was the favourite meeting place of the artist and bohemians, where they could sit the evening out sipping a mezzo-grande or an absinthe, and await the arrival of Augustus John and his two stalwarts, Ian Strang the etcher and Horace Cole the practical joker. It was in the Café Royal one evening during the first world war that Cole, sitting with a group of artists, remarked to two newcomers in uniform who had joined his table, 'We are the civilisation you are fighting for.' The reply of the soldiers was not recorded.

I recall another incident at the Café Royal in which John played a leading role. One night, just before closing time, a small man of commonplace appearance, complete with trilby hat, entered the Café followed by a number of picturesquely dressed men and women, who were said to be Rumanian gypsies, and their guide the secretary of the Gypsy Club. Ignoring John seated with Strang at a table close by, the gypsies passed on to another part of the Café. It seems that John took this as a slight, for anything to do with gypsies was his speciality. So when it came to closing time John, on his way out and in angry mood, walked up to the little secretary and slapped his face. The group of spectators that had gathered in the street outside the Café brought two policemen to the scene. When John was asked by one of them the reason for the assault, he said 'I don't like him.' The constables, who seemed to think this a reasonable excuse, then told the onlookers to disperse; after this they strolled away together with John and Strang, who no doubt were able to convince the two coppers that an expert in Romany folklore and lingo should not be given the cold shoulder by a band of gypsies, foreigners at that.

When at midnight the Café Royal closed it was the thing to adjourn to some nightclub until the early hours. Madame Strindberg's 'Golden Calf' in Heddon Street nearby was a favoured night spot. Ethel Levey and George Robey, the stars of 'The Byng Boys on Broadway' were members. The aristocracy were represented in the person of the Duke of Manchester. One night when the police raided the club the Duke made a quick exit by means of a back window. Madame Strindberg, a former wife of the Swedish playwright, was a small plump pale-complexioned brunette, with a forceful manner.

Nightly entertainment was provided on a small stage by a pianist and his wife, a singer; the pianist being a large powerful-looking man with a black beard. Often during rehearsals he would shout and bully his wife until she was in tears. Occasionally poetry recitals were given, when poets would read their own poems. The walls of this extensive basement, originally a kind of underground warehouse, had been decorated by Wyndham Lewis, and the iron girders that supported the building above were encased in large plaster figures by Epstein. At the outbreak of the First World War the cabaret of the Golden Calf closed down, and Madame Strindberg left for New York.

A more modest rendezvous for the humbler kind of Bohemian was the Harlequin in Beak Street off Regent Street. It began as two rooms in the house of a Greek who was a waiter at the Café Royal. Madame Papani, his wife, was a large woman with six children. To meet this expense, he had the idea of turning a part of the house in which he lived into a café. The chief item on the menu was lemon tea served in glasses at sixpence a time; even at this cost there were some customers who considered the price too high. One evening two policemen in plain clothes from the Section House opposite protested at having to pay sixpence for a glass of tea; however Papani said that if they had told him who they were, he would have charged them only half price.

Papani's clientele consisted chiefly of those artists and bohemians who knew him as a waiter at the Café Royal; they came after dining elsewhere to finish the evening with a glass of tea at the Harlequin. Jacob Epstein could frequently be found, seated with his girl friend in a shady corner of one of the dimly lighted rooms. Augustus John was there the night Roy Campbell, South African poet and amateur bullfighter, celebrated his wedding, but not with lemon tea.

Back in the Twenties beards were not popular, and if any male were seen wearing one, the correct thing to do was to shout 'Beaver!' Rowley Smart the landscape painter, an habitué of the Harlequin, had recently become friendly with A. John and, no doubt in homage to the 'Last of the Bohemians,' had also grown a beard. Among the customers at the café was a rather corpulent gentleman who whenever he saw Rowley arrive would shout 'Beaver!' The bearded Smart ignored these repeated greetings for a time, until having got tired of the joke he shouted in reply 'Arse Face!' From then on Smart was able to display his beard without opposition.

Another 'Beaver,' an old grey one, that used to frequent the Harlequin, was the former hunger marcher Stuart [Stewart] Gray. If Aug. John was the 'Last of the Bohemians,' then Gray could be 'The First of the 'Hippies' or 'Squatters'.' He did his 'Squattings' in an empty house in Ormonde Terrace overlooking Primrose Hill. The Authorities, less tender-hearted than those of the 'Seventies,' had cut off the heating and lighting. At the rear of the house on a level with the first floor landing was a small glass conservatory, that Stuart had filled with hay almost to the roof, on which he slept fully dressed. It soon became known among the homeless stragglers of Soho that Stuart was squatting in this large empty house, in which there was plenty of room for others seeking shelter. Among the new tenants that took up residence were a number of girls, calling themselves artists' models, and a couple of artists.

One of the artists who stayed there was David Bomberg. It seemed to him a better arrangement to live rent-free in Ormonde Terrace, than to pay rent for the room he was occupying in St. George's Square [Terrace?] nearby. So he moved to his new lodging, with his studio easel, a stack of paintings, portfolios of drawings, and a camp bed. Meanwhile an old woman with two teenage girls, Peggy and Philomena, took up residence at this free-for-all house.

Shortly afterwards a man settled in who took over control of the place and its lodgers. He seemed to have supplanted Stuart and decreed that the squatters must pay rent. At this Bomberg decided to leave, but found himself in a fix when the new controller claimed to hold his pictures in lieu of rent; and it was only with difficulty that he managed to extricate them. Stuart Grey later migrated to Golder's Green, and took up agricultural work to help the war effort. He seems to have turned artist too, for some years afterwards he appeared at the Harlequin, offering to draw customers' portraits at a few pence a time.

The Harlequin was becoming popular, due no doubt to its feminine patrons, whose vocal talents turned the place at times into a sort of Café Chantant, when the dark-skinned Helene sang the 'Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, O!' or Gypsy Lang sang Casey Jones the engine-driver's lament; with the vivacious Betty May, called the Tiger Woman, together with Dolores and the Snake Charmer (so called from her habit of carrying around a small basket of snakes) joining in the chorus.

Papani began to feel that the Harlequin needed more space. He obtained this by removing certain walls in the basement of his old house; this more than doubled the accommodation of the café. Besides working at the Café Royal and running the Harlequin, he did part time waiting at the Ham Bone Club, in Ham Yard, a cul-de-sac tucked away behind Piccadilly Circus. But his hopes of a bigger and better Harlequin were brought to an abrupt end. For on reaching home one early morning after work at the Ham-Bone club, the whole house collapsed suddenly, burying Papani and his still sleeping family under its rubble. It seemed that the removal of some walls in the basement had left this antique house without the necessary structural support.

After the collapse of the Harlequin, a café known as the Arminian, also in the vicinity of Ham Yard, was for a short period a meeting place for poets, litterateurs and bohemian types. These however were gradually squeezed out by a rougher, tougher snooker-and-billiards-playing class of customer. Another nightclub that had only a short run, before the outbreak of the first world war caused it to close, was the Crab-Tree. Its founder was an artist named Hamilton, one of the group of abstract painters misnamed Vorticists. The club had premises on the top floor of a Pullman's leather warehouse in Greek Street, Soho, a large barren hall with a platform at one end used for dancing.

Only the most confirmed Bohemians were prepared to climb those steep steps to the top floor of this tall building; as for the ordinary night club habitués, they preferred to take their pleasures below ground. Certainly these clubs seem to thrive best there. There were no singers at the Crab-Tree, the girls preferred to dance. One stalwart climber who reached the top floor was Augustus John, who enjoyed watching the dancers. Had Hamilton's venture survived it might have become the first Vorticist night club, and a rendezvous for rebel artists. However it was doomed to failure, too many steps to climb. Hamilton turned his back on night clubs and Vorticism; it was said that he married a rich woman and went into the jewellery business.

Besides the songs, dances, and drinks of the Soho clubs, the artists and bohemians of the Twenties also needed food, and this they found mainly in four restaurants situated in Charlotte Street. They were: L'Hôtel de la Tour Eiffel, L'Etoile, Bertorelli's, and a small restaurant known as the 'Mixed' because for dessert a small dish of rice and stewed apple was always served. At Bertorelli's the regular customers were taxi-drivers and smart uniformed Daimler car-hire chauffeurs; but these automobilists were slowly being superseded by the less affluent set of poor artists and bohemians (bad money driving out the good, as it were – if of course there was any money at all). It is the traditional role of the restaurateur to give tick, lend money, or change post-dated cheques for his bohemian clientele.

The artists who dwelt around Fitzroy Street and Charlotte Street were a mixed lot of rich and poor; a rich one, on his way down Fitzroy Street, at any moment ran the risk of being accosted by one of his poor neighbours for the loan of half-a-crown or even less. Some of these borrowers were very ingenious in their methods of approach, thus: 'Matthew, you know that half-crown you lent me yesterday, well, if you could make it another two and six, I will pay you back the whole five bob tomorrow.' So, from fear of losing his first loan, the victim usually paid up. Your experienced cadger was adept at judging what sum to ask for; he had his two, his five, and even his ten bob 'touches.' On the other hand when the occasion required it he would go as low as a shilling or a few coppers.

In spite of its French name, L'Etoile had as its proprietor an Italian, Signor Rossi. The restaurant was patronised by Wyndham Lewis and also by Roger Fry, who despite their differences of opinion in art matters were in full agreement when it concerned Maitre Rossi's escalope milanaise, pommes sautés et épinards, washed down with a bottle of Sauterne. At the hour of lunch or dinner, among the customers one noticed an artist or two, of the affluent kind of course; perhaps Matthew Smith together with Epstein, after having evaded any lurking Fitzroy Street 'Borrowers.'

Anyone passing down Charlotte Street southwards would find it impossible to ignore the tall facade of the Hôtel de la Tour Eiffel that seems as one approaches to bar the entrance to Soho. Like the Etoile, this Hotel also is only outwardly French, its proprietor, Rudolf Stulik, being Austrian, as were his three waiters Joe, Frank and Otto. La Tour Eiffel, judged by the quality of its cuisine and clientele, was easily superior to any other restaurant in the neighbourhood. One of its earliest customers of note was Whistler, soon to be followed by Augustus John. Stulik soon discovered that John's presence was good for business, and to the frequent question, 'Has John been in lately, Stulik?' he would say 'Yes, Mr. John was here last night' or 'Mr. John was here at lunchtime.' Then with a glance through the window to see if Augustus was approaching, would add 'Oh yes, Mr. John is often here.' One got the impression from this that 'Mister John' spent most of his time at the Eiffel. Nevertheless it was indeed his favourite restaurant.

The next event of importance at the Tour Eiffel was the coming of Wyndham Lewis. It could be said of John that, besides his fame as an artist, it was also his artistic appearance and the legend of his life among the gypsies, that attracted the clientele. But with Lewis it was different. Although sharing John's taste for 'Sombreros' he was not disposed to beat about the bushes with the gypsies, but soon had his paints and brushes in action, with the result that in no time at all Stulik was the delighted owner of a small private dining-room decorated with Lewis' abstract paintings, to be known as the Vorticist room. He also chose the furniture to suit the character of the room, with the exception of the carpet which, to Lewis' annoyance, Madam insisted must be grey Wilton pile.

As a result of the publicity caused by this display of Vorticism, Stulik soon found himself a patron of Art as well as a restaurant Patron, and it was not long before the walls of the main dining-room were festooned with a mixed collection of works by artists of varying talents. Stulik formed his collection by giving an agreed number of free meals to the artist whose work he wished to acquire. Among those who took payment in this way, the most important was Sickert. But just how many lunches and dinners a Sickert etching was worth, I never found out.

However not all the artists whose work hung in the restaurant were in need of a free meal; some, like Richard Wyndham and Walter Taylor, were wealthy. Amidst this display of oils, watercolours, and etchings, many of the most distinguished personalities in politics, art, music, stage and literature sat down at one time or another to enjoy the cuisine of the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel. However these peaceful activities of the Austrian restaurateur in his Soho hotel were shortly to be disturbed by the warlike schemes being prepared by that other Austrian in a certain bierkeller in Munich.

As the year 1938 drew near Stulik was not happy at the prospect of a second internment, also business was bad and debts were mounting; until one morning at 12 o'clock on the 12th of January 1938 the entire contents of the Tour Eiffel were (by order of the Sheriff) put up for auction. However the crowd who filled the restaurant that morning were not the connoisseurs and amateurs of art, the gourmets, the successful playwrights, actors, lawyers and musicians eager to bid for the oils and watercolours, but hoteliers, chefs, and waiters from neighbouring hotels looking for bargains.

The items of the art collection went for a few shillings only; a watercolour by Richard Wyndham, 'A villa and courtyard,' fetched twelve shillings; an original manuscript by Eugene Goossens brought in twenty-eight shillings; while a 'Mother and Child' drawing by Meninsky went for twenty-four bob. I have no record of the amounts paid for such pieces of furniture as a set of nine carved walnut-framed dining-room chairs, with backs in stamped leather and seats in rexine, or the famous Grey Wilton pile carpet that had formerly annoyed Lewis so much.

Following the loss of his restaurant Stulik retired to a furnished room nearby, where shortly afterward he died; leaving to others the task of catering for the 'Diners-Out' in the 'Black-out' of the second World War.

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