Why Annabel’s was a place ‘you never wanted to leave’

For five decades Annabel’s has been the playground of the rich and famous, attracting Hollywood legends, rock stars, fashion icons and even royalty. As its decor is offered at auction on 20 November, we look back on the club’s rich history

In 1963, a nightclub opened in the basement of No. 44 Berkeley Square. It was launched by Mark Birley, a young entrepreneur who decided to name it after his wife, Lady Annabel. Within months, London’s glitterati could be seen tripping back up the steps into the cold grey morning, after having spent the night dancing at the high altar of London society, the expressive voice of Ray Charles or Ella Fitzgerald still ringing in their ears.

The interior of Annabel’s, which opened in 1963 in the basement of No. 44 Berkeley Square. Photo Christian Voigt

The interior of Annabel’s, which opened in 1963 in the basement of No. 44 Berkeley Square. Photo: Christian Voigt

The Sixties was the decade in which two worlds collided — suddenly hairdressers were as famous as duchesses, and everyone wanted to date a Beatle. At its centre was Annabel’s — a byword for glamorous sophistication. It was ‘an extraordinary time to be in London’, said Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, in Ridley Scott’s documentary about Annabel’s, A String of Naked Lightbulbs.

The stories about the club are legion: George Harrison was once refused entry for not wearing a tie, and instead got to spend his New Year’s Eve at a Lyons Tea Room with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. 

Peter Blond, a lifelong friend of Mark Birley, once asked if it was true that the Beatles were turned away from  because they weren’t wearing ties. Birley replied, ‘No, absolutely not. That is complete rubbish; it’s because they weren’t wearing shoes!’  That said, the designer Patrick Cox, Eric Clapton and conservationist Damian Aspinall are just three of the many others to have fallen foul of of the club’s strict dress code over the years.

Christian Voigt’s photograph of the Buddha Room at Annabel’s, featuring the legendary bodhisattva

Christian Voigt’s photograph of the Buddha Room at Annabel’s, featuring the legendary bodhisattva

Those who did dress to impress, however, got to mingle in one of the many womb-red rooms designed by Nina Campbell and ornamented with Birley’s art collection. The duo were masters of illusion, creating a world of eclectic splendour that mixed the old world with the contemporary. 

Caricatures by H.M. Bateman and sketches by John Stanton Ward jostled with theatrical Jazz Age posters and costume designs by Leon Bakst from the Ballet Russes. Modern British works by Glyn Philpot, William Orpen and Alfred Munnings, meanwhile, were a reminder of the intellectual inheritance of Mark Birley’s painter father, Sir Oswald Birley.

The lighting was warm, the furnishings velvet and the staff discreet, but not so discreet as to inhibit the club’s notoriety. Reports of bad behaviour regularly leaked out, to be duly recorded in the press and enjoyed by the British public over breakfast.

Birley’s eclectic art collection included Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), Study of a grey horse, seen on the left wall under a lamp (estimate £15,000-25,000), and Glyn Warren Philpot, R.A. (1884-1937), Henry Thomas Head studies, circa 1929, hanging in the alcove. Both these lots are offered in Annabels on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Birley’s eclectic art collection included Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), Study of a grey horse, seen on the left wall under a lamp (estimate: £15,000-25,000), and Glyn Warren Philpot, R.A. (1884-1937), Henry Thomas: Head studies, circa 1929, hanging in the alcove. Both these lots are offered in Annabel's on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

In 2007 Birley sold Annabel’s to the British businessman Richard Caring, and the legendary haunt has now left the basement premises. Its famed decor is being offered at auction at Christie’s in London on 20 November, with estimates ranging from £50 to £120,000.

According to Christie’s UK Chairman Orlando Rock, ‘Each and every lot is sure to evoke memories and excite those who want to celebrate the unique atmosphere, laughter and friendships that Annabel’s represents.’ 


Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), Two costume designs for dancing girls, 1920. 18 x 11 ¾  in (45.7 x 30  cm). Estimate £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Annabels on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), Two costume designs for dancing girls, 1920. 18 x 11 ¾ in (45.7 x 30 cm). Estimate: £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Annabel's on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London



Highlights among the 250-plus lots include an Annabel’s table for eight (estimate: £1,000-1,500), comprising eight dining chairs with the quintessential red and green upholstery, a circular restaurant table and eight elegant place settings, including wine glasses, plates, cutlery, tablecloth, napkins, salt and pepper pots and a toast rack; iconic designs by two of France’s master poster artists, Paul Colin and A.M. Cassandre; one of Glyn Philpot’s final portraits of Henry Thomas (estimate: £80,000-120,000); and a striking Portrait of a Lady  by Augustus John (estimate: £20,000-30,000)

One of the main draws, however, will be the much-loved bodhisattva, which for more than 50 years has been a beatific presence in the Buddha Room, presiding over the affairs of royalty, fashion icons, recording stars and Hollywood greats — among them Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Diana Ross, Bryan Ferry, Jack Nicholson, Elizabeth Taylor, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Moss, and the Queen, no less.

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In Ridley Scott’s documentary, Goldie Hawn recalls walking into Annabel’s for the first time in 1970. ‘I was making my second movie and I’d never been to London, and I remember going into this club and feeling like I was absolutely transported… it was like an extraordinarily designed and conceived place, where you never wanted to leave. It was warm, the colours, the reds, it had this elegance to it, and yet you felt that you could put  your feet up.’

Eddie Wetton, the club’s receptionist, remembers how on another occasion Hollywood legend John Wayne ‘came into the club very drunk’ and tried to light a cigar in the bar — ‘he broke three in the process.’

Offering unprecedented access to the normally private world of Annabel’s, the pre-sale public view will take place in-situ at 44 Berkeley Square from 16-20 November, with one catalogue admitting two visitors.