Picasso as a young man had the Quatre Gats beer hall in Barcelona. Modernists in turn-of-the century Paris frequented the Lapin Agile cabaret in Montmartre. Abstract-Expressionist barflies duked it out in the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. But for British artists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the hangout of choice was, and remains, the Groucho Club in Soho.
Artists need places to congregate. Too much time in solitary studios can send them stir-crazy. And since its inception in the 80s, when Francis Bacon was tempted through the door with oysters and champagne, the Groucho Club has provided a haven where artists can unwind and exchange ideas.
Indeed, during the 90s the club seemed like the only refuge in town for artists who belonged to the generation now known — slightly absurdly, given the length of time that has elapsed since they first emerged — as the YBAs. The Groucho was the setting for scores of infamous art-world stories, often involving the most prominent YBA of them all: Damien Hirst. Whether or not these tales were factually accurate was immaterial, because they suggested an essential truth: during the heyday of ‘Cool Britannia’, British art and the Groucho were enmeshed like the double helix of DNA.
All this is well known. What is less familiar is the reason why so many British artists have gravitated towards the Groucho in recent decades. And that reason has less to do with the old schtick about the club’s reputation for hell-raising debauchery, and more with what artists actually encounter when they enter the premises. I’m talking about the objects hanging on the walls that they can look at with their own eyes — the art.
Today it’s commonplace to encounter contemporary art in smart restaurants and private members’ clubs. When the Groucho was founded, though, this wasn’t the case
Over the past twenty-five years, Nicky Carter, the club’s longest-serving member of staff, has quietly but insistently built up an important collection of contemporary British art. Without parting with a penny of the club’s money, Carter has persuaded an impressive array of artists to donate artworks to the Groucho in exchange for membership. The collection now boasts approximately one hundred and twenty works of art in a range of media: mostly paintings, but also dozens of prints, photographs and sculptures.
Today it’s commonplace to encounter contemporary art in smart restaurants and private members’ clubs. Back when the Groucho was founded, though, this wasn’t the case. More often than not, exclusive clubs were decorated with dreary paintings of animals or portraits of their rubicund, claret-soaked members. Rather than catch your attention and provoke a conversation, this was art designed to soothe or even deflect the eye. In other words, it was dross.
Nicky Carter, an artist, the club’s longest-serving member of staff and its art curator, has quietly built up the collection without parting with a penny of the club’s money. Photograph by James Kelly
To begin with, it was a similar story at the Groucho. When Carter joined the club as a waitress in 1989, there were a few were underwhelming bits and bobs on the walls. ‘A wife of one of the members might have done a Cornish landscape or something,’ she recalls. ‘It was all very ... palatable.’ But there was nothing memorable from the realm of contemporary art. Then the club’s inaugural manager, Liam Carson, discovered that Carter was studying art at Goldsmiths College, where she was a year or two behind up-and-coming talents such as Hirst. Carson asked her if she had any friends who would be willing to show work in the Groucho, and she started making enquiries.
Carter now receives emails every week from artists beseeching her to consider their work for the club’s collection. (Each year she usually acquires around ten works of art on behalf of the Groucho.) But in those early, more informal days, she didn’t have such luck. Artists were suspicious of giving work to the Groucho — or to any members’ club. They suspected that the mediocrity of what else was on display would diminish their work by association. They worried that drunks carousing late into the night would damage their creations. ‘It was hard to convince people in the beginning,’ Carter says.
Angus Fairhurst (1966-2008), When I Woke Up in the Morning the Feeling Was Still There, 1992. Screen print. 26 x 34 ¼ in (66 x 87 cm.) Courtesy of Angus Fairhurst and Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photographed by James Pfaff and Sebastian Böttcher. © Angus Fairhurst
Yet gradually she persuaded a few of her contemporaries to donate something. Angus Fairhurst’s screen-print When I Woke Up in the Morning the Feeling Was Still There (1992) was the first artwork that Carter acquired for the collection. It was followed soon afterwards by a spin painting that Hirst agreed to loan to the club. And as people became increasingly aware of this group of young artists, who were unafraid of self-promotion, so it became easier to talk others into giving work to the Groucho too.
Twenty-five years on from those tentative first steps, Carter has amassed something remarkable: a record of the variety, depth and exuberance of the past quarter century of contemporary British art. As she puts it: ‘I want to reflect what’s going on in the art world at any given time. If the collection doesn’t reflect what’s going on, then you may as well just put posters on the walls.’
More often than not, artists happy to swap art for membership will offer a shortlist of contenders from which Carter will select a single, representative piece. Since Carter is an artist herself working together with her husband Rob, it is possible to consider the club’s collection as one of ‘artists’ art’, just as we might speak of a cult novel by ‘a writers’ writer’.
Peter Blake, Sources of Pop Art 2, 2000. Silkscreen print 21 x 21 in. (53 x 53 cm.) Courtesy of and © Peter Blake. Photographed by James Pfaff and Sebastian Böttcher
The breadth of the collection is arresting. The most represented artist is the octogenarian ‘godfather of Pop art’ Peter Blake, who has given eight prints. There are impressive works by other important artists from the same generation including Gerald Laing (d. 2011) and David Whitaker (d. 2007), who was the first British artist to have a solo exhibition at the newly opened Serpentine Gallery in 1970. Senior artists with connections to Goldsmiths are also present: both Michael Craig-Martin and Mark Wallinger taught at the college during the 80s, when the YBAs were coming through. And of course the YBAs themselves are visible on the walls of the Groucho in full force: as well as works by Fairhurst and Hirst, members encounter art by Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, and Gavin Turk, to name only a handful.
As time has passed, though, Carter has ensured that the club’s growing collection has benefited from new blood too. Yes, there are established names — such as the American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth or Martin Creed and Keith Tyson, who have both won the Turner Prize. But Carter has also enticed younger artists with burgeoning reputations: the likes of Conrad Shawcross and Polly Morgan, as well as Idris Khan and Annie Morris, who have promised to give work to the club. Conscious that the collection began while she was still a student herself, Carter spends time each year doing the rounds of the graduate shows, eager to spot fresh talent.
Conrad Shawcross, 214 Minutes, 2009 [Detail]. Mixed media. 85 x 9 ½ x 6 ½ in. (216 x 24 x 16 cm). Courtesy of Conrad Shawcross and Victoria Miro. Photographed by James Pfaff and Sebastian Böttcher. © Conrad Shawcross
And appropriately enough, given that one of the principal reasons for founding the Groucho was to create a members’ club open to women as well as men, she is vigilant of the ratio of male to female artists. At the moment, this stands at about 60:40 — but Carter anticipates that it will be 50:50 before long. There is nothing tokenistic about this policy: the calibre of female artists is consistently high, and the collection boasts prominent names such as Susan Collis, Rachel Kneebone, Boo Ritson, Alison Watt, and Catherine Yass. The overriding ethos of the collection, she says, is ‘egalitarian ... it can be a very established artist or a student straight out of college — they are all treated the same.’
Looking at art in the Groucho is very different from experiencing it within a gallery. Galleries can be intimidating, antiseptic places — large-roomed, whitewashed citadels of culture, defended by haughty and alarmingly beautiful attendants. The Groucho has its fair share of beautiful people too. But the scale of its architecture is more domestic, even ramshackle — retaining some of Soho’s disheveled spirit. It is pleasing to look at works of art in such a setting, and not only because contemplating art in the Groucho gives you a sense of how it might appear in your own home.
The environment also promotes a more relaxed, rough-and-tumble approach to thinking about art. This attitude can only be a good thing, because it refuses to worship art on a pedestal, but rather collars it and drags it into the real world — as though buttonholing a friendly member down the bar for a chat. You may love a particular work of art in the collection and loathe another, but no matter: the point is that art at the Groucho is part of the conversation.
Many of the works appeal directly to this context, such as Harland Miller’s witty watercolour depicting the front cover of a Pelican (the non-fiction imprint of Penguin Books) paperback with the imaginary title, Self Obsession: What’s In It For Me? — a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the preening egos one might expect to encounter in a members’ club. Or David Shrigley’s mischievous quartet of ink-onpaper drawings, including one captioned ‘We’re All the Same’ — a wry commentary on a club frequented by media types who pride themselves on individual creativity. Shrigley’s words float above sketches of four wrinkled, bleary-eyed stickmen. They look the way anyone would at the end of a heavy
drinking session in one of the Groucho’s bars.
Polly Morgan, The Rest is Easy, 2008. Glass, wood, leather, taxidermy, crystal, paper, electrics. 10 x 9 x 6 in. (25 x 23 x 15 cm.) Courtesy of and © Polly Morgan. Photographed by James Pfaff and Sebastian Böttcher
Then there are the works made especially for the club, or which chime with aspects of its identity. Ian Davenport’s striped wall painting, created specifically for the Mary-Lou Room. Stella Vine’s painting of Groucho Marx, emblazoned with his famous quip: ‘I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening but this wasn’t it.’ A small painting of Scotch eggs by Archie Franks, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy Schools and the youngest artist in the collection, nodding to one of the staples on the club menu.
At the same time, there are countless artworks with no insider allusions at all. To take just one example, consider Michael Landy’s Semi-Detached – John and Ethel Landy (2004), a photograph of the artist’s parents standing in front of a full-scale model of their modest, pebbledash-fronted suburban house, which he had installed inside Tate Britain. There is nothing glamorous or trendy about this image, which is about as far as it is possible to get from an icon of metropolitan exclusivity. As a result, it gains additional punch by being shown at the Groucho.
In our image-saturated era… art that makes you look feels more powerful and precious than ever before
Variety, then, is an important quality of the Groucho Club art collection. It is almost impossible to categorise, other than by making the obvious observation that it consists of British art, with a bias towards artists living and working in London, from the past twenty-five years. ‘I wouldn’t hang everything at home,’ Carter says, ‘but I do like all of it, and I try to appeal to lots of different tastes.’
Moreover, almost none of the art feels bland. Most of it is vibrant, dynamic, sometimes upbeat, often snappy — the visual equivalent of drinking one of the club’s Espresso Martinis. Just as each work originally elicited a ‘gut reaction’ within Carter, which is why she acquired it, so it is likely to stimulate one within you. The art in the Groucho makes you stop, makes you think, makes you talk. It even makes you argue. Carter has overheard members debating the merits of the art on many occasions. They are not always complimentary. Sometimes there are even complaints. Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s neon work spelling out the words ‘fucking beautiful’, has proved particularly controversial — though Carter was once surprised to enter a room only to discover a group of vicars sitting underneath it.
Still, complaints are better than bland indifference — and certainly more in keeping with the strong-willed spirit of the club. ‘If you’re provoking a reaction, that’s great,’ Carter says. ‘That’s also why it’s important to move things around and add to the collection, because otherwise if you’re too familiar with the art then it becomes like wallpaper — and you’re not looking anymore.’
In our image-saturated era, in which our eyes are bombarded with so many digitalized visuals that we are at risk of seeing nothing at all, art that makes you look — properly look — feels more powerful and precious than ever before.
This article is extracted from The Groucho Club by Alice Patten et al (published in hardback by Preface), which is out now.
Main image: The Groucho Club, Dean Street. Photograph by Richard Lewisohn.
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