Vaughan was in the habit of producing more than one version of the same subject while trying to work out compositional and formal qualities in his paintings. In 1953, for example, he made two oil paintings of The Bar, each quite distinctive, though related in colour, mood and subject. This gouache is a study, made the year before and is equally idiosyncratic. A series of drawings also exist, and these, as was his habit, were made in situ. We see a group of men drinking in a bar as the barman, to the right, leans down under the counter to reach for glasses. In another closely related gouache by Vaughan, the pub can be identified, by the words on the window, as The Black Horse in Rathbone Place.
Vaughan offers us a bleak, colourless scene and certainly not one that we would associate with the fabled accounts of sizzling Bohemian culture. During the 1940s and '50s, Francis Bacon, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, were frequenting The Wheatsheaf, The French House, The Burgler’s Rest, The Marquis of Granby, the fabled Colony Room and The Black Horse. Vaughan also drank there with his housemates John Minton and Alan Ross. The Black Horse pulled its first pint in 1809 and has continued to serve beer for over two hundred years. The Chartists met in the private upper rooms during the nineteenth century and Karl Marx made a speech there to a packed pub.
We could be forgiven for expecting a scene in a Soho pub to be a jovial, cheerful affair. Instead Vaughan presents us with a series of ghost-like figures sitting in silence around the bar in an atmosphere of dark ennui. They do not communicate, converse or glance at one another as they sit, lost in their separate, somber, alcohol-fuelled thoughts. Vaughan was working well within a tradition when he painted The Bar. British artists from William Hogarth to Edward Burra had depicted figures in alehouses in an attempt to convey something of the human condition and the follies of the soul. We are, perhaps, reminded in this case more of Van Gogh’s nightmarish The Night Café, 1888:
'In my picture of the Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house' (Vincent van Gogh in a Letter to his Brother Theo, 9 September 1888).
Vaughan’s monochromatic use of colour and murky palette communicates something of the sadness, isolation and detachment of the men with their half-empty lives and their half-consumed pints. He is careful to place the viewer at one end of the bar, next to the pale figure, as we in turn, wait to be served in this macabre public house.
We are very grateful to Gerard Hastings, author of Drawing to a Close: The Final Journals of Keith Vaughan (Pagham Press) and Keith Vaughan: The Photographs (Pagham Press), for preparing this catalogue entry. He is currently working on an edition of Keith Vaughan's unpublished private writings to be published later in the year.