The most celebrated night-club of the BYP era was, of course, the Gargoyle at 69 Dean Street. It was opened in 1925 by David Tennant, who claimed he just wanted a congenial place to dance with his girl-friend (Hermione Baddeley, who he married in 1928).It attracted artists,intellectuals, writers and young socialites in equal measure. With a membership that included almost everyone associated with London Bohemia, it remained a key location for thirty years and anecdotes about the club appear in almost every reminiscence of cosmopolitan cultural life of the period.
Brian Howard, Brenda and Napper Dean Paul were regulars – Howard seems to have taken up almost permanent residence during World War Two. In the 1920s, Elizabeth Ponsonby had horrified Frances Partridge with her drunkenness at one party (Bloomsbury and the Bright Young Set did not always mix well).The club’s initial manager was the singularly disreputable Harry Rowan Walker, as raffish a figure as any of Elvira’s set and who she may have known as the some-time boyfriend of Brenda Dean Paul (who also had an affair with David Tennant). These and others, feature in “David Tennant and the Gargoyle Years” by Michael Luke, an affectionate but by no means comprehensive, biographical study.
Despite the excesses of some of the members, the general atmosphere was civilised and relatively high-brow.There is a wonderful, if a little too fawning, description of the place in Stanley Jackson’s “An Indiscreet Guide to Soho“. Written just after the end of the war, this is a little gem of a book which, though often patronising and unintentionally humorous, captures the flavour of the area (and the times) as well as any book I’ve read. This from the chapter “Clubs and Joints”,
“There are, of course, several amusing and well-run Soho clubs. I belong to the Gargoyle which has been running for twenty years. It was started by the Hon.David Tennant in one room and now occupies spacious premises at the top of a building which you reach by lift. The famous roof garden is temporarily out of commission but will doubtless revive.”
“Apart from Tennant, who runs the club in a charmingly offhand but efficient style, committe members include Augustus John (a founder member), Clive Bell and Philip Toynbee. Among its 2000 members are Sir Gordon Craig, John Sutro, Cyril Connolly, Val Gielgud, Tom Driberg, Sir William Beveridge, Hermione Baddeley and scores of BBC folk, writers and artists. The subscription id Four Guineas per annum and husbands and wives can save a guinea by joining together.”
“The decor is bright but tasteful and Matisse gave his expert advice. Several of his drawings of ballet girls grace the upstairs bar which is a cheerful spot always crowded with people discussing art, politics or women in the liveliest way. “My unpaid cabaret,” David Tennant calls them. The liquor is always of sound quality and the prices not too stiff. Nor will the barmen raise superior eyebrows if you demand half a pint of bitter and linger over it. One of their specialities is a Pimm with a dash of curacao.
The restaurant downstairs seats 140 and its ceiling and general design have been modelled on the Alhambra at Granada. The mirrors are particularly attractive, unless you have drunk too much gin!. Here one can feed in comfort and a cheery, intimate atmosphere. Luncheon is served from noon until 3 p.m., and dinner from 6 p.m. until midnight.In the old days, when theatres ended at a civilised hour, the chef would put on a specialite de minuit, something tasty like onion soup with croutons. But even with present day shortages, the menu always shows imagination.
The last time I dined at the club I had a dozen excellent oysters, soup, duck and delicious ice cream. The oysters were extra, of course, but five shillings covered the rest. Tennant, I should say, has an eye for vintages, and his pre-war wine is a sentimental memory (fine Club “fizz” at 13/6 a bottle!); even today he manages to produce a dinner wine that is no insult to the palate.
The four-piece band led by Alec Alexander, suits the style of the club. It delivers lively, cheerful music that you can dance to without having your nerves torn to shreds. Alec knows all the members and seems to enjoy playing requests.”
Alec Alexander’s band was , in fact, a little bit of a joke to some of the post-war clientele (Lucian Freud and Henrietta Moraes were particularly scathing). Tennant for all his talents as a host was, unlike most of his contemporaries, not much of a jazz fan – by 1946 the Gargoyle was starting to be seen as a bit of a throwback. It never quite reclaimed either its pre-war glamour or its wartime popularity. However, it lasted a few more years and its 40s and 50s membership list remained impressive.
That earlier chic, even avant-garde, ambience is best summed up by the two Matisse paintings that Tennant installed not long after the club’s inception (I think Jackson is wrong about the “ballet dancers)”. The two works in question were “The Red Studio” and “The Studio, Quai St. Michel“. The former was hung in the bar, the latter on the stairs down to the dining.dance area.
The Red Studio 1911
The Studio, Quai St. Michel 1916
These are two remarkable, and significant, works of art. To find them in a “night-club” gives some indication as to why the Gargoyle was seen as somewhere special, unique even.
There is much more to be said about the Gargoyle and its place in club history. David Tennant too – he has not quite been given credit for his role in the Bright Young phenomenon (unlike his younger brother, Stephen). However, it is Harry Walker who is intriguing me just now and I shall post something on him as soon as I have a little more info.