DARREN COFFIELD: TALES FROM THE COLONY
The Colony Room Club has an unrivalled place in modern British art: opened in the heart of Soho, London, just after the war, it hosted the likes of Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon and the Young British Artists. Artist Darren Coffield has been plotting its history through an unprecedented range of conversations with its members and visitors, and is now looking to bring them together in a new book, Tales from the Colony – here’s how you can be involved.
An Artistic Epicentre
The provocative contemporary painter, Darren Coffield - who has exhibited alongside the likes of Damien Hirst, Patrick Caulfield and Gilbert and George - was himself a member of the private members’ club after first visiting in 1989: ‘It lived up to everything I might have thought it would be and more. It was definitely an uninhibited place where people could discuss anything. There was a huge range of people there, from judges to actors and general lay-abouts, so there was social mix, which was obviously helped by the drink.’
The drink was key to the early success of The Colony Room. Opened in 1948 by Muriel Bulcher, she managed to get a drinking license from 3-11pm – at a time when pubs had to close at 2.30pm. This helped persuade Francis Bacon to become a founding (and lifelong) member; Belcher gave him free drinks and £10 a week to bring in friends and wealthy patrons. These included George Melly, Peter O’Toole ad Lucian Freud, with visiting non-members encompassing Princess Margaret and David Bowie.
A New Generation
The Colony survived the death of Belcher in 1979, going on to attract a new generation of artists: The YBAs. Coffield, who was a student at the Slade School of Art when he joined, explains why it appealed to him and his contemporaries: ‘It was a slightly seedy, organic place that had evolved – it was the complete antithesis of other clubs around at the time of the YBAs. It was a place where they could lose their inhibitions, which is what artists always want to do. Nothing really quite phases you for the rest of your life when you have learnt to lose your inhibitions, and The Colony Room gave them that environment.
‘It was completely unpredictable; you never knew what was going to happen from one minute to the next – and that was what made it so attractive, compared to other types of private members’ clubs, which appealed to a certain type of person. There was no particular way of dressing or acting required to be a member. It was a very fluid place; people were accepted no matter their past histories and there was a great deal of empathy.’
More than that, the Colony gave practical, as well as emotional support to its members. ‘It was a great place for artistic support; they knew if people were going through a hard time and would help them out. I would be asked ‘How’s your handbag?’, which meant ‘Have you got enough for a cab home?’. And if I didn’t, they would help,’ remembers Coffield.
A Cultural History
The combination of empathy, tolerance and practical support meant The Colony Room played a pivotal role in the history of modern British art until it finally shut its doors in 2008. It’s this place in London’s cultural evolution that Coffield is celebrating in his new book, Tales from the Colony. A project that has already taken several years – with Coffield personally interviewing former members about their experiences – the book will be a vernacular history of contemporary British culture.
‘I’m crowdfunding the book, and am offering supporters a beautifully printed limited edition, insights into the writing and publishing process and – depending upon the level of support – their name in the back of the book through to signed copies, original artwork and club memorabilia,’ explains Coffield, who is publishing it to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the club’s closure. You can play your part by visiting the crowd-funding page on Unbound, watching the short film by Coffield, and lending your support.
Darren Coffield was born in London in 1969. He studied at Goldsmiths College, Camberwell School of Art and the Slade School of Art in London where he received his Bachelor of Fine Art in 1993. He has exhibited widely in the company of many leading artists including Damien Hirst, Howard Hodgkin, Patrick Caulfield and Gilbert and George at venues ranging from the Courtauld Institute, Somerset House to Voloshin Museum, Crimea. His work can be found in collections around the world. In 2003 his controversial portrait of Ivan Massow, former chairman of the ICA in full fox hunting costume, was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Portraits of George Galloway and Molly Parkin (NPG, 2010) followed, and most recently a depiction of former Miners Union leader Arthur Scargill made entirely from coal dust.
In the early nineties, Coffield worked with Joshua Compston on the formation of Factual Nonsense - the centre of the emerging Young British Artists scene. A new book by Coffield about this period in British Art, Factual Nonsense: The Art and Death of Joshua Compston, was published by Troubador.
Coffield lives and works in London.