Nick Hackworth

London at its bohemian best: a short history of the Groucho Club

Essays & Reviews Art Basel

London at its bohemian best: a short history of the Groucho Club
Nick Hackworth assesses the legacy of Soho’s notorious artists’ haunt

There are times and there are places. Sometimes they coincide, and sometimes, as when the Groucho Club was launched in 1985 into a febrile, Thatcher-era London, they just crash into each other. Becoming, in equal parts, famous and notorious almost overnight, the Groucho has since then been arguably the best-known arts and culture private members’ club in the world – and a second home for a certain section of London’s creative community. In the latest plot development in its story, the Groucho was recently acquired by Artfarm, the hospitality business owned by gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth, that aims to bring ‘people together through art, culture, and hospitality.’ In that respect, Artfarm is planting in already fertile ground.
Taking its name from an oft misquoted Groucho Marx gag, ‘I sent the club a wire stating, “PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER,”’ the club was the brainchild of two female publishers, Liz Calder and Carmen Callil (founder of Virago), who were sick of London’s stuffy, often male-only, private members’ clubs. The Groucho, in contrast, set out to be nonsexist, eccentric, antiestablishment, and, as far as a members’ club could be, egalitarian. The culture that emerged – fun, familial, laissez-faire, entertainingly anarchic, and discreet (no mobile phones, no gossip) – has fostered an almost cult-like devotion amongst its membership which includes an embarrassing number of creative legends and celebrities. Its unique aura is summed up by Gavin Turk who describes it as having ‘some special magic no one can put their finger on.’
At least some of that magic might be put down to the Groucho embodying the traits that, some might say, represent London at its bohemian best: creative, tolerant, and gently chaotic. These qualities were certainly the psychic foundations of the Soho into which the club was born. For Jeffrey Bernard, the infamously rakish journalist and habitué of the club, Postwar Soho was: ‘Heaven. Full of artists, writers, pimps, ponces, prostitutes, bookies, runners, boxers.... It felt dangerous and alive.’ In the 1980s that seediness and alternative spirit was still keeping development and mainstream culture at bay and, by all accounts, shaped the club’s ethos in its formative years.
Though mainly a hang-out for publishing and media types in its early days, artists rapidly infiltrated the Groucho and made themselves very much at home. It was a development anticipated on its inaugural day as its 500 founding members became 501 when Francis Bacon, the éminence grise of ‘old Soho’, wandered in, asking how he could join. Over the years, the Groucho has built up what could be the finest art collection of any members club, anywhere. It has also played an extraordinary, long-running, cameo role in the history of contemporary British art, notably as a social center for many high- and lowlights of the YBA era.
Nicky Carter, the club’s curator – who is also an artist as part of the duo Rob and Nick Carter – has been at the heart of the art story at the Groucho since its beginning. In many ways, she created it. Carter not only holds the distinction of being the club’s longest serving staff member, but she also kickstarted the collection in 1989 whilst working there as a waitress. She was 19 and studying art at Goldsmiths at the same time.
‘I was at school with people like Damien Hirst, Marcus Harvey, Rachel Howard, and so on. The idea I had for the collection was unique. Now you take it for granted, but it wasn’t like that at the time at all. In fact, it was incredibly hard to get people to put their work up, because they were worried that a club wasn’t the right context. Marc Quinn was already a member, and he was one of the first people whose work we put up, and then Angus Fairhurst, Rachel Howard, and Tim Noble & Sue Webster. Damien Hirst put up a ‘Spin Painting’ straight away when I asked him. He just said “Yeah sure.” He wasn’t worried about the context. Now I think the art has really stamped its mark on the club.’
Today, the Groucho’s impressive collection numbers 150 or so pieces including works, both major and minor, by the likes of Sir Peter Blake, Gavin Turk, Keith Tyson, Martin Creed, Cedric Christie, Machiko Edmondson, Joseph Kosuth, Jane & Louise Wilson, Rob & Nick Carter, Tracey Emin, and Gordon Cheung among many others. In an arrangement now echoed by innumerable members’ clubs, each artist received a lifetime membership in exchange for their work – and this continues today.
These memberships meant a steady influx of (mostly) young artists into the riotous mix of the clientele. ‘Everyone followed Damien at first,’ remembers Jake Chapman, ‘he started going and everyone followed. The only time I legitimately got in there was during after-parties after art exhibitions.’ Once inside, if you made it past reception – Robert De Niro was once mistaken for a tramp and temporarily refused admission – you were, depending on the hour, in a twilight zone of surreal play, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, and lubricated by lots of alcohol. 
Amongst the slew of absurd celebrity anecdotes on record a couple stand out: a Tom Jones and Jools Holland-led, candlelit sing-along around the piano during a blackout, and Bill Clinton and Bono popping in unannounced at 1am and reportedly trying to talk about poetry whilst being ogled by the, for once, star-struck Groucho members.
Many other stories feature Hirst, who celebrated his 1995 Turner Prize win by putting the £25,000 prize money behind the bar. Actor and comedian Keith Allen told The Independent: ‘Once I managed to orchestrate it so that Moby played the piano and Mick Jones sang a Clash song, while Coldplay and New Order did the backing vocals…. Another time Damien Hirst pissed in a sink in an ice-tray and forgot about it.’ On another memorable occasion, Hirst and Allen, during one of their self-explanatory ‘No Trousers Days’ volunteered to wait tables during breakfast, delivering full English breakfasts to the diners. Stephen Fry quipped, ‘I ordered a sausage not a chipolata.’
In amongst all the silliness and fun, many friendships and personal and professional relationships were born. ‘It was a wonderful mix,’ continues Carter. ‘Jay Jopling used to come in a lot. So many encounters between artists, gallerists, and writers happened there. Most artists – say 80% of Groucho Club artists – worked alone in the studio, so they’d work all day long and then they’d come to the Groucho and the conversations began.’
Some of those conversations were more unexpected than others. Hirst once recounted meeting ‘a great big Italian artist, Mario Merz – he looked like God with a big beard – he’s dead now. He didn’t speak a word of English. Fuck knows what he was doing at the Groucho Club. But he used to stay there and we used to hang out and get drunk. Without talking. I don’t quite know how. We just got on. And Barry Flanagan – I used to cane it with him. It’s odd that they were in there. It made it so much more interesting than anywhere else.’
In an increasingly professionalized art world set within a world beset by mounting crises, the genre of hedonistic ‘war stories’ seems undoubtedly dated. Yet the tension between play and work in creativity itself is a profound one. It is a relationship that sculptor Conrad Shawcross, whose rope piece, 214 Minutes (2009), sits in the reception  area of the club, continues to grapple with: ‘I’ve always sort of felt that the Groucho was intrinsically unprofessional. As artists we need to be professional and organized but there is a part to being an artist that has to not be professional, that has to be spontaneous, irrational, heartfelt, and sometimes dysfunctional. It’s a real paradox.’
Similar forces of change are shaping urban centers everywhere. The ‘old Soho’ that the Groucho was born into has all but disappeared, now redeveloped and spruced up. Its bohemian landmarks and characters, once world-famous on their own streets, are mostly history. Retail and restaurant chains and high-end developers have moved in. But as New Yorkers also know, when you steam out the roughness from a place, you lose more than just the nastiness. Some ethereal layers of ill-defined complexity and meaning also evaporate, leaving the streets cleaner but, somehow, thinner. In the undoubtedly capable hands of its new owners the Groucho Club lives on, and hopefully some of the anarchic and creative spirit of ‘old Soho’ will live on too.
Nick Hackworth is a writer and curator. He is curator of Modern Forms and a director of Paradise Row.