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Published 26/11/2008 email E-MAIL print PRINT

A glorious hub for artists, dilettantes and drunks for the past 60 years, the Colony Room in Soho now faces imminent closure. Brawls and protests have inevitably ensued, parties have been planned to pay for legal fees and some members have been banned for fighting closure. Amid all of this, the magnificent art collection - which hangs modestly and cramped over the green walls of the tiny club - is the subject of much conversation and speculation as to where it will go if or when the party ends.

Fondly regarded as a 'home for those who don't have a home', the Colony Room has long been a meeting point for the most nomadic of the art world, its vagabonds, poets, drunks - and their muses, friends and hangers-on - in search of 'a place to dissolve our inhibitions', as Francis Bacon would say. Muriel Belcher founded the infamous club 60 years ago, and paid the young Francis Bacon a 'salary' of free drinks to bring in his crowd. And so Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, Patrick Caulfield and others became regulars at the emerald dive, donating a picture here and there, and piece by little masterpiece built the collection that decorates the bar today, with additions from Damien Hirst, Sebastian Horsley, Sarah Lucas et al. Tracey Emin, the late Angus Fairhurst, Jay Jopling and Sam Taylor-Wood have all served the club's current owner, Michael Wojas, behind the bar.

Past the grimy buzzer, tucked into 41 Dean Street, through a door and at the top of some narrow stairs, the Colony Room has an almost mystical feel, damp with spilled gin (not beer), the odd tear and a general air of easy grimy debauchery: this is the downtime that follows the high art and the revelry to distract from the absurdity. But it's not a pretentious place, and for all the mythology and wonder, it's a cosy, grounded sort of place, all warm, vaguely stuffy, nicely scruffy, with swear words scrawled next to paintings and paintings scrawled in swear words. It is something akin to a gypsy caravan that decided to park. And yet now the vagabonds are being evicted. Where shall they go now? Damien Hirst's new B&B? That would be a little too bourgeois, surely, for Soho's surly rebels.

'Soho is dying!' moans Sebastian Horsley, 'I have always said I will commit suicide when the Colony closes. Not that one needs an incentive.' Clearly, shutting down the Colony Room will have an affect on Soho similar to the effect of Prohibition on New York in the Twenties. But where Gatsby found a way to steer around the law then, so Soho's residents will presumably find some moonshine of sorts as well, rather than an out and out Depression. One would hope so, anyway.

The rebellion continues, and legal action is being taken over the art and over the club. A party to raise funds for consequential expenditure will be thrown in December, and the resistance goes on. But is it too late? 'The ship is sinking. Man the lifeboats. Women and children first. F*** the women and children. Is there time?' wonders Horsley.

But whether they drown or not, in their sorrows or their wine, one hopes that the punters (who are the real draw) will colonise elsewhere if need be, even after Soho's pirates push them overboard.



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