Two artists and the Fitzroy Tavern

The Fitzroy Tavern

Fitzroy Tavern, (c) David Brown, 2021

The area we call Fitzrovia is named after the Fitzroy Tavern, which was one of the main social hubs of the area from after the First World War.  It became the haunt of the literary and artistic crowd – artists associated with the Tavern in the past included Augustus John, Nina Hamnett, Walter Sickert and Jacob Epstein, but the Tavern also attracted many others including Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Richard Attenborough, Michael Bentine, Albert Pierrepoint (the hangman), Aleister Crowley (of Black Magic fame), Michael Bentine, Kenneth Williams, Tommy Cooper and the odd Labour politician – including Nye Bvan and Barbara Castle. 

Newly restored entrance Mosaic, Fitzroy Tavern, (c) David Brown, 2021

The Tavern was originally a coffee house – the Queen Charlotte recorded in 1822, but it became a pub and probably acquired the name of The Fitzroy Tavern by 1856.  By 1895 this area was the home of many Germans – Charlotte Street was sometimes called Charlottestrassen, and the pub was run by landlord Heinrich Hundertmark and as a result nicknamed the ‘The Hundred Marks”.  The current building dates back to a rebuilding in 1897.  The Germans in London were treated badly during World War I – many left, and by 1919 the pub was taken over by a new landlord – Judah ‘Pop’ Kleinfield – a Polish Jew who had emigrated to London in the 1880s (apparently arriving with four pennies in his pocket). He became a master tailor on Savile Row, and then when he retired took on the Fitzroy accompanied by his 15-year old daughter Annie (who kept the books and dealt with the paperwork, and later took over managing the pub with her future husband Charles Allchild). The family made the pub into one of the most successful in the area.  Annie’s daughter Sally wrote the book “The Fitzroy – the Autobiography of a London Tavern” which provides a mine of useful information about the Fitzroy.  More recently Samuel Smith (the brewery) completely renovated the Tavern, and it is now a great pub, with decent food – used by tour guides who bring groups to Fitzrovia. 

Nina Hamnett

The artist mostly associated with the Fitzrovia Tavern was Nina Hamnett who was at the centre of the art world in the first decades of the 20th century.  She is a fascinating person – sometimes called the Queen of Bohemia; born in 1890, and after a difficult childhood in Wales, attended art schools (in Portsmouth, Dublin and London), later living in a room in Grafton Street, and becoming friends with both Walter Sickert (who tutored her) and Jacob Epstein. Both considered her work to be very good.  By 1912 she moved to Paris, and became the lover of Amedo Modigliani (picture on Wikimedia), attending the academy owned by Marie Wassilieff, where Fernand Leger was the Professor. Nina became well known in Paris at the Left Bank cafes, meeting many famous artists, She earned money by becoming an artist’s model.  While in Paris she met and fell for Basil de Bergen, a penniless dramatist and artist, and ended up marrying him in London in 1914.  The marriage was not a success, and sadly her only child was born prematurely and died.  Her husband was deported in 1917 as an enemy alien, and they never met again.    She met and modelled and had an affair with sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. He was poor, and in her autobiography she recalls helping him steal a slab of marble from a stonemason’s yard which was then used to produce a sculpture based on her, called ‘Laughing Torso’ which is now in the Tate. In return he modelled for her.   Later on she became the lover, model and muse for Roger Fry (see the 1917 portrait at the Courtauld Gallery), and  joined the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, painting designs on candlesticks, and creating murals.  When Nina returned from Paris she decided that the Fitzroy Tavern was the nearest thing in London to a Parisian caf and devoted her time to developing a network of literary and artistic people including both Augustus John and Dylan Thomas.    Her favourite tipple was a double rum and brandy.  She continued working on her art (mainly portraits – see an example sold at Christie’s for £16,500)), exhibited, taught, and wrote several biographies, but was always short of funds.  She took great pleasure in drink (and was a great teller of stories), but poverty and ill health took led to an early death in 1956 (tragically as a result of falling from her window).   The Fitzrovia Chapel recently ran a small exhibition devoted to her work.

Augustus John

Photograph of Augustus John, PD from Library of Congress

The second artist really connected to the Fitzroy Tavern was Augustus John who was born in Nina’s home town of Tenby in 1878.  He studied at the Slade School of Art, and later in Paris.  An early portrait by Benjamin Evans in the Royal Academy shows him around 1898-1900.  He married fellow student Ida Nettleship in 1901, and had five sons before she died in 1907.    Augustus was considered to be exceptionally talented, and by the 1920s was seen as Britain’s leading portrait painter.    He was also the archetype of the ‘bohemian artist” – living with his wife and his long-term mistress Dorelia McNeill at the same time, and had many affairs with other women – keeping a room for the purpose at the Tour Eiffel Hotel in Fitzrovia.  He introduced one of his mistresses, Caitlin Macnamara, to Dylan Thomas – the two of them fell for each other, and later married (it was a stormy relationship).  Some accounts say that Augustus John produced more than 100 children during his lifetime.   He was elected a full member of the RA in 1928, but perhaps in retrospect it could be said that his reputation exceeded his talents, and his earlier work is generally preferred to his later work.  He died in 1961. 


Image at top of page is of the Fitzroy Tavern (c) David Brown, 2021

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