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The Fitzroy Tavern; or, the Birth of a British Bohemia

By Benjamin Baker

Walter Sickert, Off To The Pub, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 40.6 cm, Tate
‘Only beware of Fitzrovia … it is a dangerous place, you must be careful.’
‘Fights with knives?’
‘No, a worse danger. You might get Sohoitis you know.’

The very nascence of ‘Fitzrovia,’ and its own peculiar notion of English Bohemianism, is rooted in ambiguity. It is not without cause that Julian Maclaren-Ross— remembered, perhaps unfortunately, more for his philandering than his prose—begins his account of his own Fitzrovian initiation with a problem of cartographic ambiguity: warned against the debilitating dangers of protracting ‘Sohoitis,’ ‘stay[ing] there always day and night … get[ting] no work done ever,’ Maclaren-Ross wonders(?) Why he won’t ‘get Sohoitis in Fitzrovia? Or is Fitzrovia in Soho too?’. In clarifying that ‘Fitzrovia’s really a part of Bloomsbury, but the borough is St Pancras,’ his interlocutor, the self-styled Prince J. Meary Tambimuttu, or Tambi, does little to remedy the situation. It is, as Maclaren-Ross so succinctly draws out, ‘complicated.’

If not defined through geographical delineations, then Fitzrovia must find its identity elsewhere; perhaps, as Maclaren-Ross and Tambi suggest, in its inhabitants. By 1943 the aspiring author and publisher respectively both epitomise the tail end of a half-century long procession of artists, writers and misfits who laid claim to this disorienting warren of streets and alleys. The area’s bohemian milieu first laid roots in the final throws of the 19th century, during which its proximity to Gower Street’s Slade School of Fine Art made it convenient lodgings for a close-knit group of eccentric students: the John siblings, Augustus and Gwen, both took rooms on Fitzroy Street, bringing with them an eclectic array of friends - lovers and muses, though the lines between them were often less than clear cut. Throughout their time on Fitzroy Street, the Johns succeeded in terrifying and appalling a string of aghast landladies; Augustus in particular, partook of late night ‘saturnalias,’ often upon the roof of the nearby church of St John the Evangelist. In tandem with this urban encampment of young artists, the turn of the 20th century also bore witness to the development of a more mature artistic presence in Fitzrovia. Walter Sickert maintained two of his principle studios, amongst ‘a number of mysterious rooms for miles around,’ on Fitzroy Street, as did Spencer Gore and a handful of other established artists. Enticed, perhaps, by the glut of cheap studios, and a burgeoning artistic presence, it was amongst these studios that the Fitzroy group operated. As the outbreak of the First World War approached, the area had already begun to build a reputation for itself as something of an artistic centre, a fact all the more bolstered by the founding of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops at 36 Fitzroy Square in 1913. The permeability between each of these groups is evidenced through the daily excursions of characters such as Nina Hamnett, who might drink with and model for Augustus John; work for and sleep with Roger Fry; and breakfast each morning with Walter Sickert.

While, though, Fitzroy Square and its adjacent streets had managed to endow themselves with an eclectic artistic community, until the early 1920s this remained primarily a relationship of convenience: artists chose to establish themselves within the area through a combination of cheap studio-space, proximity to the Slade and availability of work at the Omega. With the arrival, in 1919, however, of the Fitzroy Tavern at 16 Charlotte Street, the dynamic of the area changed fundamentally. The opening of the pub coincided with a postwar shift in middle-class entertainment from the interior to the exterior, simultaneous to an unprecedented rise in the number of women patronising pubs. Pubs rapidly displaced other venues for socialising in post-war London, and the Fitzroy soon attracted the custom of the great number of artists and writers who already called the area home, as well many of those who had previously frequented the Café Royal, just the other side of Oxford Street. By the end of the 1920s, the Fitzroy Tavern had become a veritable bohemian hotspot. It was at the Fitzroy that Nina Hamnett introduced Dylan Thomas to Augustus John, who would later compare the pub to Clapham Junction, in that everyone traveled through it sooner or later. Betty May, a regular who’d made her name in the bohemian scene at the Café Royal and through her role in Occultist Aleister Crowley’s libel case brought against Nina Hamnett - in which she testified to her husband’s involvement in the ritualistic sacrifice of a cat in Italy - was known to lap up saucers of brandy on all fours, going by the title ‘Tiger Woman.’

In the space of a decade, the district surrounding the Fitzroy Tavern had taken on a markedly different character. Whereas before the war it had found itself frequented by artists and writers through happenstance and convenience, the neighborhood/area was now a place of bohemian attraction in of itself, by way of the cultural mystique of its milieu. Such a transformation was due in no small part to the role of the Fitzroy and the bohemianism it had come to stand for. In fact, the extent to which the Fitzroy Tavern, and by extension its clientele, had come to represent the area itself is evidenced etymologically. Contrary to expectation, Fitzrovia takes its name not from Fitzroy Square, nor from the Fitzroy family, who had originally developed the land, but from the Fitzroy Tavern. A known contemporary colloquialism, both within bohemian and popular spheres, the term Fitzrovia, supposedly coined by J.Tambimuttu, first appeared in the Daily Express in 1940 as a means of grouping together an eclectic mix of eccentrics through the location that had become synonymous with them. Over a century since the Fitzroy first opened its doors, the term has ossified within the cartographic landscape of London. The area appears today nestled unassumingly between the ancient boroughs of Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Soho; though, perhaps inevitably, its mystique has somewhat faded, adorning, as it does, the countless council maps that litter the streets of Westminster.

Yet, despite the enduring testament to the pub’s influence that the name Fitzrovia bestows, the Fitzroy’s place at the heart of London’s Bohemia was to be notably short-lived. With the dawn of the Second World War, the pub’s notoriety had begun to attract tourists and, this, coupled with an increasing public awareness of its links to London's homosexual community, led many of its most famous patrons to distance themselves from the establishment. Despite having installed himself a Fitzrovian stalwart in the 1930s, Julian Maclaren-Ross, in 1946, was so severe in his abandonment that he forced the publishers of his book, The Nine Men of Soho, to shelve a Nina Hamnett designed dust jacket that featured a drawing of the pub and replace it with a far less recognisable design from John Banting. The Fitzroy Tavern’s brief tenure as the crucible of London’s cultural Bohemia had come to a close; as Tambimuttu had remarked at his first meeting with Maclaren-Ross, ‘that was in the ‘30s, they go other places now.’


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