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Will the Groucho Club become the art world’s watering hole?

12 August 2022

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Your intrepid correspondent knows a thing or two about drinking establishments and private members’ clubs. So imagine our amazement at the news that the most notorious of Soho clubs, the Groucho, is to be taken over by Artfarm, owned by Manuela and Iwan Wirth, who may be rather more familiar to Apollo’s readers. That’s right, mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth is getting into the late-night business.

Of course, it’s not as if they are strangers to what some people might call ‘hospitality’. While Rakewell has yet to enjoy the luxuries of the Fife Arms, the pub owned by the Wirths in the Scottish Highlands, clearly its proprietors have honed their ability to look after people.

Photo: Chris Lawrence / Alamy Stock Photo

Rakewell remembers when the Groucho was a centre of literary London, founded by those publishing luminaries Carmen Callil, Ed Victor, Liz Calder and Michael Sissons. London was different in those days; everyone wanted to be an author and have a launch party whereas nowadays everyone wants to be an artist (however conceptual) and have an opening. Thank goodness Artfarm is there to plough this particular furrow and, no doubt, usher in an era of particular fecundity and growth at the Groucho. Artfarm has also said, with no fear of business-speak, that it will be looking ‘to the future’ with a group of younger members.

The CEO of Artfarm, Ewan Venters, has said that he loves the ‘genesis’ of the Groucho, that it was founded out of a desire for women to have somewhere they could go to meet like-minded people in a city dominated by men’s clubs.’ Rakewell is unsure how this squares with accounts of the Groucho’s slightly more nefarious evenings. The club may have an art collection with pieces by Francis Bacon, Peter Blake and Tracey Emin, to name a few, but it is notorious for the showboating of its members – remember Damien Hirst putting his £20,000 of Turner-Prize winnings behind the bar or (shudder) Bono channelling his inner Marilyn Monroe by singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Bill Clinton. Still, these are at least the stuff of modern Soho legend, rather than the sedate tales from haute bohemia we can surely come to expect of Hauser & Wirth’s latest venture. Ah well, this is what the art world has come to. If anyone should ask, Rakewell will be enjoying a drink down Gin Lane…