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Remembering John Hurt and the Colony Room

1 February 2017

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

It was with great sadness that Rakewell learned of the passing of actor John Hurt, star of Alien, The Elephant Man and much more. Hurt, whom the Rake encountered propping up the bar of the French House with a glass of tonic on more than one occasion, came to London in the ’50s to study as an art student. Aside from the fateful afternoon on which Hurt first encountered Quentin Crisp, whom he would twice portray on screen, and who was the model in one of his life drawing classes, St Martin’s did not contribute greatly to his future thespian success. But this is not to suggest it was the limit to his ties with the art world.

As art students were supposed to do in those days, Hurt fell under the spell of the boho set of Soho’s Colony Room club. Quickly becoming a regular at the infamous dive bar, which from 1948 fostered three generations of artists. According to some testimonies, Hurt was ‘most often seen at The Colony falling down its staircase’.

But reminiscing about the bar when it finally closed in 2008, Quietus editor John Doran remembered quite differently: ‘The first time I ascended those stairs I nearly got knocked back down again by John Hurt who was being helped on his way by alcohol, gravity and a gentle push from some burly chaps, who shouted after him: “Fuck off!”’

Nevertheless, Hurt made many friends among the Colony’s clientele, not least founding member Francis Bacon. Indeed, according to artist Mark Clark, when the great painter had fleeting ambitions to direct a film in the 1980s, he was adamant that Hurt should star in it. Alas, the picture was never realised, but speaking to the Telegraph in 2015, Hurt reminisced about another encounter with Bacon.

Walking into the Colony one afternoon, Hurt found Bacon sitting alone, reading the newspaper. ‘“Mmmm,” said Bacon. “When Pablo [Picasso] dies, I’ll be Number One.”’

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