‘Home for hell-raisers’: new owners of Groucho Club seek young blood

<span>Photograph: Chris Lawrence/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Chris Lawrence/Alamy

The international gallerists behind Hauser & Wirth have bought the Groucho Club, the private members club in Soho that has acted as a spiritual home for artists, writers, musicians and media workers for almost 40 years.

The takeover of the club by Artfarm – Manuela and Iwan Wirth’s independent hospitality and development company – marks a new chapter for the Groucho that could include a drive to recruit younger members and international expansion.

Located in Dean Street, the Groucho Club has a storied history, becoming a “home for hell-raisers” and the in-crowd.

Founded in 1985 by a group of publishers and agents including Carmen Callil, Ed Victor, Liz Calder, and Michael Sissons, it was the benchmark for a new generation of members clubs.

When Fleet Street suddenly broke up in the 80s, the Groucho provided a “congenial refuge” for its more literate and articulate drunks, according to the journalist Roy Greenslade. Most importantly, it welcomed women as equals, which stood it in stark contrast to the archaic gentlemen’s clubs that lined Pall Mall.

“We’re deeply fond of the Groucho Club,” said Ewan Venters, the CEO of Artfarm and Hauser & Wirth. “It’s famed for being a hub for creatives. We also love the genesis, that it was founded out of a desire for women to have somewhere they could go to meet like-minded people, in a city that was dominated by men’s clubs.”

The Groucho’s name derives from the Groucho Marx quip – “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” – and down the years, that maverick spirit has been kept alive by successive generations of artists, writers and musicians.

“There is some special magic that no one can put their finger on,” the artist Gavin Turk said, while Blur’s Alex James once recalled how to climb across the Soho roofs from the Colony Room down the road into the Groucho’s snooker room window.

It is where Damien Hirst celebrated his Turner prize by putting his £20,000 winnings behind the bar; where Bono once sang Happy Birthday to Bill Clinton around a piano that had been painted by Peter Blake; and where the film producer Bradley Adams and the actor Robbie Coltrane once got into an argument over an unwelcome gesture.

“Francis Bacon, Jeffrey Bernard and Dan Farson were sitting at the bar and Coltrane sent a glass of brandy down to Bacon,” Adams told the Evening Standard a few years ago. “Bernard stood up and said: ‘You fucking cunt. You don’t send a glass to one person, you send one to all three.’ He threw the glass, it flew past my nose and hit Robbie on the side of the head. I thought: ‘This is the club for me.’”

But celebrity did not always equal membership, and membership did not always equal entry. At the height of their fame, the Spice Girls were rejected by the membership committee, while Al Pacino and Eric Clapton were turned away at reception unrecognised. Rules were established by Stephen Fry, who enforced a ban on mobile phones in the bar and the wearing of string vests, which he called “fully unacceptable” because “there is enough distress in the world already”.

Venters said he understood the “special place” the Groucho occupies in London’s cultural landscape and that Artfarm would respect its history and traditions. But looking forward was just as important as looking back, he said. “Whenever the Groucho is referred to, it’s to great names and moments in the past, and I’m a huge believer in looking to the future and making sure we’re creating new history.”

There are about 150 artworks in the Groucho collection, including pieces from members Bacon, Blake, Turk, Tracey Emin and Gordon Cheung. Venters said he hoped new ownership would spark a renewed interest among members, drive awareness to a younger generation of creatives and open the door to new territories.

“It’s been the membership’s desire to see the club go international,” he said. “Though no decision has been made at this point, we are an international business with experience operating in Asia, America, Europe and the UK. It would be obvious that in our thinking, we would be looking to see whether the Groucho Club could expand in the future.”

The Groucho’s ownership has changed several times since the 1980s. After a failed takeover attempt by Benjy Fry, it was sold to Joel Cadbury, Matthew Freud and Rupert Hambro in 2001. In 2008 they sold it to Graphite Capital, who then sold a majority stake to a group of private investors led by Alcuin Capital, a fellow private equity firm.

Nick Hurrell, chair of the Groucho Club, said Artfarm were “the perfect owners” for the club. “Their mix of cultural engagement, pedigree in art and excellence in hospitality sits very well with the particular spirit of a members club that has been an important part of London’s cultural life for many years,” he added. “To our 5,000 members around the world, I’d say that the future has never looked brighter.”