The Magazine

Journey to Clubland

‘A place where people can go to escape, but still belong.’

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By SARA LODGE
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Reader, have you ever been inside a London club? 


The Reform Club


I do not mean a jazz club, or a nightclub, or a golf club. I refer to those pillared edifices on Pall Mall whose names are so blatantly not blazoned on their façades. These are the venerable “Gentlemen’s Clubs” of London, founded two centuries ago to provide men of a certain social standing with a cloistered sanctum in which to congregate, to converse, and to carouse.

Often, as I have passed from Green Park to Trafalgar Square and surveyed their magnificently stony frontages, I have felt a yearning curiosity to discover what lay within. I never thought myself fated to find out. Last year, however, I discovered that membership in a small and impecunious Scottish institution for writers and artists, by a fluke of second-cousinship, would grant me access to the haughty havens of St James’s. Now, with all the enthusiasm of a new arrival in a strange land, I would like to show you around.

Aptly, the most dramatic entrance of any London club belongs to the Garrick, haunt of actors and writers, which stands amongst theaters, a brief stroll from grubby Leicester Square. To enter it is to be surrounded by a gallery of smiling ghosts. The walls are crowded with oil paintings of celebrated actors, actresses, and playwrights of the 18th and 19th centuries. As you ascend the stairs, Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, towers at full length above you. You can ogle the Victorian pin-up Henry Erskine Johnston, who smoulders in a plaid, with bare biceps, and looks rather like the modern Scottish screen star James McAvoy. All around the green room (aptly, it is green) you catch the lively eyes, flamboyant gestures, and colorful costumes of performers who are now eternally resting, though you sense that most of them would make a comeback given half a chance.

At the head of the stairs are cabinets of theatrical relics: the fan given by Madame Vestris to her dresser, Henry Irving’s keychain, which terminates in a Japanese mask. You pass, then, into the Morning Room, where the 18th-century actor and impresario David Garrick himself (attired in a pink tunic and trousers with gold braid and a blue fur-lined cape, holding a spear) presides from head to toe over the mantelpiece, upon which sail two silver galleons accompanied by silver dolphins. In such a theatrical environment, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to pose. Even the Ladies’ Cloakroom—a blue boudoir of mirrors and sofas, with an audience of ladies, playing roles from The Provok’d Wife to The Fair Penitent—encourages you, while applying lipstick, to practice a smouldering look towards the stalls.

Hierarchy is important here. The candlelit dining room has a central table and satellite tables: Diners will know where they stand by where they sit. Recent applicants for membership who have been blackballed include Jeremy Paxman, a famous political journalist. The Garrick is also one of a handful of old London clubs where women are admitted only as guests. It is like a superannuated actor of the old school: grand, flamboyant, entertaining, but also jealous of its privileges and apt to cherish its favorites and punish its enemies. It relishes its own controversy.

The majority of old London clubs consist of a Morning Room, in which one can read newspapers and drink coffee; a splendid Dining Room, in which lunch and dinner are taken; a billiard room, a library, and a bar. There are often other reception rooms and bedrooms for the accommodation of out-of-town members, but the essential business of a club revolves around the leather chair in which, now as then, a member can rest undisturbed in the perusal of current affairs, or chat with his peers while consuming reasonably priced food and drink. 

For the best lamb cutlet and the best library, you should visit the Reform Club, an elegant example of 19th-century neoclassicism founded to bring together supporters of the Reform Act of 1832, which extended the vote to the British middle classes. It now admits members of all political stripes who consider themselves “reformers.” Stepping into the light-filled, rectangular atrium, you look up towards a leaded-glass cupola. If you stand on the eight-pointed star in the middle of the marble floor, you may feel as if you are inside a Victorian musical box and should pirouette on one leg to the tune of “Rule Britannia.” Around you are wine-colored carpets, dark wood, and portraits of earnest Victorian politicians, clutching speeches and bills. It is on this compass that the famous bet is made in Jules Verne’s novel about whether or not it is possible to go Around the World in Eighty Days.

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