Sunday, September 12, 2021

Barcelona in Soho: a 1940s Surrealist hangout

17 Beak Street in Soho is at the time of writing a branch of the Flat Iron steak restaurant chain. But for at least 40 years it was home to the Barcelona Restaurant, at one time the social HQ of British surrealist artists.


In 1938 it was reported that the Barcelona was one of only five Spanish restaurants in London. At this time the Spanish Civil War was still raging, with supporters of Franco's fascists meeting for a sherry party at Martinez in Swallow Street. The unnamed manager of the Barcelona struck a melancholy tone stating that 'There is nothing to celebrate' as the war entered its third year.



(Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 18 July 1938)


The manager was Joaquim Carbonell (1895-1950), recalled by George Melly (see below) as a Spanish Republican sympathiser. 

1939 England and Wales Register for 17 Beak Street.


It was here that the Belgian surrealist artist Édouard Mesens summoned British surrealist sympathisers in the early days of the Second World War intending to mould them into a coherent  grouping dedicated to 'proletarian revolution' and exclusively surrealist artistic practice. Remy records that 'On Thursday 11 April 1940, E.L.T. Mesens called a meeting at the Barcelona restaurant in Soho's Beak Street of all surrealists living in London' with those attending including John Buckland-Wright, Herbert Read.. Roland Penrose, Humphrey Jennings, J.B. Brunius, Ithell Colquhoun, Eileen Agar, Edith Rimmington, S.W. Hayter, A.C. Sewter, Reuben Mednikoff , Grace Pailthorpe, John Banting, Gordon Onslow-Ford and Charles Howard. Not all of these continued to participate in the London Surrealist group but a number of them took part in the group's exhibition in June of that year at the Zwemmer gallery (26 Litchfield Street) alongside guest artists including Lee Miller and Paul Nash (Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain, 1999)

Regular meetings continued in the upstairs dining room of the restaurant, where in addition to the  Surrealist core others would pop by: 'Dylan Thomas and Lucien Freud occasionally put in an appearance' (Levy).  The young George Melly, soon to be a key figure in the British jazz scene, joined the group around this time, with painter Conroy Maddox recalling later: 'When George Melly was on leave from the navy he would join us too. Invariably he would get terribly drunk and would start to recite his poems. One poem finished with 'it's raining knives and forks' and George would enact this line by throwing the restaurant cutlery over himself. We were then thrown out' (quoted in  Sivlano Levy, The Scandalous Eye: The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox, 2003). Incidentally, in a memoir published later - 'Don't Tell Sybil: An Intimate Memoir of E.L.T. Mesens' - Melly mentions that he was in a sexual relationship with Mesens and his wife Sybil at this time.

Gatherings continued at the Barcelona throughout the war and for a while afterward. In December 1946  Mesens organised an exhibition there, though by this time the main meeting place for the surrealist group seems to have shifted to the Three Horseshoes pub on Tottenham Court Road.

There's a remarkable 1978 BBC documentary on surrealism, made to coincide with that year's 'Dada and Surrealism Reviewed' exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. In 'The Journey', George Melly revisits some of the London surrealist haunts of the 1940s including the Barcelona which was then still open. In the upstairs room he brings back together some of the luminaries of British surrealism including Penrose, Maddox and Agar.  

Surrealists reunited in the Barcelona, 1978 including Melly at the top of table and Eileen Agar front left.


The Barcelona Restuarant was undoubtedly significant but Melly was to suggest that 'The non-existence of cafes' was one of the reasons for the relative failure of British surrealism  - exemplified for Melly by Penrose and Read accepting Knighthoods. In a 1987 article 'British Surrealism' published in The Raven: Anarchist Quarterly Melly argued  'This may seem frivolous, but it is not. Pubs are hopeless settings for the exchange of ideas; restaurants too formal. The British Surrealists tried both and found them wanting. The cafe was surrealism’s natural theatre'.


'A meeting of the Surrealist Group with dinner to follow will be held at the Barcelona Restaurant, Beak Street, W1 on Tuesday May 10th at 6:30 pm' - 1940 postcard from Roland Penrose to Jacques Brunius (French surrealist, then living in London).



Barcelona Spanish Restaurant 1968


Barcelona Restaurant 1978