Soho Dives, Soho Divas: Sketching London's burlesque artists
"I find myself using a large Rowney sketchbook to carve my way through the evening crowds around Piccadilly Circus, following Eros' arrow up to the narrow streets of Soho, London's notorious sleaze quarter."
Images: Rian Hughes
I'm sure that, like me, you're wary of unsolicited emails offering strange and seductive promises. But, sometimes, curiosity can get the better of you. That's how adventures usually begin.
This is how I find myself using a large Rowney sketchbook to carve my way through the evening crowds around Piccadilly Circus, following Eros' arrow up to the narrow streets of Soho, London's notorious sleaze quarter. Though now gentrified by hip bars, advertising agencies and fancy restaurants, there still exists the occasional corner that the new broom has missed.
Here is Archer Street's cul-de-sac, where what passed for something else was once snorted off the rear spoiler of a cherry-red Toyota Supra, the only flat surface available; over there the Windmill Theatre, now a tawdry clip joint, where friends from long ago were caught in a tabloid sting that got them suspended from their elite girls' school.
Turn right into Chinatown and Wardour Street, where, situated between the Brain Club and The Wag, I shared a studio above a Chinese bakery with a group of comic artist and illustrator friends: Steve Cook, Kev Hopgood, Pauline Doyle, Kim Dalziel, John Tomlinson, Brian Williamson, Andy Lanning, and Lucy Madison.
It was there, one oppressively hot afternoon, that some intimidating thugs turned up looking for our landlord. He apparently owed these Triad types several tens of thousands of pounds in rent, and they had come to collect. We pleaded honest ignorance, and they eventually left.
When confronted, our "landlord" swore innocence and then, that night, changed the studio's locks. Coming in on Saturday morning to collect material for a Tundra Comics launch, I was faced with a new heavy-duty drillproof steel lock and a note demanding advance rent money in return for the keys. A few calls later, the other studio members and I convened in the Falcon pub opposite.
An ask-no-questions locksmith was quickly found. "It's a drillproof lock", he observed. My hopes evaporated. He opened a large plastic case and pulled out something resembling a pneumatic demolition drill. "Should take me ten minutes." We hired a van and, in relays, during the height of the Saturday rush when we couldn't park outside for more than three minutes without blocking the street back to Leicester Square managed to move all our stuff to a friend's studio in Brixton. I got off lightly -- the "landlord" had just taken my airbrush and the cover for Fantagraphics' Dare 1. Kev Hopgood lost an entire issue of Iron Man pencils. If you see these for sale on eBay, please pass on the details. The Triad might want to take a professional interest.
Now, heading further north, I pass the discreet unlabeled door of Soho House, a private club that made me a lifetime member in return for a set of drawings of their manorhouse retreat in Kent. Above Shaftsbury Avenue, just off Old Compton Street, I find an entrance under a gold and black awning. A man in a boxy dinner jacket with a neck wider than his forehead sees me approach and, with the uncanny sixth street-sense all bouncers seem to possess, decides I don't look like trouble. It's probably the sketchbook. A red silk rope is lifted and a paneled Victorian door that has been repainted so many times it no longer properly fits its frame is held open.
Once inside the tiny lobby, I part a heavy velvet drape and enter a dimly-lit bar. Candles dance in dimpled red glass holders on darkly polished tabletops. A pinch-cheeked barman from some distant and underdeveloped country is polishing glasses by the cadaverous light of a glass-fronted refrigerator. "Is this the right place for the life drawing?" I ask, trying to sound like I know what I'm talking about. He stops what he's doing, raises his eyes to look at me, then, with an absolute economy of motion, imperceptibly shifts his head back towards the function room at the rear. I thank him and press on.
I pass small knots of people with their heads bent together conspiratorially, entwined couples on leather settees whose arms are worn through to the coarse fabric musculature underneath. The wood panelling and heavy gilt-framed mirrors give way to a shabbier, loucher decor. To the left is a pair of unpainted chipboard saloon doors with a handwritten sign taped to them. This is it.
I'm late, and the class has already started. In a solo spotlight, on an ornate cast-iron stool, sits a burlesque dancer dressed (barely) in vintage, tasseled and feathered and frozen in an angular dancer's pose. Around her attentively sit a ring of silent acolytes, bent in supplication over the drawing boards propped on their knees or the edge of a barstool. I find a space, and set out my materials. The girl next to me is drawing with one finger on her iPad, but there's no pixels for me here, not tonight -- just the nostalgic analogue art-school mess of graphite, brush and Indian ink. It's as if I'm a student again.
The other attendees, I discover, are illustrators, artists and hobbyists, many drawn from Soho's local animation and special effects houses, and their work turns out to be of a very high standard indeed.
Intermittently attending over a couple of years, I accumulate several hundred drawings, and eventually decide to scan them, clean them up and produce, via the wonders of online digital print, a small black-and-white book. This sells a few dozen copies, mainly to friends in illustration and comics. Image's Eric Stevenson eventually sees a copy, and very kindly offers to publish it. Now with the option of color, I revisit some of the drawings and develop others into finished digital illustrations in Illustrator or Photoshop. Here they are.
I hope I don't physically resemble Toulouse Lautrec, but like him, and more by accident than by design, I've produced a particular record of London's burlesque scene, frozen — just like that model — in a timeless vintage now.
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