London Sketch Club

Still life drawing 100 years on

Going into the London Sketch Club is like entering a time-warp from a hundred year's ago. It still remains one of London's best-kept secrets, and forms a link with the artists, illustrators and writers of a century ago.

The gentleman's club was a very important part of Edwardian life, not just for the wealthy and well-connected, but for members of any trade or body whose members felt the need to relax and keep in touch with others of the same leaning. The Langham Sketching Club (from which the London Sketch Club was born), was founded in 1838, and pulled together a rare and celebrated breed – the black and white illustrator.

It is difficult to imagine in these days of instant everything – from entertainment to communication through satellites and the internet – that the stars of the past worked in a medium that is no longer held in such esteem.

Looking through the club's intriguing archives, it's amazing to discover that, in those days before television or cinema, the graphic artist was regarded with much the same awe and respect as a music hall celebrity, actor or musician. The illustrated book was the entertainment centre for practically every home, and the people who produced them often became household names.

Drawing for your Supper

The Langham Sketching Club could boast the cream of London's artists. Every Friday night, at seven o'clock sharp, from October to May, the members, including such all-time greats as Arthur Rackham, Sir John Tenniel and George Keene would get together in their studio-cum-clubhouse-cum-dining-room and draw for two hours on any given subject.These drawings were then pinned up and a lively discussion ensued, based on the work's merit.

At nine thirty a hearty supper of bread, cheese and endless beer was served and the rest of the evening was spent in conversation or entertainment, either amongst themselves or from any of a large selection of popular entertainers who were only to pleased to be associated with such worthy company. In those pre-television and radio days, most people had developed some method of entertaining themselves and others, whether it be singing, telling fanciful monologues, playing musical instruments or even performing magic tricks.


In 1898 a ridiculous argument broke out amongst the members, as to whether the suppers should be hot or cold. Daft as it seems now, a largish group, including such luminaries as Phil May, Tom Browne and Dudley Hardy (who all wanted hot), broke away from the Langham (who wanted cold) and the London Sketch Club was born.

The inaugural meeting was held at the Florence Restaurant (now long gone) at seven o'clock on 1st April 1898, and the club closely followed the style and format of its rather disapproving mother, the Langham. The members proper were all artists but there was quite a healthy lay membership, including actors, singers, writers and well-known men-about-town. The only people who got short shrift were those ''self opinionated bumptious snobs infatuated with their own self importance.'' Some things never change.

Phil May

There was no doubt that the incredible Phil May, 'the irresponsible genius', was one of the prime movers and shakers of the club. Very much on the London scene, he knew practically everyone who was anyone in the arts and wider society.

Phil could always be counted on to be seen at all the most fashionable clubs, of which there were many. It seems impossible that he managed to combine this night-time, alcohol-dependant lifestyle with such a prodigious output of top quality work, but he did.

Burning the candle at both ends, though, took its toll. Poor Phil was to die in 1903, aged only 39 – a legend within the heady world of illustration, popular journals and club society.

Showing Off

The club needed an exhibition to tell the world they'd arrived, and managed to organise one in their first year (1898) at the Modern Gallery in New Bond Street. The younger artists, in particular, sought publicity (frowned upon by Old Mother Langham) if they were to swim in the main stream of the illustration business. The show received glowing reviews from most of the quality papers of the day.

It had contributions from the great John Hassall, Tom Browne and Phil May, along with many other of the big names in black and white illustration. But it wasn't just the exhibition that was attracting attention, for the club itself was becoming famous in bohemian society (and all those who aspired to it), through the writings of the popular journalists who competed to be invited as guests.

By the time of the fifth exhibition in 1900, the club was firmly established in the art world. The public loved these shows because they were so much more fun than the usual more conservative exhibitions.

A New Century

In 1908 Walter Fowler became president, succeeding Tom Browne, who created the original Johnnie Walker figure in beaver hat, quizzing glasses and riding boots, which made the whisky the biggest selling blend in the world. It was the first year the Chelsea Arts Club Ball was held at the Albert Hall (the very first ball the previous year was held at Covent Garden). It was to be a golden age of illustration and cartoons. Amongst the many artists, many of whom drew for Punch and other periodicals, were H M Bateman, who was later to develop his famous series of cartoons concerning the social gaffe, ''The Man Who…''; the legendary Starr Wood; Cecil Aldin, most famous for his portrayal of dogs, horses and hunting scenes; the brilliant Frank Reynolds.

John Hassall's son, Ian, was elected to the Club at birth in 1898, and was given the same rights as other members, and actually exhibited at the age of two. The club was riding high, but the dark clouds of war were slowly gathering and about to envelope the heady cigar and pipe smoke of the Club.

Marylebone Road

In 1913 the club moved to a terrace in Marylebone Road, now rather ignominiously the site of Woolworth's head office. The entrance was through a prison door from the Old Bailey (later replaced by one from Newgate). John Hassall, in one of his incarnations as an interior designer, thought the building, a former chapel, far too sanitised and promptly lit a bonfire in the middle of the room to make it a little more like the place they had just left.

The year that the First World War broke out, the New Zealander Harry Rowntree, destined to become one of Britain's finest children's illustrators, became president. It has been said that it was his quirky little figures that set a style that can still be seen in present day comics. Another member at the time was Harold Earnshaw, a fine illustrator, who, on losing his right arm at the front, promptly learned to draw just as well with the other. Harold was married to Mabel Lucy Attwell, one of the few women to reach illustration superstardom (even without membership of the all-male Sketch Club).

Post War Blues

The Great War might have finished, but the club was subdued, and for good reason. Many of the chaps that came back were never to be the same again, their nerves shattered and minds haunted by what they had witnessed. The new Marylebone premises served as a cosy, friendly sanctuary and a welcome contribution to their rehabilitation into civvy life.

Much more to the point, dealers and gallery owners were still queuing up before each exhibition, hoping for a bargain. It was at this time that the fabulous Robinson brothers, William Heath, Charles and Tom were members, and in 1920 William became president. While Heath Robinson was to become renowned for his brilliant, whimsical representations of impossible machines, his elder brother Charles was to do the same as one of the most popular fairy story illustrators, on a par with Arthur Rackham.

A friend of theirs, and club member, Bert Thomas, was another brilliant black and white artist, whose hugely popular and irreverent cartoon 'Arf a mo, Kaiser', had made him famous during the war. Bert donated the cartoon to a fund for supplying cigarettes for the soldiers.

The Twenties

The club soon became very jolly again, reflecting the heady mood of the Roaring Twenties, certainly due to the larger-than-life John Hassall, who delighted in bringing the most inappropriate guests, from MPs to sewermen, along to club dinners. The Sketch Club even threw its own lively dances and parties in the Wharncliffe Rooms at the Marylebone Hotel, to which film stars and celebrities of the day were invited.

It was around this time that the traditional life drawing sessions were started on Tuesday evenings, costing 10/- for the season, with supper at 2/-.

One of the remarkable characters of the day was the permanently inebriated Eddie Morrow. Remarkable because, according to all records, he was never known to eat – a habit which he, no doubt, frowned upon as it probably got in the way of drinking. Another was the ubiquitous and charismatic ex-president (1912) Montague Smythe – immaculate almost to dandyism, always with the prettiest girls on his arm, and still having pictures accepted at the Royal Academy at the age of 100.

The social evenings blossomed in the twenties and such international stars as Charlie Chaplin were entertained and themselves entertained the members in their Marylebone premises.

Broader Canvas

The Sketch Club began to attract artists who worked, not only in different media, but outside the 'trade'. Typical was President Harry Riley, who was not only at home with water colour and oils, but lectured, wrote articles, designed his own house and entertained the Sketch Club with risqué songs. He became, much later, a personality and guest cartoonist on early television. The club, which now had a long waiting list, still insisted, however, that a prospective member must have had some work printed.

1936 Exhibition

Early in 1936, a few members got together and decided it was time to have another big exhibition on the theme of 'London and the Thames'. It was to be at the Arlington Gallery on 16th April. To publicise the show, members designed their own posters and paraded them around town like sandwich-board men.

Once again, there were glowing reviews from all the big papers, except for one in The Times, which accused the work of a certain slickness. Whether this was true or not, there was never to be a public exhibition again, all further shows being held at the clubs premises.

The 'smoker nights' as they were called had become hugely popular again, to such a degree that supper had to be served in two sittings. The President in the late 30's was the irrepressible George Parlby, known as 'the last true eccentric in London.' A friend of royalty, and positively Dickensian in appearance, George was to be 'Master of Ceremonies' for many years, and loved dressing up in ridiculous outfits at every opportunity. Regular visitors at this time were entertainers Stanley Holloway, Victor MacClure and the famous Shakespearean actor Henry Oscar.

A lot of the most successful illustrators had agents, just like actors and film stars, and they would often turn up to the Friday night dinners, just to keep an eye on their investments.

War Again

When the war broke out in 1939 many of the artists joined the Artist's Rifles, while others became official war artists. Some of those who stayed behind became political cartoonists, like David Ghilchik, lampooning the horrid Hun for all he was worth, and even achieving the honour of being put on Hitler's 'black list.'

The Club had to be re-assembled after the war, sadly with some of its most beloved members missing. Still in the doldrums, the poor old Langham Club had to endure the spectacle of the London Sketch Club rising again, but there was little hard feeling – just a healthy rivalry. Quite naturally, after the bleak war years, the social side of the club took off immediately and the stars of the day, including a young Cyril Fletcher, Philip Harben (the cook), Freddie Mills (the boxer) and Max Jaffa (the musician) were happy to entertain members. One report in the Argos Weekend Magazine went as follows: ''Serious sketching and frivolous jesting are nicely balanced in this corner of London's art world''.

Onward and Upward

The Club went from strength to strength during the forties, largely under the influence of the wonderful John Hassall, who produced the memorable “Skegness is so Bracing” poster, and who seemed to get more eccentric as he got older (a splendid Sketch Club trait). As many of the founder members died, others stepped into their shoes – names like Will Owen (who drew the original Bisto ad), Terence Cuneo, Edward Bishop and Gilbert Wilkinson, who, with Bert Thomas and Phil May, ranks as one of the century's finest black-and-white artists.

Members at that time still seemed to love dressing up and they would have regular Tramp Nights, Old Soldier's Nights, Pirates Nights and Savage Nights, when they didn't behave like savages – they merely invited members of the rival Savage Club.

Dilke Street (1957)

The sale of the Marylebone premises to the huge Woolworth's chain allowed the members to buy the studio building in Chelsea outright, and still have money in the bank. The premises could not have been more suitable, being bang in the middle of an area famous for artists past and present. But the members were getting older and there were few 'youngsters' knocking on the door. The Club became stuck in a slightly cosy rut that was to last for many years.

The Sixties and Seventies

Throughout the sixties the club continued in the same quiet sort of way. There was still money in the bank but the membership numbers were beginning to decline.

In the early seventies The Chelsea Arts Club voted in favour of admitting women into the main body of the Club, rather than being restricted to a cramped 'ladies bar', and the Sketch Club's president, Bernard Bays, was a strong advocate of having them too. The idea was resisted and, to this day, the only women to be admitted on drawing nights are the life models.

The membership continued to drop until there were a mere handful of Tuesday night sketchers, but the Friday entertainment nights were still reasonably well attended. In 1975 the members tried to kick some life into the club (and boost the now dwindling finances) by holding another show along with their old friends - members of the Chelsea Art Club, The Langham and the Wapping Group of Painters. It was the first since 1936. Naturally it didn't get the press attention it would have received in the good old days, but those who did attend realised that the fine standards were still being clung to.

Despite the exhibition, the club continued to potter along in the same way. Mabel, the cook for many years, had gone, and her replacement Marlene seemed hell-bent on poisoning the members, something she actually managed twice. Unlike Saki's cook, she was not a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.

Some notable members at the time were Peter Blake RA, A R Thomson RA and Michael Foreman, the children's book illustrator, and amongst the guests to be seen on Friday nights were Gerald Scarfe, Carel Weight RA, Robert Buhler RA, the cartoonists Mac, Jak and David Langdon, the artist Freddie Deane and the inimitable Reggie Bosanquet.

The present

Like a number of institutions, there are golden periods, and other times when things look pretty bleak. The London Sketch Club is no exception, but happily, in its centenary year, after having survived a couple of relatively quiet decades, the club is showing every sign of breaking into the bright sunlight yet again. Membership is back up to around a hundred and fifty, comprising working town, country, overseas, lay and honorary members. Attendance on Tuesday sketching nights is frequently at capacity, and the Friday evening dinners, held throughout the winter, are very often sell-outs.

The London Sketch Club is a haven in a sometimes frantic and frenetic world dominated by commercialism and flashy imagery. Painting and drawing standards are considered important, but perhaps not so important as the pure enjoyment of the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the tradition of this unique club, that has seen a number of changes and endured many ups and downs over the past hundred years.

Here's to the next hundred.

John Farman
Member of the London Sketch Club

The club is indebted to David Cuppleditch. His book 'The London Sketch Club' provided the greater part of the material for this article.


Signing the constitution, 1898

Invitation by HM Bateman, 1912

Interior view of the Wells Street premises, circa 1903

Invitation to Smoking Conversazione, 1904

Invitation to Smoking Conversazione with illustration of the interior of the Marylebone Road premises

Fancy Dress Dance Programme, 1921

Parlby, the 'grand old man' of the London Sketch Club

Stanley Holloway entertained the club in the 1920s

Fancy Dress Ball at the Wharncliffe Rooms, 1930s

Victor MacClure, one of the club's more celebrated entertainers

Presidential wear


The London Sketch Club