Friday, February 8, 2013

More bill

Orpen’s bill from the Café Royal carries a distinctive monogram, the capital letter N beneath a crown. This haughty gesture recurs throughout the lavish interior decorations of the café, and, I fancy, embraces a degree of Gallic mischief. In 1865, Daniel-Nicolas Thévenon, a French wine merchant, established the Café Royal in extensive premises on the Crown Estate at the bottom of Regent Street, hard by Piccadilly Circus. He anglicized his name to Daniel Nicols, and by the end of the century his son and namesake took the Café Royal to new heights of opulence. Its cellars were famous for their size, distinction, and rarity. The Café Royal became one of the most fashionable establishments in the West End, and was frequented by artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, Walter Sickert, Max Beerbohm, James McNeill Whistler, William Nicholson, Augustus John, and obviously William Orpen too. The character of the place embraced the dizzyingly high, expressed above all by its extravagant décor, but also the forthrightly low. Some of the early rules of boxing were first written down in the building, and contests were regularly staged there. No doubt this was something that drew Nicholson and John especially—both were connoisseurs of the boxing ring. From the vantage point of the 1920s and 1930s, when it was still going strong, the Edwardian Café Royal was recalled as so many charmed caverns, their gilding and encrusted ornamentation softened by thick blue cigar smoke, and the buzz of brilliant talk brightened further by the clack and shuffle of dominoes over marble. Through all of this, not unlike the flamboyant César Ritz, Daniel Nicols oversaw his palatial establishment with the flair and instinct for public relations that distinguishes a true impresario. He was the svengali of catering, a gentleman moreover eagerly sought after for preferred table reservations, or, in the case of social indiscretions, tables in quiet corners. His monogram refers unabashedly to that of Napoleon, but also implies no less imperial authority wielded over a West End café society that increasingly sought to distinguish itself from the starchiness of clubland, the inaccessibility of the Court, and from the rough and tumble of music hall entertainment.

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