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John Claridge At The French House

July 3, 2019
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer John Claridge has been a regular at the French since the sixties and below you can read his eulogy to this beloved London institution. Now he has a book launch there and an exhibition of his photomontages in celebration of Lesley Lewis’ thirty years as publican, opening tonight – Wednesday 3rd July at 6pm. All are welcome to join us in raising a glass.

Gaston Berlemont, publican at the French House 1945-89

Lesley Lewis, publican at the French House since 1989

“I first went to Paris in the early sixties, when I was seventeen, working as an assistant to David Montgomery. We were there to shoot pictures for a fashion magazine and, early every morning before the shoot, we would go into a bar or brasserie for a coffee and a croissant. The smell of strong coffee, brandy and Gitanes, posters for art and photographic exhibitions – this was a whole beautiful new world and one that stayed with me.

In the sixties, I also started going to Ronnie Scott’s which was – at that time – in a basement in Gerrard St in Soho. One night on my way to Ronnie’s, I happened to pass the French. The door was open and the smell of coffee, French cigarettes and alcohol engulfed me. I walked in and the rest, as they say, is history.

It still holds that magic for me – a bohemian atmosphere, if you will. Full of artists, actors, poets, directors, media and, dare I say it, photographers. All crazy you understand! All with their own opinions and all very different, as it should be. And as the drink flows, all putting the world to rights, or at least trying to, and certainly with emotion.

I met landlord Gaston Berlemont in the early sixties. He invited me upstairs and introduced me to absinthe – the real stuff. It knocked my bloody head off! We started talking about all the wonderful people who had passed over the threshold, those who have passed away, those who are still around. Later I documented some of these people in my series Soho Faces, which at the moment totals over six hundred and fifty portraits.

It was thirty years ago that Lesley Lewis took over at Gaston’s retirement. After all these years, she ensures the French retains that magic. She not only encouraged me with my project of Soho Faces but also was a fantastic help. I regard her as a very special friend whom I love dearly.

To produce a small show and book that encompasses thirty years is impossible. So I thought I would approach it in an abstract way. Enough, I hope, to capture the smell of coffee, Gitanes, and of course alcohol, and including all the wonderful crazy people, past and present, who all call the French ‘home.’”

Images copyright © John Claridge

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    July 3, 2019

    Great story about a place I would have liked to visit (frequently). Don’t have anything like it here (in San Diego, CA).

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 3, 2019

    Great images! very stylish…

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    July 3, 2019

    I used to work with an heir or at least a family member of the Ricard drinks business who was a librarian at Swiss Cottage Library for many years. How he ended up there and in that job I do not know It was just a matter of common knowledge to the staff there . Its about as far away from Pastis as you can get. He is long gone but it just goes to show people are not always tempted by the high life and sometimes just prefer to serve the public.

  4. Peter Fawcett permalink
    July 3, 2019

    The French has been one of my second homes for many years and Lesley is a dear friend. Unfortunately I can’t get up to town very often these days but memories of Lesley and the French linger on.

  5. July 4, 2019

    What a lovely pub, we went there a lot and drank Pernod with a sugar cube melted into it by a strainer and strange fountain on the bar. Gaston thew me out for being too amerous with my girl friend! Ahhh……………………………………….happy days!!!

  6. David Preutz permalink
    July 12, 2019

    Bastille Day 1989……. A day to remember in Dean Street – Gaston’s retirement. The Champagne flowed, the crowd grew and the traffic stopped flowing.

    One of the few times I’ve witnessed the local police behave rather sensibly and instead of trying to disperse x hundred patrons, closed to the to traffic. Bravo that constable. I’m not sure that would happen nowadays. Happy days of Soho.

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