Cavern of the Golden Calf

The Cavern of the Golden Calf had set the precedent for the London night-club.


In 1912, Madame Strindberg, the sexually-liberated former wife of the playwright, decided to create an alternative to the Wildean Cafe Royal. Taking her cue from Marinetti’s Futurist performance art rhetoric and the Kaberett Fledermaus of her native Vienna, she leased a draper’s basement in Heddon Street, a cul-de-sac behind Regent Street, and created the Cavern of the Golden Calf. This `low-ceilinged nightclub, appropriately sunk under the pavement’, was decorated by Spencer Gore in Russian Ballet-inspired murals, with contributions by Jacob Epstein and Wyndham Lewis; Eric Gill designed the club’s motif, a phallic Golden Calf, symbol of biblical dissipation and idolatry.

The club’s self-advertised aim was to be `a place given up to gaiety’, its art-subversive interiors `brazenly expressive of the libertarian pleasure principle …’ It was intentionally international and unEnglish, full of modern young artists and poets like Gaudier-Brzeska and Ezra Pound with their quiffed hair and razor-point sideboards, sipping anisette as they watched the Spanish dancers and fire-eaters. Osbert Sitwell witnessed bohemian artists drinking with Guards officers in a `super-heated Vorticist garden of gesticulating figures, dancing and talking while the rhythm of the primitive forms of ragtime throbbed through the wide room’. First to strike a visitor upon entering was the raucous music: strident jerking jazz, faster than anything that had gone before; it was the sound of speed. Yet more striking were the dancers: thin young women, diaphanous short skirts showing their legs, their heads crowned with iridescent feathers twitching in time to the music. This was dancing from the hip – as one visiting French diplomat remarked, never had the derriere been so prominent on the dance-floor. Girls made up in public, their encardined lips pursed in contemptuous social flagrancy, sipping newly-invented cocktails and smoking Turkish cigarettes held in languid hands, ostentatiously modern against a Futurist backdrop. The smoky, feverish, frenetic atmosphere was as unlike the genteel debutante balls of Mayfair

The Cavern went bankrupt in 1914, but not before Madam Strindberg had become disappointed in its failure as an avant-garde and artistic venture. To her it had become an amusing place for high society and wealthy bohemians, who came to enjoy a cabaret, the ragtime music, jazz, and dance.

In late 1915 the shuttered doors and cabaret’s lights were once again open and lit in the basement on Heddon Street as the property was leased by new owners. Not much is known about Anton Baader, other than he came from Zurich, where as a financial backer he had been involved in the establishment of various cabarets. Aware of the conflicts between the London’s moralistic middle-class, the libertine spirit of the fashionably rich, and the decadence of the avant-garde community, he saw the opportunity to recreate the club’s more profitable days with the patrons Madam Strindberg had felt so much unease. But, he was a financer with little experience in running a cabaret. And so, with his partner, Maud Winthrop, an infamous American from New York, they reopened the Cavern of the Golden Calf.

Cavern of the Golden Calf

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