Shipping to
United States
Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher

A new book by Mr Anthony Lejeune, who has been writing about London's clubs for four decades, allows a rare glimpse inside the grand establishments that define the British capital's clubland. The images in The Gentlemen's Clubs of London reveal the incredible elegance and grandeur of these spaces, the raison d'être of which Mr Lejeune explains in his introduction:

"Clubs happen because of the elementary truth that we like to be with our own kind, with whom we can be ourselves and let our hair down, by whom we won't be misunderstood and among whom we are taken for the decent people we know we are."

In London, unlike many other cities, the phrase gentlemen's club is descriptive rather than euphemistic. To be quite clear, there are no erotic thrills to be had in London's clubland. These grand buildings offer men at the top of British society a comfortable home from home in the St James's district of the city, and, by largely being all-male environments, follow the gender-segregated example traditionally set by British public schools. They're resolutely old fashioned, but continue to define a design aesthetic that retains a very masculine currency, and deserve praise for holding the line in the face of society's declining standards of dress.

Their strict approach to dress codes is an expression of a deep conservatism, but they have not always been defined by the image of an old man snoozing in a well-worn chesterfield armchair. Their origins lie in the raffish coffee houses of the 17th century, which were hotbeds of political activism. Two hundred and fifty years later British author Mr PG Wodehouse, whose famous character Bertie Wooster was a member of a boisterous fictional club called Drones, recorded an epoch when these clubs were more about hell raising than heritage. It's a point made, albeit less convincingly, by the fact that in 1981 The Prince of Wales held his stag party at the club White's. His son, Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, is also said to be a member, as is Prime Minister David Cameron.

Given their conservatism it's unsurprising that, despite some relaxation, the clubs' dress codes remain strict. By and large men must wear a lounge suit and tie. According to Mr Lejeune, Arthur's (which has now closed) "was probably the last club in London to insist that its members dressed for dinner". In this context dressing for dinner involves a dinner jacket. Boodle's club made its feelings clear when it called the area of its dining room where members could dine without getting dressed (bear in mind they were still in lounge suits) the "dirty end". These are not establishments that feel any need to track society's increasing informality, but then they don't really fit into modern life at all. They are glorious anachronisms, with little contemporary relevance given that: they ask members to relax in formal clothes, demand a total separation of work and private life by forbidding any discussion of business matters or the use of mobile phones and laptops, close at weekends (when it's assumed members will be in the country), refuse entry to children and, in some cases, women. In many ways they're about a century behind the curve.

As such they exist as relics of an age when men ruled the world (which still left them plenty of time for dining, drinking, gambling and playing billiards), and when the pursuit of elegance, in terms of architecture, dress and lifestyle, was taken very seriously. In Mr Lejeune's words, "A good club... is a refuge from the vulgarity of the outside world... the echo of a civilized English way of living, a place where people still prefer a silver salt cellar which doesn't pour to a plastic one which does."

It's testament to men's wish to congregate in a sympathetic environment that such clubs, in their heyday, sprung up and still thrive in Italy, the US, Hong Kong, France and Argentina, among other countries. The fact that their names are frequently related to sporting pursuits speaks volumes about the old-world masculinity they represent.

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