ICafe Torino, the scions of Soho, and the land of anticipation

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Cafe Torino, corner of Dean Street & Old Compton St (circa 1955)

 From Transition: The London Art Scene in the 1950s by Martin Harrison

Situated on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street (with a conspicuously large ten foot mannequin perched above the door), Cafe Torino was a favoured cafe for many of the art sects prevalent in London in the mid-50s.

It was a tiny slice of Soho that stood as a testament to the enduring influence of cafes on the creative life of a Britain emerging from the cultural shell-shock of WW2.

Cafes like Torino were very much part of the birth of British cool. Richard Wollheim, reviewing Colin MacInnes' novel Absolute Beginners in 1959, insisted the 'hip' coffee bar kids of the 1950s represented an aristocracy of cool whose dominion he specifically located in: "films from France and Poland and Japan; and in the cafes and bars of every American or Americanized city in the world."

As well as hip teens, the cafes (and pubs and drinking clubs) attracted many of London's leading intellectuals and artists, including the scions of Soho, Francis Bacon, John Minton, Lucien Freud, Henrietta Moraes and Frank Auerbach.

Cafe Torino, sited at the corner of Dean Street and Old Compton Street, housed numerous groups of architects, designers and journalists.

Torino regular Dan Farson, in his memoire 'Soho In The Fifties' recalled:

"Torino's [had] been run for fourteen years by Mr and Mrs Minella from Italy and their son.

It was pleasantly old-fashioned with tall, arched windows, and opened at eight-thirty in the morning, closing at seven o'clock in the evening.

It had wrought-iron tables with marble tops, cups of proper coffee, and vol au vents at one shilling and sixpence.

Officially it was a restaurant serving pizza, spaghetti and risotto, but you could talk for hours over a small cup of coffee and the Minellas did not mind.

They were so anxious to keep their customers happy they kept their prices low and were rash enough to allow credit.

They even let me buy pate down the street and eat it with a simple order of brown toast.

Their goodwill was reciprocated and the tables were usually crowded.

There were dark Italians huddled in earnest discussions, suddenly bursting into furious argument... and several pale young artists and poets searching half-heartedly for jobs...

As I waited in Torino's, my belief that something wonderful might happen was echoed throughout Soho, for as I came to realise, this was a land of anticipation..."

Transition: The London Art Scene in the 1950s, by Martin Harrison

"London in the Fifties was a Mecca for artists... the painter Jack Smith... decreed that 'the wilderness starts ten miles from the centre of London in any direction'.

The Bohemian underworlds of Fitzrovia and Soho attracted painters of the calibre of Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, R.B. Kitaj and Lucian Freud.

Bacon became the most famous member of the circle centred on the legendary Colony Room in Soho, run by Muriel Belcher: a drinking den frequented by artists, critics and assorted hangers-on...

The city was brimming over with ideas and movements: Neo-Romanticism, Social Realism, Pop Art, the Kitchen Sink School, Abstract Expressionism all jostled for dominance...

London in the Fifties... in all its vigour and fertility... a city in intellectual and artistic ferment.."



Cafe Torino, circa 1955

 From Transition: The London Art Scene in the 1950s by Martin Harrison

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