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  1. Wealth
June 7, 2012updated 28 Jan 2016 5:49pm

5 Hertford Street is my gold medallist

By William Cash

Much more significant than the Olympics are the dancing opportunities with the long-awaited opening of 5 Hertford Street, Robin Birley’s new club

A CONTROVERSIAL THING to say in an issue with our Olympic Special, but this summer I’ll be ignoring the running, swimming and discus-throwing. Much more significant are the dancing opportunities with the long-awaited opening of 5 Hertford Street, Robin Birley’s new club in a sprawling set of exquisitely chic and quirky rooms, with a tunnel of booths, dining rooms, nightclub, library, cinema and bar. They all shimmer invitingly in the dim lights like a luminescent tortoise shell, just off Shepherd Market in Mayfair. While there has been a glut of private members’ clubs opening in Mayfair recently, including the spivved up Arts Club, a multimillion makeover at Morton’s and Little House Mayfair, a sister to Soho House, 5 Hertford Street will be the club that London will want to join.

Taki used to say that one of the greatest pleasures in his life was stepping off the Concorde from New York and being driven straight to the bar at Annabel’s where he knew he would always encounter the prettiest girls in London, as well as old friends, not to mention a raffish selection of society boulevardiers. I am sure — judging by the eclectic members (and dogs) present at the walk-round I attended in late May — that 5 Hertford Street will be successful for the same reason.

There are two types of clubs. There are those where you go because you want to bump into old friends and the barman will know your name and your favourite cocktail — and there is the type you join, such as the Clermont Club, to take people when you want to avoid people you know. In The End of the Affair, Graham Greene has his protagonist Maurice Bendrix take his love rival — a dullard civil servant with whose wife Bendrix had conducted an affair — to lunch at the Authors’ Club to inform him of his wife’s betrayal. In the torturous scene over lunch, Bendrix tells his rival that he chose the Author’s Club precisely because they would be in no danger of encountering anybody either of them knew.
HAPPILY, 5 HERTFORD Street is not going to be that sort of club. London needs a club that is private, exclusive and for a certain sort of person who does not want to be surrounded by Damien Hirst Spot paintings or skulls and Russian professionals propping up the bar. For too long, London’s private members’ clubs have become glorified versions of St Tropez beach clubs, where money is the only qualifier for membership.

From the moment you walk into the entrance hall, and are greeted by a splendid hunting portrait by Sir William Orpen (a contemporary of the portrait painter Sir Oswald Birley, Robin’s grandfather), or step downstairs into the dimly-lit basement nightclub known as Loulou’s — designed by Rifat Ozbek and where the red velvet cushions are even lusher than the Neisha Crosland zebra-print stripes on the sofas at Annabel’s — you know you are happily back in Birley clubland. Namely a land of ruthless, idiosyncratic and perfectionist good taste.

One of the cleverest things about Robin’s enormous eighteenth-century townhouse is that its eclectic mix of rooms, floors and dining rooms pulls off the trick of making the members of the old Birley clubs  feel at home, all under one roof, while also reinventing the Birley gift for interiors in a bold and original new way.

Tom Wolfe always used to say that details are the window into the soul. After being shown into the extraordinary ladies’ loos at 5 Hertford Street, I can’t imagine it will be long before Birley is approached by World of Interiors to photograph what will surely become the most talked-about loos in London. The men’s are smaller but I was glad to see that the chosen lavatory maker of choice is Crapper, the Asprey of old fashioned lavatories.

One of the most successful features of 5 Hertford Street — which feels like a private house — is the terrace courtyard. Not so many years ago, if you wanted to smoke in London at some glitzy club or party, you were herded outside on the street or made to stand in the car park. No self-respecting London club opens today without addressing the smoking laws and the Birley terrace — like a courtyard inside a grand palazzo in Rome — is even more ingeniously conceived and executed than the small sculpture garden smoking terrace at the Club at the Ivy. To accompany the Birley Cigar Shop, having a private cigar courtyard is the trump card that leaves the rest of Mayfair private members’ land in the social dust.
I’M ESPECIALLY LOOKING forward to the Masterpiece London art fair this year as Spear’s has its own booth. Masterpiece is the Maastricht of the UK UHNWs’ universe — only more eclectic, contemporary and exclusive, with the best of the best for the collector, whether they are looking for a vintage ex-racing Ferrari or an early Fontana. Like last year, we are hosting a debate on the opening morning of the fair with VIP dealer-panellists invited to talk for three minutes on a piece they are selling at Masterpiece — and why they almost cannot bear to part with it — and then speak again about an item from another stand which they crave and would like to own.

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The point of the debate is to ask, ‘What is a masterpiece?’ Dr Johnson’s Dictionary describes a masterpiece as being ‘A Capital Performance. Anything done or made with extraordinary skill.’ But the m-word has become overused today. The idea of a masterpiece originated in Europe in the late Middle Ages and referred to a virtuoso work by a craftsman that won him entry into a professional guild. A masterpiece was what made him a master of his craft as opposed to a mere journeyman. So the creation of a masterpiece is about transcending the ordinary into something close to the sublime.
CAN A NIGHTCLUB ever be termed a masterpiece? Is there even such a thing as a guild of nightclub proprietors? Robin Birley has certainly served his Mayfair and City apprenticeships, first with Birley Sandwiches (where he employed the classical architect Philip Jebb to design his glass shelves) and later in returning a jejune and tired Annabel’s to profit.

When asked to define a masterpiece, Cyril Connolly said that when we think of a work of art as ‘good’, part of that judgment is a ‘desire that other people should agree with us’. Loulou’s opens on 11 June. I expect all of London to be queuing around into Curzon Street.

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