The Gluepot Pub and its infamous composer clientele

Conductor Andrew Griffiths tells the stories behind the infamous London pub

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The Gluepot Pub and its infamous composer clientele
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The George Pub, on the corner of Great Portland Street and Mortimer Street, is one of London’s unlikelier musical landmarks. Forlornly shrouded in scaffolding and deprived of its obligatory saint-and-dragon sign, its closed doors hardly merit a second glance from today’s shuffling commuters. It’s all a far cry from its heyday, when the composer Elisabeth Lutyens was able to claim that 'if a bomb dropped on The George a large proportion of the musical and literary world would be destroyed'.

Next to the old Queen’s Hall, and close to the BBC in Langham Place, the George was once so popular amongst musicians that Sir Henry Wood, frustrated by its adhesive effects on his orchestra, christened it 'that bloody Gluepot'.

The Queen’s Hall was lost in the Blitz, but the nickname stuck, and the Gluepot enjoyed a second flourishing after the War as the watering-hole of choice for a remarkable group of composers, poets, writers, producers and artists, often associated with the BBC’s new Third Programme. In the words of Humphrey Searle, 'it was then a real rendezvous des artistes… many BBC programmes were discussed and settled within its walls'.

According to Lutyens, a key member of the Gluepot group of the 1940s, the regulars included 'John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne, William Walton, Constant Lambert, Humphrey Searle, Lawrence Leonard, (the poets) Louis MacNeice, Bertie (WH) Rodgers, Dylan Thomas, Roy Campbell, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all!' Some careful sleuthing through memoirs and autobiographies of the time has allowed us to expand her list a good deal. Arnold Bax was an early habitué, and EJ Moeran dropped in on occasion. It’s not far-fetched to think that Moeran’s housemate Peter Warlock might have joined him; we know that Lambert and Walton liked to visit them both at their riotous Eynsford cottage. Other notable figures include the composers Leslie Heward, Hyam Greenbaum and Christian Darnton, Warlock’s biographer Cecil Gray, the legendary producer Walter Legge, the poet Randall Swingler, and the artists Michael Ayrton and Isabel Rawsthorne (née Nicholas).

Constant Lambert, composer of the The Rio Grande and founding conductor at The Royal Ballet, was undoubtedly the central figure of the group. Lutyens furnishes a wonderful description of him holding court in the Gluepot: 'shaking with inner laughter, to explode, when joined with friends, in lucid and uproarious descriptions of something ridiculous spotted in a newspaper, or his latest limerick or French poem. He was larger than life, and a life lived to the fullest and most all-embracing'. He even married a member of the Gluepot set: the fascinating Isabel Nicholas – painter, artists’ model, socialite and muse to lovers such as Jacob Epstein, Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon. After Lambert’s early death, Isabel married another Gluepot regular, Alan Rawsthorne.

Between them, Lambert and his Gluepot composer friends ran the whole gamut of musical style, from the relative conservatism of Ireland, Bax, and even Walton, to the twelve-tone advocacy of Searle and Lutyens, who had the misfortune to acquire the sobriquet ‘twelve-tone Lizzie’. Their discussions about music would surely have made for fascinating listening! Yet despite their differences of approach, they seem to have shared a real sense of camaraderie. Michael Tippett even went so far as to suggest that Lutyens, Walton, Lambert and Rawsthorne represented an anti-Britten cabal: 'they all had great chips on the shoulder and entertained absurd fantasies about a homosexual conspiracy in music led by Britten and Pears'.

Whatever the truth of this, it’s clear that the Gluepot composers enjoyed many musical and professional connections, and looked out for one another wherever possible. Lambert was one of the original narrators for Walton’s Façade, whilst Walton personally stumped up the fee for Lutyens’ first commission. Ireland had taught several of the younger composers, and Greenbaum (an expert orchestrator) gave advice to Lambert, Walton and Rawsthorne. Prompted by Warlock, the young Walton received advice from Cecil Gray, and may also have studied informally with Searle.

Several of the Gluepot composers were drawn together by their progressive politics. Rawsthorne, Darnton, and Swingler were all strongly left-wing, as was Rawsthorne’s friend Alan Bush, a communist party member and founder of the Workers’ Music Association. Amongst the fruits of their collaborations was a WMA recording of two-piano arrangements of international marching songs by Rawsthorne, brilliantly entitled ‘Left!, Left!’. 

Bush even contrived to introduce the socialist anthem The Internationale into Ireland’s 1937 coronation commission These Things Shall Be (he’d been drafted in to assist with the orchestration). Ireland later had cold feet, but it survives in the published vocal score, immediately after the word ‘paradise’! Such a subversive streak perhaps explains the BBC’s attempt to ban Bush’s music from the airwaves during the Second World War; only when Vaughan Williams threatened to withdraw a new commission of his own in solidarity was the situation resolved.

If this all sounds a bit weighty, then it’s worth noting that not every Gluepot collaboration was so earnest. Lutyens relates meeting Constant Lambert one day whilst struggling with a Post Office Film Unit assignment: 'I walked into the Gluepot... and said to Constant, "You know, I’m rather perplexed because I have to write some music that sounds like a brown paper parcel"... and he had a brown paper parcel and together we wrote a piece of music on the parcel. Unfortunately it had to go somewhere – so it was posted!'

A trawl through the more arcane recesses of Westminster City Council’s planning website reveals that the George has recently had its premises licence renewed. Perhaps its doors will open once again, and music lovers may yet have the chance to savour a pint or two in the Gluepot, and consider its rich cultural heritage. But then again, they’d best be careful not to get stuck inside!

Released on 2nd March, Londinium’s debut disc 'The Gluepot Connection', conducted by Andrew Griffiths, explores the unaccompanied choral music of the Gluepot composers, and includes premiere recordings of works by Alan Rawsthorne and Alan Bush, as well as music by Bax, Warlock, Ireland, Moeran, Warlock, Delius and Lutyens.

The disc is officially launched with a celebratory concert at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, London, on Saturday 10th March. Find tickets here.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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