London Clubs continue to prosper, with new ones continuing to open. The newest is also one of the oldest, the Learned Society of Extra Ordinary Objects, the Club Room and Gin Bar of which has popped up for the summer in Somerset House.
The Learned Society was established in 1717, initially meeting in The Boar Inn in the Strand, before moving to Somerset House in 1725, where Fellows would meet and enjoy each other’s company around the Gin Bar in the Club Room, presenting everyday and ordinary objects to each other and examining the extraordinary stories behind them.
The history of the Gin Bar goes back to the days when the River Thames used to freeze over and the entrepreneurial Leopold Benedict Augustus set up a travelling bar selling warm gin, which was so popular with the occupants of Somerset House, in particular the Learned Society, that Augustus was offered membership of the Society on condition he installed his bar in the Club Room, and thus the famous Gin Bar was established.
In time the Society closed down, anything of value was sold off and, in 1973 the Inland Revenue raided the premises and systematically dismantled and cleared everything, wrapping the worthless objects in brown paper, ready for auction or disposal. Some, such as the India Club Courtyard Cricket Competition Cup, have survived to this day. Other societies such as the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Arts within Somerset House prospered and, in time, moved to larger premises elsewhere, while the ever-growing Inland Revenue eventually took over the whole complex.
Today, for a brief summer, and to celebrate 300 years since its birth, the Learned Society of Extra Ordinary Objects has come alive again with contributions from 30 new Fellows who are artists, designers and craftspeople, selected by designers Clarke and Clerkin. The Club Room has been reinstated, with the walls surrounded by archive photographs and portraits, and the new Fellows have provided everyday, ordinary and strange objects, all with a fantastic story behind them, showing that the simplest of objects can invoke extraordinary and personal histories.
Will Smith has contributed two drawers from a storage unit from the Formula One workshop in Colnbrook, while Joe Buttigieg submitted the actor Oliver Reed’s jelly mould, and Chris Eckersley a measuring chain, Neil Austin has provided Brandeburg the Bear, and Barnaby Barford a slide projector and slides that once belonged to the uncle of the artists Gilbert and George.
It is for the viewer’s imagination to wander, become immersed, and decide what is true and what is fictional.