Andrew Edmunds, the London gallerist, restaurant and club owner, was a great and colourful character, one who truly, and consistently seemed to have stepped out of a novel. He was a fantasist, perhaps, but one who succeeded in making his fantasies honest, real, seemingly even commercially viable. He was, after all, an art dealer, but also, in the true French sense of the word, an “amateur”—the individual who, while still a student of zoology at Cambridge University, and without formal training but inspired by an almost insane love, became more knowledgeable in his art historical field than any scholar.
He had an unrivalled passion for a very specific corner of English art and culture centred on 18th-century printmaking—in particular the work of William Hogarth, James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. A century ago, the best of these English engravings and mezzotints, which he also sold, were both valued and financially extremely valuable. Indeed a mezzotint by Valentine Green (1781) after Joshua Reynolds’s The Ladies Waldegrave fetched £3,045 at auction in 1923, the equivalent today of £200,000. Now, you might find the same print or one of a similar subject and quality, even in his shop, for £1,000 or less.
It is only a loss of knowledge and connoisseurship and regrettable changes in taste that have allowed such an exquisite and significant art largely to vanish from general appreciation within a crazed contemporary international market. Edmunds was of course the great champion of his subject. His private collections of prints by Hogarth and Gillray remain legendary in their scope and quality. Indeed, for recent Hogarth exhibitions at Tate Britain—Hogarth (2007) and Hogarth and Europe (2021-22)—the museum chose to borrow from Edmunds rather than from the British Museum. But present times and “values”, broader appreciation, knowledge and understanding were, and are, not on his side. In that sense, Edmunds had something of the Don Quixote about him.
Edmunds was affectionately christened “the Duke of Lexington Street”, after the special location in Soho, central London, of his prints gallery and restaurant, where he dressed and acted the part of an English country gentleman or minor aristocrat. In truth he was neither, his father Herbert Edmunds having been the director of a heating engineering company and his mother, Dorothy Hammond, an early graduate of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a schoolteacher of history in Essex.
Having come up to Soho, the very epicentre of the city, Edmunds built for himself in the late 1970s and early 1980s a tiny but utterly genuine empire of all the senses that revolved around the best and most honest food and drink hostelry in the restaurant that bore his name, and upstairs in the Academy dining club. His separate, but somehow beautifully and meaningfully connected print business next door, which centred on Hogarth, the most quintessential of London 18th-century artists, became, via his dark, Dickensian, shop, a unique bridge into a lost London past. His stock was full of unexpected graphic treasures which recalled in colourful mastery particular moments of largely English, but also sometimes French, history, and their associated gossipy, even surrealistic, comic situations that often have parallels in the daily news of today.
A commanding presence
His two adjacent terraced houses in Lexington Street—Numbers 44 and 46—which survived blitzes and developers, were built according to The Survey of London in 1711 for artisans at a time when the cities of London and Westminster were still separated by fields. Edmunds was highly conscious of the historic echoes of a place where a few decades later the likes of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Canaletto, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffman, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, even Théodore Géricault, while exhibiting his Raft of the Medusa in Piccadilly, had spent time. He was also aware of the area’s long-standing reputation as freedom-loving, Bohemian, “disreputable”—a quality that has been long under threat from much-hated commercial pressures, now more than ever.
Edmunds was a commanding presence in his street, strutting up and down, worrying about the effect of heavy elephant lorries riding the pavements and threatening the stability of his seemingly ramshackle buildings. Yet underneath all was good and cared for and, in its “amateur” way, perfectly organised. Sitting and dining in either the first-floor Academy Club, with its almost country-like informality, or in the romantic candle-lit restaurant in the ground floor and basement was—and hopefully will remain—the best of London experiences, containing such delicious and essentially English food with a touch of France, together with outstanding wines served by wonderful characters who seem to value all the diners. These last may be from the larger art world, academics, writers and journalists—Anna Somers Cocks, the founding editor of The Art Newspaper, is a regular—or film and theatre and music people. Or just anyone from anywhere curiously passing by and discovering the tempting menu. Even now, though, it is impossible to jump the waiting list for a table. I remember taking the great French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez to “the Club” after doing a talk with him at the Royal Academy about his own love of art. And, like every foreign guest, he was amazed that such a “past times” place genuinely existed in London, so special was and still is its atmosphere.
Edmunds was a fundamentally generous individual. In parts of his buildings, unused by himself, the likes of Karsten Schubert’s art gallery and Adam Lowe’s Factum Arte (pioneers of digitisation and art in facsimile), literary agents, jewellers, and many others were able to inhabit cramped atmospheric headquarters for reasonable rents, just because the nature of their activities was sympathetic to him. Friendship meant everything. Over the years there were indeed lots of memorable incidents in Lexington Street; it has the character of a central London “Ambridge” soap—and Edmunds, its leading actor, forever played its Phil Archer.
While Edmunds was being buried, a large group of his friends, together with all those working in the restaurant, stood in Lexington Street, as the music of “Ombra Mai Fu”, by his beloved Handel—another unforgettable London figure—was played through a loudspeaker, hanging from “The Club”. Only days before his death, Edmunds had been seen looking just fine in his club, happily tasting wine and English “champagnes”, in the company of friends.
In an honest, just, universe the world that this much-missed man created would be “listed” and protected as a monument to true culture, much as the great cafés of Vienna are today. After all, what a disaster to London was the demise of Lyons Corner Houses and Tea Shops, not to mention so many little stores, such as those selling only buttons or ribbons, that made, and just about still make, Soho special and locally itself. Andrew Edmunds and the milieu he created represented a most special, and vivid, chapter in Soho’s long history.
• Paul Andrew Edmunds; born Epping, Essex 16 September 1943; married 1973 Bryony Paine (one son, two daughters); died London 15 September 2022