The Partisan Coffee House: Radical Soho and the New Left

Fri 24 Jun 2022 - Sun 25 Sep 2022

The life and legacy of one of Soho’s radical venues

Image of The Partisan Coffee House window, showing 2 people inside sitting on a table. Showcased at The Photographers' Gallery in London

The Partisan Coffee House: Radical Soho and the New Left

Fri 24 Jun 2022 - Sun 25 Sep 2022

The life and legacy of one of Soho’s radical venues

The Partisan Coffee House returns to Soho.

Founded in 1958 by radical historian Raphael Samuel, cultural theorist Stuart Hall and others, The Partisan was located at the centre of Soho’s coffee bar scene. Promoting itself as an ‘anti-espresso bar’, the Partisan was an earnest departure from the tawdry commercialism of the coffee bars, amidst the burgeoning youth culture of Soho’s streets.

This exhibition documents and celebrates the fascinating, yet little-known moment in post-war British political and cultural history. It brings together a series of photographs by renowned documentary photographer Roger Mayne, with materials drawn from the work of renowned letterpress printer Desmond Jeffery, graphic artist Germano Facetti, and the archive of Raphael Samuel. 

Black & White photograph by Roger Mayne of a group of people standing at The Partisan Coffee House, displayed at The Photographers' Gallery in London

Being the spiritual home of the British New Left, the Partisan was closely linked with the radical journal Universities and Left Review (later New Left Review), the Partisan embraced the burning political and cultural issues of the day, from the Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches to the politics of the novel.

Black and White Photograph, by Roger Mayne, showing Stuart Hall playing chess with two other men at the Partisan Coffee House, displayed at The Photographers' Gallery in London

This largely forgotten moment in British cultural history deserves to be celebrated. The Partisan embodied a radical tradition that had a profound influence on the political counter cultures of the 1960s and 70s.
Mike Berlin - Curator
Scan of the cover of Universities + Left Review, displaying a big bold title on top of a red circles graphic, displayed at The Photographers' Gallery in London

In its short existence, it staged debates, film screenings, art exhibitions, skiffle and folk music nights which drew in leading writers, artists and intellectuals including Doris Lessing, Raymond Williams, John Berger, Eric Hobsbawm, Karel Reisz and Lindsey Anderson.

Mike Berlin speaks to us about the postwar generation who led the Partisan

Roger Mayne (1920–2014)
Roger Mayne is a vital figure in British photography, best known for his images of West London street scenes in the 1950–60s, which captured both a way of life under threat and the emergence of the first generation to be identified as “teenagers”.

Mayne was an impassioned artist and critic of convention: an individual who refused to be bound by expectations, championing photography as a serious and liberated art practice, pushing against the strictures of the documentary form, experimenting with abstraction and injecting social realism with a subjective humanitarian perspective.

Extracted from our Loose Associations vol.3 Issue i, available in our bookshop here

Germano Facetti (1928–2006)
Born in Milan in 1928, and moved to London in 1950, Germano Facetti worked with several publishing houses, influencing the success of graphic design and publishing in England. His work as Art Director of Penguin Books changed the face of the publishing house whilst developing the best of 1960s graphic design. 

Desmond Jeffery (1926 – 1974)
Desmond Jeffery was a letterpress printer and typography teacher in London and Suffolk. His Marylebone Lane workshop created an array of unique publicity including invitations to the opening of the Partisan, menus, lists of paintings displayed for sale on the Partisan walls and other materials. Jeffery is now recognised as one of the foremost typographers of the last century.
    
Mike Berlin
Mike Berlin teaches the social and cultural history of London at Birkbeck, University of London.

 

Curated by Mike Berlin in collaboration with The Photographers’ Gallery, this exhibition will also feature original material, film clips, oral histories, and an accompanying public talks programme.

With thanks to the Mary Evans Picture Library, Katkin Tremayne, the Bishopsgate Institute Library, Four Corners Gallery, New Left Review and The Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust.

In our bookshop

Cover of a booklet, showing a black & white photograph by Roger Mayne, showing the Partisan café window, with three men inside having coffee

The Partisan Coffee House Catalogue at Four Corners Gallery

This small publication was the catalogue for an exhibition at Four Corners Gallery in Bethnal Green in 2017.

Order here
Scan of the cover of Loose Associations, featuring a photograph by Roger Mayne, available at The Photographers' Gallery Bookshop

Loose Associations Vol. 3:1

With contributions on Roger Mayne's exhibition held at The Photographers' Gallery, 2017

Order here