Annabel's, London's Most Famous Club, Is Auctioning Off Its Iconic Decor
Mark Birley’s timing was always impeccable. After a decade or so of post-war gloom, in 1963 London was ready to party, and the party was at 44 Berkeley Street. At Annabel’s everyone from the Queen to Diana Ross, hip hairdressers to the Beatles (when they wore a tie) walked down the striped staircase into that romantic, sexy, storied basement. Annabel’s was London’s answer to Studio 54, only more elegant and louche.
My partner in crime Anne Hardy and I both have fond memories of Annabel’s, a country house that acted like a nightclub: how Mabel in the ladies room knew your name, the cozy red Buddha room, the teeny dance floor playing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," the flowing champagne and dark chocolate ice cream. It was a time and a place for anyone who set foot there.
Christian Voight's "Interiors of Annabel" photographic print to go to auction at Christie's
Actress Goldie Hawn said she never wanted to leave. Neither did Anne nor I. On Tuesday. the wooden dance floor, a men’s urinal, a table for eight including the silver toast racks, the infamous Buddha sculpture, and much more from what was the best nightclub in the world will go under the hammer at Christie’s London, with estimated sales prices from £50 to £120,000.
In honor of the occasion, I spoke to designer Nina Campbell who was not only
The interiors of Annabel's today
What do you think about
the Annabel’s sale?
I think it’s closure. I do think it’s quite strange to see the carpet and the urinals for sale. But it’s going, apparently, to charity, which is good.
Who is going to buy those urinals?
God knows… I remember when I had just been taken on by Mark to do the club—I was about 19. I had never been to a urinal. I mean, why would you? And I was also trying desperately to sound intelligent. So we go into the men’s room which is beautiful because there’s this wonderful onyx on the wall and there’s a ticker tape in the corner with all the Reuters news coming in. And then there’s this wall of white porcelain urinals.
I really do find them quite unattractive. Everyone was in there. Mark’s there, the picture hanger’s there because we were thinking of hanging up pictures. I was struggling, thinking what could I add to this? I see that there’s no loo paper holder. And I say, “Oh, you don’t have a loo paper holder here.” I had no idea that men just peed and shook themselves dry. And of course, the whole place collapsed in hysteria. I had clearly made the most unbelievably stupid remark. I’m quite amused that the urinal is being sold. I think if I had a huge house I might just buy one for memory’s sake.
An original Annabel's wine list cover will go to auction with nine Annabel's red and green leather menu holders and two black examples
How did you meet Mark?
I was 19—my brother gave a dinner and Mark was there. Annabel’s was just newly opened, and I was lucky enough to go pretty much every night. I remember saying to Mark, ‘You know, there are those terrible vitrines either side of the bar. It’s really tacky selling jewelry in the bar. Does anybody ever buy them?’
And he said, in that rather languid way he had, “
The painted Stucco Buddhisattva from Annabel's is set to go to auction
And where did you find the marvelous Buddha in the Buddha room?
Mark went out to lunch and came back from Barling on South Audley with that Buddha. He never went very far. He could possibly get to Sotheby’s. Then he bought Mark’s Club and then Harry’s Bar. He’d go to the Fine Art Society and buy the most wonderful paintings. He just bought unbelievably well.
Mark never really believed in owning anything further than he could walk. He’d have lunch in one place, dinner in another. He was always there, and that’s why they were so perfect.
There was nothing that got on your nerves in any of Mark Birley's clubs. Nothing irritated you. Nothing was ever annoying.
He always had a tiny little pad next to his place in silver, made by Hermés with a silver pencil, and that’s where he sat, quite quietly, just writing something he didn’t like. That’s why his clubs were always so impeccable. There was nothing that got on your nerves in any of his clubs. Nothing irritated you. Nothing was ever annoying.
Christie's art handlers with the Bodhisattva
How did you come up with that rich red lacquer color in the Buddha room that somewhat defines the décor of Annabel’s?
In the Buddha is this red tinge and I’ve always loved that color. I thought that red lacquer would make a marvelous background color for all those paintings. We painted the room layer upon layer of wonderful lacquer done by this specialist painter called James Smart. And I loved the way lacquer would reflect.
Did you two ever go on shopping trips together?
We used to do the trade shows in Paris, we went to Venice and bought glass on Murano island. I was intending to go to Nason Moretti. They make exquisite glass. Given that I knew Mark quite well, and we were staying at the Danielle and we’d just had lunch at Harry’s Bar, I thought that it wouldn’t be unusual to get a boat, like getting a taxi, to go straight to Nason Moretti, which would mean that we’d arrive at Nason Moretti and that would be that.
But Mark chose that moment to call me Spenderella, and he said ‘That’s so extravagant. We can go on the public boat to Murano island. Everybody goes on those boats.”
Elizabeth Taylor leaving Annabel's in London, February 1988.
And I said, ”Yes, they go to those terrible factories with the hideous multi-colored chandeliers.” We got on the public boat and we get to the hideous place with the multi-colored chandeliers.
I look up and I see the fire escape, you know that little green man, so we go out that door and we’re in Murano and we somehow, by miracle, find the proper factory that we were looking for. By the time we arrive there, instead of looking elegant, we look completely crumpled and disgusting. It was unbelievably hot as well.
By a miracle, nice Mr. Nason Moretti greets us, gives us cold water and believes that we can pay the bill. Because we honestly didn’t look like we’d be able to pay for the glasses.
We bought lots, all those clear glasses with the blue line were started there. And they were impeccable glasses. Where Mark was so clever is you see, they weren’t a tumbler and they weren’t a wine glass so they were the most perfect cocktail glass. You could put anything in them. Anything you chose to have in this glass just looked delicious.
Ella Fitzgerald performs on stage at Annabel's in 1971
All these journeys were incredibly funny. Just the two of us. We went to Limoges to buy the china which involved going to Paris and getting the train to Limoges.
Getting on this train with a first-class ticket and being told that we haven’t quite paid enough for dinner. We had to take a supplement. And every dish we ordered, being terribly French, they say ‘Ahhh, ca
We arrive in Limoges which is like arriving in Stoke-on-Trent at about 10 o’clock at night with a one-legged porter with our bags asking us if our holidays were over. I mean, the thought that we might have gone there for a holiday is so ludicrous.
Then we go to the hotel. We went to the Sofitel, which wasn’t really Mark’s normal hotel. And the woman behind the counter pretended that she didn’t know who we were and pretended that she couldn’t find our name. Nothing under Annabel’s, nothing under Birley. Eventually, infuriated I said, "Well, do you have any rooms?" And she said, "Mais
Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau leaving Annabel's with his girlfriend in 1969
Did you go on any other buying trips abroad with Mark?
We went to Switzerland once to buy something from a factory. And we managed to go on a public holiday when everything was closed. That was another triumph.
We went to stay in this divine hotel and that’s where we found the sugar lumps. It’s extraordinary to think now—la Perruche—they are rough and brown and they come in a big blue box. We thought they looked so much chicer than ordinary Tate & Lyle sugar lumps. We bought all these boxes of sugar and brought them back to England. They didn’t have them in England. That was the level of detail that he went to.
We went to Fouquet in Paris and bought those Russian Sweets. They were tiny boiled sweets that exploded in your mouth and those chocolate coffee beans.
Augustus Johns' "Portrait of a Lady," which was displayed at Annabel's will go on
If you could buy anything in the auction, what would it be?
There’s a little watercolor which I would love to buy for myself. It’s a picture by John Ward. It’s called "Annabel’s Study" and it shows the bar and the wallpaper that I had made especially for Annabel’s, Berkeley Street by Colefax and Fowler.
What do you think Mark would say now about the sale?
I think he’d be quite pragmatic and think, “Well, if it’s gone, let it go.” Because, you know, it’s never going to be the same so why not sell it all? At least the proceeds are going to charity which is good. Off it goes to a new life.
I think everybody who loved Annabel’s is going to be greatly relieved that this place is over. When anything like that shuts, it’s like a whole part of your life ends.
A portrait of Henry Thomas by Glyn Warren Philpot
Last Thursday Christie’s and Lombard Odier hosted a goodbye party at the old Annabel’s. What did you think of dinner?
Actually, it was rather divine. It was full of quite a lot of old faces, Annabel faces which
The only trick they missed is that they should have had the bitter chocolate ice cream. That’s the one thing I would have done differently.
Christie’s Chairman of the European Advisory Board Pedro Girao said he was very sad.
But the world moves on. We can’t be nostalgic.
But sometimes nostalgia is for sale. If you remember dancing the night away at this legendary spot, you can take it with you. I know I could use a dance floor.
Produced by Anne Hardy.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.