Art predates agriculture. And still none of us is sure what it’s for. Like religion, all civilisations have it. But still we don’t know why we need it.
Anthropologists say our species started the moment when we showed the first observable sign of being separate, different, from the other primates. That moment, 40,000 years ago, was the first time our ancestors showed themselves capable of symbolic thought. And the proof of this abstract thinking? The fashioning of an object for no specific functional purpose, other than cultural creativity. So we may not know exactly the purpose of the Lascaux cave paintings, the earliest art, but whatever they were for, they were made on the day that we were made human.
None of this might bother you when you walk into The Arts Club (something you’ll probably do as a guest, since the Club has already closed its Membership List, just a year after its reopening). Before you can appreciate the influence of the club’s artistic advisor, the stunning renovation should stop you. David d’Almada restored the ivory marble Grand Staircase and the Corinthian pilasters but then introduced very modern elements, not the least of which is a stunning amount of natural light. The whole of the back of the club seems to be glass, and it looks over a small garden where members can quietly escape London life.
When LUSSO visited, the members seem to be a satisfying mix of the old guard (who all seemed impressed with the renovation) and the rich-hip crowd who know their way around Mayfair – and probably the owners ‘ other ventures: Zuma and Roka.
It’s no small deal that the club has been taken over by restaurateurs (Arjun and Jai Waney are joined by property developer, Gary Landesberg). Until now, members’ clubs have been somewhere to go after you’d eaten. Things have changed.
Chef Director Raphael Duntoye (La Petite Maison) has produced an extravagant choice of simple dishes, in two different restaurants. On the first floor, there’s a sit-up Oyster bar, or you can sit back from white table cloths as you chew steaks and elegant burgers.
The ground floor restaurant, with its trompe l’oeil floor of checker-board cubes of black and white marble, is called The Brasserie. Despite the name, it something much more than the traditional French fare. There’s a mix of not-quite-small eats, including Peppers Padron (excellent), Octopus Escabech (also excellent), and tian of crab (three out of three).
If it’s mid-afternoon and you’re hungry in Mayfair, you now have an alternative to persuading Brown’s Hotel to give you a table. The Club has stolen Claude La Marche from the Dorchester to become Executive Director of Pastry.
The club counts many literary stars among its former members, and now wants to broaden its list to those people who are making a difference in fashion, TV, media, performance, photography and the theatre.
They have reached out to Mark Ronson to be its musical director, and he regularly sets the scene in the subterranean night club (painted a bordello red and best not visited during the day, when it merely reminds us of the emptiness of all night-time promises).
But anyone who still thinks of art as the things they can buy in the Mayfair galleries that surround The Arts Club is well catered for. There’s an eclectic, modern curation of paintings and installations by the club’s art advisor, Amelie von Wedel. The permanent collection, including work by Tomas Saraceno, John Baldessari and Matthew Darbyshire, hangs throughout the Club alongside temporary exhibitions of established artists and faces to watch.
You can find space and peace enough to enjoy all of this in the simple white Conservatory, or settle into the modern elegance of the Salon, or swing back in the bashed leather Eames chairs and cowhide recliners of the Library Bar.
Finally then, as you take in your surroundings, you might find the time to ponder on the purpose of art and those hunting scenes blown onto the walls in Lascaux a thousand generations ago. Perhaps, as some anthropologists have suggested, they were there as part of the retelling of a great hunt. Or perhaps, as you sit in a moment of post-prandial comfort nestled inside The Arts Club, among your fellow members, you might think that the walls of that dingy cave don’t just bear the first examples of symbolic thought, they are the original attractions of the original members’ club.