Illustration fanatics are more than familiar with the work of Robert Rubbish. London dwellers will be familiar with the sight of him too. Usually found in Soho he can be spotted in the cafes and pubs populated by a unique community, who in an area of consistent gentrification manage to hold on to its inclusive and historic personality.
Soho has always been at the forefront of Robert’s work, creating several illustration series depicting the place and its people in books and exhibitions. Over the years these have accumulated and are now housed in a new publication, Spiritus Soho full of characters, specific Soho-centric decor, and the pubs and cafes that populate the area.
Below, we chat to Robert on his fascination with Soho, how it has grown into a portfolio of work, and he even gives us a rundown of a dream day out in the area too!
What’s your relationship with Soho?
I have been interested in Soho since I was ten years old when I heard it name-checked in songs by The Jam, The Who and The Kinks. I also read two books in the Jersey library, Dog Days in Soho by Nigel Richardson and Soho: A History of London’s Most Colourful Neighbourhood by Judith Summers in the early 2000s. It got me excited about exploring Soho and seeing what was going on there. So, when I came to London in 2003 to study at the Royal College of Art I started to dip my toe into Soho and as time went on I got to fall in love with the place and the people.
Can you tell us about some of your most memorable experiences in the area?
I have so many, here’s a few…
The first time I was taken to The Colony Room and trying to take in the place, the decor, the artwork, the people, I had a mindgasm. Meeting new friends and forming long, strong, friendships in hazy afternoons, and nights in bars and clubs. It may sound morbid, but, there’s nothing like the wake of a Soho person. It’s when all people come together and celebrate what that person meant and you celebrate life, and friendships, in the bars, clubs and streets of Soho.
If you were guiding someone through Soho for the day, what would you do?
To start the day I would take them to get some lunch at Bar Bruno, one of the last cafes in Soho and we would dine on egg and chips. Then, to The French House to see who was in and up for some afternoon fun maybe. After a few drinks we’d maybe stroll to The Blue Posts on Berwick Street to delight in the old school pub vibes. Then, next door to My Place, a cafe/bar where we could sit outside and have coffee and do a bit of people watching. After that we’d nip down to Trisha’s basement bar on Greek Street, then later back to The French House and then down to Gerry’s Club to end the evening. The beauty of Soho is you can bump into all sorts of people and the night could take many different turns. We could end up in the pool room of The Groucho Club having a private party with a New York virtual reality impresario, dancing to Paul Simon’s Graceland 1986 hit.
How did you illustrate the particular characters?
I wanted to show that Soho history is made up of some very interesting and unusual characters and so the book concentrates on what I think are the archetypal characters of Soho. All the characters depicted in the artwork have been important characters in the history of Soho, mods, spivs, homosexuals, strippers, bohemians and also mythical characters like a minotaur, a mermaid and a sex dwarf.
What was your approach for this book in particular?
Spiritus Soho is a limited edition 58 page book with all the artwork from all four shows of my Spiritus Soho project, featuring text to accompany each of the chapter’s exhibitions. The book also has an introduction by British noir writer, Cathi Unsworth. I wanted to make a book that showed all the work from all my shows, and also the writing gives an insight into the artwork and my ideas.
My approach was to make a book that anyone who is interested in Soho, past and present, could enjoy and see all these artworks in one place, and also it’s a way for me to document and celebrate the passing of places I loved and have been interested in. It’s my way of paying remembrance to the passing of old Soho.
What would you like to do on Soho next?
I am currently writing an immersive audio visual spirit tour of Soho with a friend, Andrew Rutand. It will bring to life some of the ideas that are in my artwork.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.