Words Kirk Truman
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“There used to be a saying about old people that when you become old you become invisible. Some old people are invisible; they’re just waiting for that last step into the grave…”
They have become a rarity in recent years… Soho’s characters. Where dandies and mods once hung at street corners to be noticed, people now go about their routines, unaware of the eccentric creatives that flourished in this area. Though there are still, in present day Soho a handful of the old brigade of artists and writers wandering the streets of Soho, many luminaries have passed while countless others have started to face their untimely extinction. But one seemingly immortal Sohoite stands out. Though well known well by residents and transients alike for a curiously chic sartorial sense, this man has a lot more under his hat than a distinctive taste for clothing by fine tailors.
To the many that espy him day-by-day, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine George Skeggs had some work related link to fashion, what with his eye-catching choice of tailoring. Little do those who stop to stare and photograph him realise that behind this impressive veil of style is a brilliant pop-art/surrealist artist. From a working-class background, George is one of four children. As a youngster, he was urged by his family to find a serious job that would keep him afloat. Though he never attended art school, a teacher recognised his talents at an early age, and recommended a creative vocation. Some early work was included in the London Schools Exhibition touring China. He then went to join in art workshops at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, while years later, his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and the National Museum of Wales.
As a youngster, George long aspired to be in a skiffle band, having played a homemade bass instrument. His relationship with music is coincidentally what led him to Soho for the very first time. A Rock ’n’ Roll enthusiast at the mere age of 14, George came to Soho upon hearing that 1950s Rock ’n’ Roll BBC television show,‘Six-Five Special’, was to be broadcast live from The 2i’s Coffee Bar, Old Compton Street. “It was like another world; there were girls on the street propositioning men and pimps on the street,”says George on his first trip to the area. Later, he returned with a friend, arriving at Tottenham Court Road tube station. “It had that edge; it was dirty, flashy and seedy. You could always smell Soho, it always had that special smell. When you were walking up from Oxford Street, you could literally smell it. It was the place to be, it was our playground.”
His younger years in Soho brought him face-to-face with the often dark reality of the neighbourhood. From the scene of a shoot-out between drug dealers at the Nucleous Coffee Bar, forward through to befriending a young prostitute who’d had her throat slit by a client, George has come to witness the true nature of the neighbourhood first hand. Despite these memories, there is one that is particularly significant. George and friends had come to regularly frequent the amusement arcade Lots of Fun on Wardour Street. It was here that a man offered him and his friends free-play on the pinball machines as well as cigarettes, proceeding to ask where they lived (the East-End) and offering them a lift. Little did they know that this man was the henchman of the Kray twins, who were parked outside in a black car:“Being streetwise, we enjoyed his hospitality and decided to leg it by sneaking out of another door and running right across Leicester Square to safety,”he recalls.
George first moved to Soho in 1963. “I married a local girl, she worked for a famous shoemaker’s in Drury Lane.”He went on to find work with West One Studios, the offset printers and commercial artists. By the 1980s, his marriage having faltered, he succumbed to drink. So badly, that one careless night, he drank so much, he fell and broke his neck. This ended his relationship with the bottle, leaving him with scaffolding around his neck for 3 months.
Having never been to art school, it was at this time that he became involved with the Arts Laboratory scene in Covent Garden and Seven Dials, which was frequently raided by the police. “In being a creative and artistic person you are there to be picked at, you’re there on the wall. Personally, I don’t care. All I care about is just doing it,”he remarks on his work. In addition to his work in recent years having been exhibited in Paris and Caracas, he also produced the album cover sleeve for ARK of the Covenant, based on a painting from his King Arthur series.
With his self-confessed obsession with clothing, from his Stephen Jones hats and Mark Powell Bespoke suits, George has always made style an important part of his life. “Fashion is the enemy of style. Age is no barrier to style, some people just can’t work that out. I’ve become more refined and particular about what I look like as I’ve got older. There used to be a saying about old people that when you become old you become invisible. Some old people are invisible, they’re just waiting for that last step into the grave.”
Soho has become a part of the social fabric of George’s life and many in the neighbourhood think of George as one the area’s characters. Though superficially he feels much of the area looks much the same, he feels it’s very different today. “You walk up Old Compton Street now and see brand new shops appearing. I think of other shops in the area and then realise that they’ve gone. I think it’s lost its edge, its saucy, sleazy side. It feels more interesting to live in a world where you have to take chances or be streetwise.” Now living near Seven Dials, George spends much of his time these days visiting art galleries throughout London. And though he might describe himself as retired, he has recently begun work on his self-proclaimed ‘swan song’; a detailed pop-art/surrealist series centring on Soho. Though keen to keep the details of the series a secret, he revealed that the first piece he has started on will feature the Kray twins, and reflect a highly personal point of view, based on his own experiences in the neighbourhood. “Creativity shines in the dark. You’ve got to bring it out of the dark and put it out there!”