A historic pub interior of national importance
Listed Status: II*174 Queen Victoria Street
Tel: (020) 7236 5474
Real Ale: Yes
Lunchtime Meals: Yes
Evening Meals: Yes
Nearby Station: London Blackfriars
Station Distance: 100m
Public Transport: Near Railway Station (London Blackfriars) and Bus Stop
View on: Whatpub
The Black Friar is astonishing and quite unlike anything else. The wedge-shaped building itself dates from about 1873 but was given a lavish make-over from about 1905 when it was taken over by landlord William Petit. His architect was H. Fuller Clark who brought in the noted artist Henry Poole to carry out the decoration. Its an early example of theming, the theme being the friars of the Dominican friary established here in 1276 (called ‘black friars’ from the colour of their habits). They – or rather jolly, reinvented versions of them – appear everywhere in sculptures, mosaics and metal reliefs, and engage in the serious business of eating, drinking and generally having a good time – for example, in singing carols in the copper relief over the magnificent inglenook fireplace, or in a scene showing eels and fish being collected for (meatless) Friday. The most remarkable part is the barrel-vaulted area at the back of the pub, under the adjacent railway, and added in 1917–21 with more reliefs. Aesop’s fables and traditional nursery rhymes, such as Three Blind Mice and Humpty Dumpty can be picked out. The richness of the interior is enhanced by much alabaster and marble. The exterior is worth a good look too: a couple of friars helpfully point towards the former ‘saloon’. Clearly the main bar was originally divided into at least two parts.
'Unique’ is a much overworked word when it comes to describing pubs. But that’s exactly what the Black Friar is. There’s nothing else anywhere remotely like its fabulous decorative scheme, either in style or content. On a sharply triangular site opposite Blackfriars station, the pub was built in 1871-2, but what makes it so special is a remodelling from about 1905 by the then publican, Alfred Pettitt, and his architect H. Fuller-Clark. Fuller-Clark trained at the Lambeth School of Art and began practice in 1893. His artist was Henry Poole R.A., and both men were committed to the Arts & Crafts Movement which embraced a love of high-quality materials, hand craftsmanship, and often a very free, original approach to design.
Before entering the pub there is much to admire on the exterior. There is a deep mosaic fascia carrying the words "Saloon / 174 / The Black Friar / 174 / Brandies" on New Bridge Street side. A grand segmental arched entrance on the far left is surmounted by stone carved figures and above it a colourful mosaic of two monks fishing. The exterior lobby itself has walls and ceiling of marble. All along the exterior (well illuminated at night) are beautiful copper signs most featuring one or two friars such as an ‘Worthington Ales in Bottle’; two ‘Worthington Ales on Draught’ ones; ‘To the Saloon’, ‘Booths Gin’; and a couple of ‘Saloon Bar’ signs, one of which bears a couple of friars pointing you towards the saloon and helpfully tells you it is 9 yards away. Above the corner door (no longer in use) is a ‘174’ in mosaic; a large stone figure of a friar; and a clock with a mosaic face. Above the Queen Victoria Street entrance on the right is a mosaic of a friar with wine in carafes flanked by stone carvings of friars. The fascia on this side has ‘Brandies’ in mosaic.
Throughout the pub are friars – or at least jolly, modern reinvented versions of them – they appear everywhere in sculptures, mosaics and metal reliefs. So we have a theme (what’s new about theming a pub?) based on the Dominican Friary established here in 1278. The whole thing is a glorious piece of nonsense but it’s carried off with wit and verve. The most prevalent activities concern the serious matters of eating, drinking and generally enjoying oneself. Hence over the left-hand bar is a scene entitled ‘Tomorrow will be Friday’ showing fish and eels being collected for the ensuing meatless day. ‘Saturday afternoon’ above the arches to the second room sees the friars gardening and gathering produce. There is a magnificent fireplace recess, framed by a broad tripartite arch, which includes corner seats; a grate with fire dogs surmounted by imps; overmantel has bronze bas-relief of singing friars entitled "Carols", flanked by 2 friars' heads with swags above. Above the seats are marble panels with mahogany surrounds, monks’ head in copper relief and the word ‘summer’ on the left panel and ‘winter’ on the right panel. A stained glass exterior window depicts a friar in a sunlit garden.
The most special space is the arched windowless room with a barrel vaulted ceiling approached through three openings from the saloon area and added as a snack bar under the railway in 1917-21. There are two more copper reliefs on the pillars and on the inside walls of entrances are more reliefs i.e. another 6. The small room is lined with marble and alabaster and has a series of jokey scenes in bas relief and inscriptions. The end walls each have a bronze relief, the south wall one is entitled "Don't advertise, tell a gossip" with a group of monks doing the weekly wash. The north wall one is entitled "A good thing is soon snatched up" depicting monks pushing a trussed pig in a wheelbarrow. On the cornice below, are devils representing music, drama, painting & literature. On the east wall are ‘Industry is all’ with a monk snoozing; ‘Haste is slow’; and ‘Finery is foolery’. On the west wall there is ‘Silence is Golden’; ‘‘Wisdom is rare’; and ‘Seize occasion’ has a friar boozing. The wording is in good electro-gilt letters by the Birmingham Guild.
The figures are signed by Poole and are found against the mosaic on the shallow vault. Side walls have 6 alabaster capitals illustrating nursery rhymes, 16 smaller capitals illustrating Aesop's Fables. 4 marvellous lamp brackets with alabaster figures of Morning, Evening, Noon and Night holding up a bronze monk with water buckets. Just above the seating on the north wall is a further relief entitled "Contentment surpasses riches" depicting a sleeping monk surrounded by fairies, executed with mother of pearl and semi-precious stone inlay. This is just above a "window" which is an arrangement of mirrors with red marble colonnettes. Further mirrors here enhance the small space. This area now has a sign “Table Service Only’ and all the tables are set out for diners. Everywhere the craftsmanship is of the highest order, even down to the details of the doors.
The curved bar counter is no ordinary affair, being made of marble and timber with a buff marble top. Originally the main bar was divided by screenwork (hence the friars outside in the copper signs directing saloon-bound customers). Clearly therefore the pub had two separate rooms in Mr Pettitt’s day and it is not hard to work out where the division would have run. As the two rooms were not originally connected, that no doubt explains why Pettitt and Fuller-Clark felt at liberty to more or less repeat the ‘Saturday afternoon’ scenes in both areas. By 1905 the great pub boom around 1900 had come to a halt and it is interesting to speculate how many other pubs might have been decorated on such lavish and original lines had it not done so. Occasionally there were extravagant evocations of the good old days of yore such as the great 'medieval' hall at the must-visit 1920s Cittie of York not so far away in High Holborn. The interior of the Black Friar has featured in films such as Maurice (1987, Director James Ivory) and in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep starring (Director Michael Winner) which features Robert Mitcham.