Rediscovering the radical Partisan Coffee House

A new exhibition, curated by Mike Berlin from the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, will tell the story of the Partisan Coffee House. It will launch on 5 May 2017 at Four Corners Gallery, Bethnal Green.

But what was the Partisan Coffee House, and why is it still important today? The Partisan was founded in 1958 by Marxist historians Raphael Samuel and Eric Hobsbawm (formerly President of Birkbeck), cultural theorist Stuart Hall and other prominent radical figures, and was widely considered to be the spiritual home of the British New Left. It aimed to replicate the culture of a mitteleuropa bohemian café in the centre of trendy Soho, and with a menu featuring Borscht, Viennese coffee and ‘Whitechapel cheesecake,’ it was a haven of inclusivity against a backdrop of global instability and divisiveness, following the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Invasion of Hungary.

In its short existence it staged debates, film screenings, art exhibitions, skiffle and folk music nights which drew in leading writers, artists and intellectuals including Doris Lessing, Raymond Williams, John Berger, Karel Reisz and Lindsey Anderson. Closely linked with the radical journal Universities and Left Review (later New Left Review), the Partisan embraced the burning political and cultural issues of the day, from the Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches to the politics of the novel. 

The exhibition will glimpse into the lives of those who frequented the café, and the radical culture it both reflected and developed. It will include a compelling series of previously unseen photographs by renowned documentary photographer Roger Mayne, alongside printed materials, film clips, oral histories, and an accompanying programme of talks.

Mike Berlin said: “This is a largely forgotten moment in British cultural history, which deserves to be celebrated. The Partisan embodied a radical tradition that had a profound influence on the political counter cultures of the 1960s and 70s.”

There will be free admission to the exhibition, and three free events:

  • Thursday 11 May, 6.30pm – The Partisan Coffee House: an ‘anti-espresso bar’. An evening of discussion and debate on the cultural politics of the early New Left, with historians Madeleine Davis, Nick Beech and Mike Berlin. Book your space here.
  • Saturday 20 May, 6.30pm – The Partisan Coffee House: an evening of music, song, poems and celebration. Legendary poet, musician and artistic catalyst Michael Horovitz joins performer and artist Vanessa Vie in a musical-poetic invocation of the Partisan Coffee House. Giles Leaman, formerly of the Penguin Café Orchestra will also be appearing. Book your space here.
  • Tuesday 23 May, 6.30pm – The Photography of Roger Mayne. The work of iconic British photographer Roger Mayne is discussed by Anna Douglas, curator of the major retrospective taking place at The Photographers Gallery. Book your space here.

The exhibition will run from 5 - 27 May 2017. 

Further information: