Bela Pasztor: Metal Worker

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On Soho’s Lexington Street, you cannot fail to notice a fluorescent green doorway at number 51. Push it gently open and you enter a dark, cool corridor at the end of which is a courtyard cluttered with metal sheeting, a workbench and scattered tools. Turn left down a steep wooden stairway and you are confronted with what looks like a tropical jungle filled with extraordinary metal objects: two small rooms crammed with countless chandeliers,lamp bases, plaques, tiles, goblets and costume jewellery, all designed and made by Bela Pasztor, ‘art metal worker.’  ‘Anything that is metal’ he assures me, ‘I can fix or copy’.  

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Bela, who is nearly 80, has been based at this same workshop since 1960. He escaped to Britain during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He was 19. Bela had intended to get as far as America, where both his uncle and godfather lived. ‘It took me a year to get the money and documents together to travel to America’, he says, ‘but then my godfather wrote to me enclosing a photograph of a woman in Los Angeles and said this nice girl was waiting to marry me so I could get U.S. citizenship, and I thought, hang on a minute, I’m not going there to have people telling me what to do, so I decided to stay in London’.

In Hungary he had been trained as a tool maker, but his hobby was making more decorative work. His chandeliers and lamps are adorned with classical female nudes,floral motifs and delicate filigree. ‘I did try to apply to the Royal Academy Schools once. I got down to the last of three interviews and then they asked me which university I had attended. I never went to university, so I didn’t get a place.’

His work has been much in demand. He made three giant chandeliers for St Paul’s Cathedral, several of his pieces are in Buckingham Palace, as well as some of Soho’s trendier  restaurants. Fifty five years ago, when he first started working in Soho, the area was filled with independent craftsmen: there was a gunsmith around the corner which is now a gallery, a gold and silver lace makers’ workshop on Lexington Street which made gold lace embroidery for the military such as epaulettes,badges and sword sheaths, dozens of tailor shops and small foundries nearby in Covent Garden and Fitzrovia. ‘Everyone knew each other’, he says. ‘Most of the workshops have closed, now it’s just a lot of expensive restaurants’. Bela is worried about how Soho is changing. He used to live in a flat on Beak Street but  he says no ordinary person can afford the rents. ‘There are too many fancy flats being built. The developers are knocking out all the class of Soho. It’s become a playground for property tycoons’, he says. ‘On Broadwick Street they pulled down Trenchard House which used to be a police station and accommodation  for the police. They say it’s going to be new flats, so I thought, OK, maybe I can buy one. I phoned the agent to ask how much they would be and he told me they start at £2 million. I said, ok, I’ll take a dozen and put the ‘phone down!’

Will he ever retire? ‘How can I stop?’ he says, ‘What’s the point, I’ll just get bored. When you are working it keeps you young.’ And should he retire, what of the metal jungle in his Lexington Street basement? ‘It’ll all be up for sale’ he says.

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John Pearse: Soho Tailor

John Pearse’s shop is tucked away in the tiny Georgian Meard Street between Wardour and Dean streets. Soho is in his DNA. ‘I started hanging out in the music bars as a teenager,’ he tells me. ‘Places like the Scene Club in Ham Yard. I was there the day John F. Kennedy was shot, and then there was the Flamingo Club on Wardour Street which was owned by the Gunnell Brothers who represented Georgie Fame and Alexis Korner’ [and offered Mondays, the worst night of the week, to an up and coming group called the Rolling Stones]. They used to crank  the heating up so high, even in the summer, so everyone would buy more drinks.’

Pearse left school when he was 15. ‘I got a job in a print factory above the Marquee Club on Wardour Street but it was really noisy and dirty work and I lasted about 3 weeks,’ he says. So how did he get into tailoring? ‘There was this suit I really wanted, so I thought the best way to get it was to learn how to make it myself. I went to Henry Poole on Cork Street, and as I was sitting there David Niven walked in and I thought this is alright, I’ll get to meet lots of famous people. But they didn’t have any work for me and sent me around the corner to Hawes and Curtis on Dover Street and told me to ask for Mr Watson. He was dressed in this amazing double breasted chalk striped suit. He sent me to their coat makers’ room up five flights of stairs in this sort of Fagin’s Den where all the apprentice tailors were sitting cross legged on the floor making coats in a room bathed in sunlight. I’ll never forget that’

After two years of making coats Pearse went travelling in Europe, returning to London in 1966 where he helped set up the famous Granny takes a Trip boutique in World’s End, on the Kings Road in Chelsea. There it was all velvets and satins and ruffled shirt fronts with lace cuffs worn by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones,Jimi Hendrix and Brigit Bardot, to name just a few. ‘But my heart was always in Soho,’ says Pearse. ‘I couldn’t get enough of the music clubs. I remember going to The Bag o’ Nails in Kingley Street when Hendrix debuted, that was the night that Paul McCartney met Linda.’ [It now boasts of being a ‘private members club offering a luxury experience’ ].

Granny Takes a Trip closed in 1969 and Pearse went back to Italy and dabbled in the film industry. ‘I wound up in Rome and I thought I might get a job as an extra. Fellini was making Satyricon at the time, and a very good friend of mine, a model,Donyale Luna, was one of his stars. On Friday nights there would always be a big dinner party at his house. One night we went down to the beach and Donyale starts to wade out into the sea, and she thinks she’s Bardot in Joan of Arc, and Fellini is shouting at her to come back,  but she keeps going out further and he says to me “John can’t you do something?” And I said: “Donyale, if you don’t come back, we’re all going to fuck off and leave you here.” And Fellini says, “John, you’d make a great movie director.”‘

Pearse’s one and only feature film was called The Moviemakers, ‘a kind of requiem for the Kings Road’, and he says he still has nightmares about the sound of heaving cinema seats creaking and people walking out after it was shown at the London Film Festival in 1972. ‘Critics described it as drug induced rubbish’, he says, ‘but it was that film that brought me back to Soho’.

He went back to tailoring and started to get more private clients. He based himself in Royalty Mansions which was built in 1908 as flats with workrooms just for tailors. It is right next door to his current shop, which he moved to in 1986. ‘Soho used to be teeming with tailors working from tiny workshops, first run by Jewish immigrants then the Greeks moved in, and now most of the smaller places have closed down. The craft of tailoring is dying out in Soho. It’s a bit like what’s happened to the film industry’ he says. ‘When I was here in the 70s you could actually hear film being cut as you walked down the street, dodging guys pushing huge reels of film in metal cases. So much of that has disappeared in the last 20 years. Soho has become a sort of gastrodome instead. It’s changing. I miss the delis and the cigar shops in Old Compton Street. I even miss seeing the peep show girls hanging out in doorways. It made for a sort of seedy glamour which has gone  now’. For Pearse, the biggest threat to Soho is that the big chains will move in as the rents keep going up, eroding what remains of its identity. He’s also worried about the extent of demolition making way for new developments. ‘But I have to be optimistic’, he says. ‘Soho is much more than just an area of London.’

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John Pearse in his Meard Street shop

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John Pearse, 6 Meard Street,London W1F 0EG