Andrew Edmunds, who has died aged 78, was a Soho character, print dealer, restaurateur, wine and opera lover and all-round flâneur who was also passionately involved in country life.
He was born in Epping, Essex, on September 16 1943 to a Quaker family, and his childhood was spent riding in Epping Forest with his older brother Martin. He was later educated at the Friends’ School, Saffron Walden. His mother Dorothy, née Hammond, was an early undergraduate at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and ignited his passion for flower arranging, which he developed later doing the arrangements at his restaurant.
His father, Herbert, a heating engineer, inspired an early obsession with architectural history and construction which Andrew applied in the painstaking restoration of two consecutive country ruins in Norfolk and Somerset; he stunned his Soho builders with his detailed knowledge of period features.
While at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he read Zoology, he owned a punt called Caractacus. Later he would insist that he was the first undergraduate to wear a leather jacket. He began his career in the art world at Cambridge, buying and selling antique cutlery, before surmising that 18th-century caricatures were seriously undervalued and eventually becoming a world expert on Hogarth, Gillray and Rowlandson, among others.
A lifelong interest in wine also began at the Cambridge Wine Society, where he discovered his exceptional “nose” and wine memory. Later, one of Edmunds’s customers, Auberon Waugh, was so impressed by his wine expertise that he encouraged Edmunds to join him in founding the Academy Club, which had previously been in Beak Street, in a new home above the restaurant. Waugh enjoyed showing Edmunds off to his friends by giving him bottles to taste blind. Edmunds always got it right and Waugh would laugh delightedly, exclaiming: “Ha, you see!”
In 1973, in the chapel at the Bethlem Royal (Bedlam) Hospital, he married Bryony Paine, whose father Leslie Paine was house governor of the Joint Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital.
Edmunds then abandoned a long-held ambition of retiring to a solitary existence on Mull and embraced London life with gusto. His first home of his own was in a mews across the road from the back gates of Buckingham Palace, and then they moved to a big flat in Linden Gardens, W2, which became his permanent London base for more than 40 years.
Towards the end of the 1970s he acquired a dilapidated 18th-century townhouse in Lexington Street, Soho, where he opened his original print shop. In 1985 he made a spontaneous decision to buy out the lease of the Rose Revived wine bar next door for £2,000, two hours before the owner’s uncle was scheduled to take over. He quickly discovered it had been closed down by the health authorities after a large rat was found floating in a vat of olive oil. He then bought the two adjoining 18th-century townhouses.
The denizens of the restaurant soon included stars of stage and screen, local media types, writers, journalists, wine and art dealers, and associates of tenants Ismail Merchant of Merchant Ivory films and the Literary Review. Despite a latent snobbishness and a critical aesthetic eye Edmunds had no memory for faces and thus treated everyone with largely unbiased bonhomie. Mobile phones were abhorred and are still banned there today, facilitating the convivial atmosphere that characterises this Dickensian enclave.
A flamboyant cook and lover of wild game, fish – especially turbot – and wine, Edmunds once said of his own restaurant: “I would be spoilt for choice if I were to have a last meal here. Perhaps a summer pudding and, following in the footsteps of Napoleon in exile, a bottle of Klein Constantia.”
Other favourite wines included old German Riesling, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe and Vieux Château Certan. He was also a familiar figure at London opera houses and a regular patron of Garsington and of Glyndebourne. His last visit there was to see Handel’s Alcina (“so good”).
Meanwhile, at his 200-acre farm on the Devon-Somerset border, Edmunds planted many native species of trees, turning bleak fields into a romantic but practical landscape. He was a keen shot and encouraged the celebrated local Loyton shoot to use part of his land. An accomplished salmon fisherman, he spent time in Scotland every year, usually on the Lewis estate of his oldest friend Sir Peter Cresswell and his godson Mark, or with another old friend, Max Reed.
He was an erratic presence at home, his children fondly recalling wild croquet parties on the front lawn of the Norfolk rectory where they grew up, roadkill pheasants hanging in the larder, vast bonfires enthusiastically dowsed in petrol and the carving of his characteristic louche moustachioed pumpkins.
Excursions included skating on Baconsthorpe Castle moat, hunting for belemnites or gathering samphire on local beaches, despite inclement weather, spurred by a rousing cry of “character training by ordeal!” When birthdays were remembered, Edmunds would bestow exquisite and idiosyncratic treasures from his weekly pilgrimage to Portobello Market or an occasional scrawled “IOU a Norman Ackroyd print”.
In his club and restaurant, Edmunds fostered a dedicated family of bohemians, actors and artists, loyal and often returning. Among those who worked as waiters were Michelle Dockery, later Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, and the artist Martin Gustavsson. The club upstairs was run for many years by the glamorous half-Persian, half-Liverpudlian Mandana Ruane, whose charisma and skill at handling people – as well as the till – proved crucial to the smooth execution of Edmunds’s vision.
The long-serving restaurant manager Melissa Baker is now joined by her daughter Eloise, while a series of eccentric and long-suffering assistants were employed in the print shop, hauling his organised chaos into the digital age.
The restaurant remained open through power cuts and bomb threats, closing only for Christmas and Easter, when a slapdash coat of Corniche Cream or British Racing Green was re-applied. Loath to waste money on professional services, Edmunds could often be found unblocking the sewers in a moth-eaten cashmere jersey before the lunch shift.
His inimitable figure was easily spotted striding around the corner of Beak Street, having alighted from the 94 bus from Notting Hill Gate, in a distinctive brown Lock’s fedora, Budd shirt, Huntsman suit or, latterly, threadbare Armani jacket from the Trinity Hospice charity shop, usually swathed in a large ethnic scarf.
Andrew Edmunds is survived by his wife Bryony and their children Xanthe, Seraphina and Milo, all of whom worked with their father at various times. Alongside the close-knit team at Lexington Street, with head chef Tom Trubshaw at the helm, they are devoted to honouring his legacy.
Andrew Edmunds, born September 16 1943, died September 15 2022