Kit-Cat or Kit-Kat Club

Kit-Cat or Kit-Kat Club: Jacob Tonson by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Jacob Tonson by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Kit-Cat or Kit-Kat Club was an early eighteenth century London club, both literary and gallant, as well as political, and it was the stronghold of the Whigs. An eighteenth-century English bookseller and publisher, Jacob Tonson, sometimes referred to as Jacob Tonson the elder, is claimed to have founded the club. But how the club got its name seems unclear. One possibility is that the name came from where the Club meetings were first held, which was a house in Shire Lane “at the sign of the ‘Cat and Fiddle.'”[1] The second possibility is, “The cook’s name being Christopher, for brevity called Kit, and his sign being the Cat and Fiddle, they very merrily derived a quaint denomination from puss and her master [resulting in Kit-Cat].”[2] The third suggestion comes from The Spectator asserting that the club’s name was derived “not from the maker of the pie, but from the pie itself, which was called a Kit Kat.”[3]

At any rate, Christopher Cat (although some sources claim Cat’s last name was Katt, Catt, or Catling) was the pastry cook or tavern keeper who furnished club members with “delicious mutton pies … [until] they became a standing dish at the meeting of the club, which at length, in 1708 obtained the name of the Kit Cat Club.”[4]

More than anything, the Kit-Cat Club became celebrated for its toasts, and the toasts were “carried out by rule, [with] … every member … compelled to name a beauty, whose claims to the honour were … discussed, and if her name was approved, a separate bowl was consecrated to her and verses to her honour engraved on it.”[5] One 8-year-old girl, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was proposed by her father but other members who had not seen her objected. “The Peer sent for her, and there could no longer be any question.”[6] Other beauties were also toasted and included “the four lovely daughters of the Duke of Marlborough — Lady Godolphin, Lady Sunderland, Lady Bridgwater, and Lady Monthermer; Swift’s friends, Mrs. Long and Mrs. Barton — the latter the beautiful and witty niece of Sir Issac Newton; the Duchess of Bolton, Mrs. Burdenell, and Lady Carlisle, Mrs. D. Kirk, and Lady Wharton.”[7]

This habit of “toasting” resulted in Dr. John Arbuthnot, the Scottish physician, satirist and polymath of London, producing the following epigram, which incidentally hints at another possibility for the origin of the Club’s name:

“Whence deathless Kit Cat took his name / Few critics can unriddle; / Some say from pastry-cook it came, / And some from Cat and Fiddle. / From no trim beaux its name it boasts, / Gray statesmen or green wits; / But from the pell-mell pack of toasts / Of old Cats and young Kits!”[8]

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with Her Son, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with Her Son. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Cats and Kits that made up membership in the Kit-Cat Club included many notable and famous people. Well-known writer Joseph Addison (founder of The Spectator magazine), William Congreve (writer of comedic plays), and Sir John Vanbrugh (writer of Restoration comedies and designer of the Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard), spent time with politicians such as the 1st Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne (a British Whig statesman), Abraham Stanyan (Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire), the Earl of Stanhope (soldier well-known for his service during War of the Spanish Succession), Viscount Cobham (political mentor to William Pitt), and Sir Robert Walpole (first Prime Minister of Great Britain). Other notable members were the 2nd Duke of Grafton (an Irish and English politician), Comte de Saint Germain (an European courtier interested in science and the arts), 2nd Duke of Devonshire (nobleman and politician), 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hill (an English aristocrat), Lord Sunderland (later known as Lord Spencer and a relation to Sir Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales), and 1st Duke of Richmond (illegitimate son of Charles II of England). There was also the infamous that included the 4th Baron Mohun (a rake known for his frequent duels), Thomas Wharton (known for his debauched lifestyle), and the 3rd Earl of Berkeley (described as “rough, proud, … obstinate, … haughty and tyrannical”[9]).

Thomas Wharton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Thomas Wharton by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

The Kit-Cat Club was said to be extravagant, yet it “held the first rank among the clubs of the early part of the [1700s].”[10] One reason why it was famous and held first rank was the clever toasts created. Among the toast creators was Sir Samuel Garth who was considered par excellence because he extemporized most of the verses that were then inscribed on the toasting glasses. Because of Garth’s abilities he soon earned the title “Kit-kat poet.” He was a jovial, witty man, a physician and friend of Marlborough. At the time, Garth was known poetically primarily “by his ‘Dispensary,’ a satire upon the apothecaries.”[11] One day when Garth was at the club he got so caught up in drinking good wine and sharing stimulating conversations with other members in resulted in the following anecdote:

“[He completely forget] fifteen patients whose names appeared on his list of the day, but whom he had … left unvisited. When it … [became] too late to call upon them, he excused himself to his brethren … declaring that it was no great matter whether he saw them that night or not, ‘For nine of them,’ said he, ‘have such bad constitutions, that all the physicians in the world can’t save them; and the other six have such good constitutions that all the physicians in the world can’t kill them.'”[12]

Sir Samuel Garth by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Sir Samuel Garth by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The founder, Tonson was said to be held in high favor by most members/ This prompted the Duke of Somerset to be the first to present his portrait to Tonson, which was to be hung at Tonson’s residence known as Barn Elms (where Tonson occasional received the members). But the room was not “lofty” and could not accommodate half-length pictures so Somerset commissioned a shorter canvas — 36 inches long by 28 inches wide. “This occasioned ‘Kit Cat’ to become a technical term in painting for such … were [the portraits] of the same dimensions and form.”[13]

These Kit Cat pictures were created over a 20 year period by the well-known German-born English portrait painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller, and as “they were some of his last, were also among the most esteemed of his works.” Altogether forty-eight portraits were hung with three portraits left unfinished — Richard Boyle (known as the Viscount Shannon), Walsh, and the Earl of Huntingdon. After Tonson’s death, the Kit-Cat portraits went to Tonson’s brother Richard, then to William Baker, Esquire. Today, many of these “Kit Cat” portraits can be viewed in the National Portrait Gallery or at the National Trust at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Sir Godfrey Kneller. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

References:

  • [1] London Society, 1867, p. 237.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Barrett, C.J., The History of Barn Elms and the Kit Cat Club, 1889, p. 37.
  • [4] Ibid., 39.
  • [5] Thomson, Mrs. A.T., The Wits and Beaus of Society, Vol. 1, 1890, p. 98.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Barrett, C.J., The History of Barn Elms and the Kit Cat Club, 1889, p. 41.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 43.
  • [9] Hervey, John, Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second, Vol. 1, 1848, p. 49.
  • [10] Thomson, Mrs. A.T., p. 98.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 100.
  • [12] London Society, p. 238.
  • [13] Barret, C.J., p. 45.

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