Walking down Bedford Row in Bloomsbury, you might notice two rather inconspicuous stone markers outside 42 Bedford Row law chambers. One is inscribed “Little Whig” and the other ”Kitt Catt”. What are they and why are they here?
The Kit Cat Club (sometimes spelled “Kit Kat” or “Kitt Catt”) was an 18th century gentlemen’s club consisting of aristocrats, politicians, writers, artists and wits of the day, who all shared a common love of British culture and a Whig political allegiance.
“The Kit Cat Club was a famous institution, formed about 1700, and was composed of … noblemen and gentlemen zealously attached to the House of Hanover … The character of the club was literary and gallant as well as political. The members subscribed the sum of four hundred guineas to offer as prizes for the best comedies written.” (Clubs and Clubmen, Arthur George Frederick Griffiths 2009, p. 13).
A local pie maker, Christopher Catling of “The Cat and Fiddle”, provided the club with his trademark mutton pies (nicknamed ‘Kit Cats’, an abbreviation of his name), and the club in turn adopted Kit Cat as its moniker. As well as promoting the arts, club members developed an after-dinner tradition of toasting celebrated beauties of the day:
“…the gallant members wrote epigrammatic verses, which were etched with a diamond on the club glasses.” (British History Online).
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Charles Jervas) & Lady Henrietta Godolphin
The Kit Cat Club had various meeting places in and out of London, including a tavern in Shire Lane (later known as Lower Serle’s Place) where the Royal Courts of Justice now stand, below.
When in London, the Kit Cat Club also met at the Fountain Tavern on The Strand (first map below, where Simpson’s-in-the-Strand now stands), and at the Upper Flask tavern in Hampstead Heath, now Heath House, a private residence (second map, below) at 124 Heath Street.
There were fifty-odd members of the Kit Cat Club, including:
Jacob Tonson (c. 1665 – 1736), publisher, founder and secretary of the club:
“It was a rule of the club that members should have their portraits painted. Jacob Tonson, the famous bookseller, created the club and became its secretary. He made it a weekly gathering of litterateurs, whom he entertained with pies, making it a condition that his guests should sell him their manuscripts. Jonson started the portraiture and had his own picture painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller, the rest following suit. Jonson built a picture gallery as an addition to his villa at Barn Elms. The room was not large enough to take in half-length canvases, and a special size of portrait was invented, 36 inches by 28 inches, and the club became the sponsor of the Kit-Kat canvas, the name which still survives.” (Griffiths, p. 15).
Jacob Tonson (Godfrey Kneller)
“A Sir John Vanbrugh has written some even more amusing but less ingenious comedies [than William Wycherley]. This Sir John was a man about town as well as a poet and architect; it is affirmed that he wrote as he built, rather clumsily. It was he who built the famous palace of Blenheim as a weighty and durable monument to our unhappy battle of Hochstadt. If only the apartments were as spacious as the walls are thick, this palace would be quite convenient. Somebody put in Vanbrugh’s epitaph that ‘it was to be hoped that the earth would not lie light on him, since in his lifetime he had weighed it down so inhumanely.’” (Letters on England, Voltaire 2000, p. 99).
William Congreve (1670 – 1729), author:
“Of all the English, the one who carried the glory of the comic theatre to the greatest heights is the late Mr Congreve. He only wrote a few plays but they are all excellent of their kind … When I met him he was infirm and almost at death’s door; he had one failing, which was that he did not rank high enough his first profession, that of a writer, which had made his reputation and fortune. He spoke of his works as trifles beneath him, and in our first conversations he told me to think of him as a gentleman who lived very simply. I answered him that if he had had the misfortune of being just a gentleman like any other I would never have come to see him, and I was very shocked at such misplaced vanity.” (Voltaire, pp. 99 – 100).
William Congreve (Godfrey Kneller)
“The first Englishman to create a reasonable play written from end to end with elegance is the illustrious Addison. His ‘Cato of Utica’ is a masterpiece in diction and beauty of verse … Addison’s Cato seems to me the finest character on any stage, but the other characters in the play do not come up to him, and this work, though so well written, is marred by a frigid love plot which casts a mortal languor over the play. The custom of dragging love somehow or other into dramatic works travelled from Paris to London in about 1660, with our ribbons and our perukes. Women, who adorn theatrical performances as they do here, will not abide that anything else but love be discussed in front of them. The astute Addison was weak and complaisant enough to bend the austerity of his character to fit the manners of his age, and spoiled a masterpiece through anxiety to please.” (Voltaire, p. 95).
Joseph Addison (Godfrey Kneller)
Sir Samuel Garth (1661 – 1719), physician and poet:
“There were many merry meetings, where the members coming together laid bets and drank hard. On one occasion Sir Samuel Garth, physician to George I, was of the party, but protested that he must leave early as he had many patients to visit. But the charms of the bottle were too attractive, and he lingered on hour after hour. Sir Richard Steele, who was present, reminded him of his professional duties, when Garth produced his list of patients. There were fifteen of them. “It matters little,” he cried, “whether I see them or not, tonight. Nine or ten are so bad that all the doctors in the world could not save them, and the remainder have such tough constitutions that no doctors are needed by them.” (Griffiths, p. 15).
Samuel Garth (Godfrey Kneller)
“Steele’s notoriety centered in rough-and-tumble controversy, sinking – as the years passed – into virtual invisibility … [He] is either attacked or defended for reasons largely fictional. Even those who answered yea or nay to his comedies and dramatic criticism were conscious of his party commitment. The eulogies following his death were cast in a Whiggish mould, as much panegyrics upon [Robert] Walpole as upon the deceased. Almost non-existent through the second half of the century, Steele re-entered the critical scene in 1836 when [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge and his friend Thomas Allsop spoke and wrote sympathetically of him. From that time on those who enjoyed the polemicist and dramatist, emphasised his feeling heart, his sentimental wit and harmless peccadilloes.” (Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Edward & Lillian Bloom 1986, p. xi).
Richard Steele (Jonathan Richardson)
Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646 – 1723), artist.:
“Kneller’s production was enormous … He was not only a rapid and dexterous executant but perhaps more lacking in conscience than any other artist of his rank. ‘Where he offered one picture to fame, he sacrificed twenty to lucre,’ complained [Horace] Walpole, not without justice, but he no less justly blames his patrons: ‘he met customers of so little judgement, that they were fond of being painted by a man who would gladly have disowned his works the moment they were paid for.’ He was, in short, an artist of extraordinary talents, who was unable to withstand the temptations of fashionable patronage … [But] Kneller produced a handful of portraits of rare quality. Perhaps his greatest achievement is his ‘William Wycherley’ … Less inspired than the haunting ‘Wycherley’, but nevertheless of exceptional merit are … the portraits of members of the Kit-Cat Club, painted between 1702 and 1717, in the National Portrait Gallery.” (An Introduction to English Painting, John Rothenstein 2001, pp. 38 – 39).
Godfrey Kneller (self portrait)
So, back to Bloomsbury’s mysterious Bedford Row tablets. According to British History Online, these stones were part of the foundations for a theatre project, The Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket:
“In 1704 a subscription was started by Sir John Vanbrugh to build a theatre … and £3,000 was raised in shares of £100 from each of thirty persons, who, in addition to their interest in the building, were to have an admission ticket for life to all public entertainments given therein. The foundation-stone was inscribed with the words, “Little Whig,” in honour of Lady Sunderland, the most celebrated Whig toast and beauty of her day. The theatre was opened April 9th, 1705, with an Italian opera, The Triumph of Love, which was so far from being a “triumph,” that it was withdrawn after having been performed three times before a mere handful of spectators. Sir John Vanbrugh and his associate Congreve, the dramatist, were not long in retiring from a management so little profitable to themselves …”
Vanbrugh’s Italian Opera House (William Capon)
The theatre was apparently destroyed by fire in 1789. The above-mentioned Lady”Little Whig” Sutherland was Anne Spencer, Countess of Sunderland (1683 – 1716), to whom the Kit Cat Club composed this verse:
“All nature’s charms in Sunderland appear,
Bright as her eyes and as her reason clear;
Yet still their force, to man not safely known,
Seems undiscovered to herself alone.”
Anne Spencer, Countess of Sunderland (Godfrey Kneller)
What isn’t clear is how the foundation stones got from Haymarket to Bedford Row, but presumably they were saved from destruction and relocated by a sympathetic patron. Can anybody tell me?
Photos by Sven Klinge
(please credit photographer & website when using these photos)
(Historical photos from Wikipedia)
- The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation by Ophelia Field
- Sir John Vanbrugh by Kerry Downes
- The Country Houses of John Vanbrugh by Jeremy Musson
- The Works of Mr Congreve by William Congreve
- Cat0, a Tragedy in Five Acts by Joseph Addison
- The Poetical Works of Joseph Addison
- Joseph Addison and Richard Steele by Edward & Lillian Bloom