windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Six

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The Kit Kat Club

This was a famous club in 18th century London. It seems likely that the club was formed around 1700 and drew its membership from the leading Whigs of the time and, in particular, stalwart adherents of the House of Hanover.

Their original meeting place was a rather obscure establishment down Shire Lane by Temple Bar, run by one Christopher Katt. Its principal claim to fame was its mutton pies and these became staple fare at the Club’s dinners. There is some dispute whether the club took its name from the pieman or his pies. The prologue of a comedy of the time contains the line, “A Kit-Kat is a supper for a lord”, clearly associating the name with the pie but a Dr King writing contemporaneously in his Art of Cookery sides very firmly with the pie-man, “Immortal made, as Kit-Kat by his pies”.

Drinking, inevitably, formed part of the club’s activities. One of the trademarks of the Kit Kat was its splendid toasting-glasses which were engraved with verses especially composed to laud the qualities of the most prominent beauties of the day. One of the beauties thus toasted, somewhat alarmingly to modern sensibilities, was the eight year old Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

The artist, Sir Godfrey Kneller, was a member and over 20 years he painted some 48 portraits of fellow members, providing the most complete and unusual list of members that we have. Because of the constraints of size of the club room – the club had moved to the Fountain Tavern in the Strand where Simpson’s on the Strand now is and then to the home of the secretary, Jacob Tonson, at Barn Elms in the winter and to the rather racy Upper Flask in Hampstead Heath in the summers – the portraits were of a smaller size than normal, some 36 inches by 28, a format which became known as the kit-cat. Many of the paintings can be seen nowadays at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire.

The club was also a patron of the arts. In 1709 they subscribed the sum of 400 guineas for the “encouragement of good comedies”. We could do with them now!

The evenings seemed to be very convivial and once in the arms of the club, it was very difficult to extricate yourself. George I’s physician, Sir Samuel Garth, was a member, known for his wit and as a contributor to the verses which were inscribed on to the toasting-glasses. One evening he came to the club saying he must leave early as he had a list of 15 patients to visit. Once he got stuck into the vino he was reminded of the calls he had to make. In response, the wit replied, “It’s no great matter whether I see them to-night, or not, for nine of them 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”.

Perhaps we should leave the final words on the Kit Kat Club to some satirical verses pointed at Jacob Tonson, “I am the founder of your loved Kit-Kat/ A club that gave direction to the State:/ ‘Twas there we first instructed all our youth/ To talk profane, and laugh at sacred truth:/ We taught them how to boast, and rhyme, and bite/ To sleep away the day, and drink away the night”. Sounds good to me!

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