The Kit-Cat Club Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Kit-Cat Club

The Kit-Cat Club was eighteenth-century England's most notable political, literary, and social club. Active in London from around 1700 to 1720, the club included among its forty-some members leading Whig politicians, artists, and writers. Among them were the statesman Sir Robert Walpole; the writers William Congreve, John Vanbrugh, Joseph Addison, and Sir Richard Steele; and the artist Sir Godfrey Kneller, who painted portraits of the members. The Kit-Cat Club was the unofficial center of Whig opposition during Queen Anne's Tory administration from 1710 to 1714.

The origins and activities of the Kit-Cat Club remain obscure. It is speculated that it was founded around 1700 by the publisher and bookseller Jacob Tonson—who was also the club's secretary—as a loose association of Whig intellectuals. Another account proposes that it was formed as a club with no political interest as early as 1688 under the name of the “Order of the Toast” by some “men of wit and pleasure about town.” It seems clear, however, that from early on the club was one of London's most formidable networks of Whig supporters. It is likely that in the early days of the club, members met at the coffeehouse of a pastry-cook, Christopher Cat (also spelled Kat), in Shire Lane. Cat's famous mutton-pies were called kit-cats, from which the name of the club was supposedly taken. Another story has it that the name Kit-Cat was derived from the club members' habit of toasting some beautiful young society woman, or “kit,” during their meetings. Other accounts seem to indicate that the club simply adopted as their own Christopher (“Kit”) Cat's name from the time they met at his establishment, the Cat and Fiddle. After 1703 the club met at Tonson's residence at Barn Elms.

The driving force of the club was most certainly Tonson, whose most important acquisitions as a publisher included John Milton's Paradise Lost. Tonson was also the publisher of other notable writers, including John Dryden (who was possibly a member of the club before his death in 1700; the club is known to have paid for his funeral), Congreve, Addison, and Steele. Literary figures comprised a minority of the membership, however; the majority were political figures—including Walpole, James Stanhope, and William Pulteney—who would become the most prominent statesmen of eighteenth-century Britain. Very little is known about what went on behind closed doors at the club, and the association was the subject of much speculation and the object of frequent attacks, particularly from Tory quarters. A number of satirical poems and essays appeared which assailed the club and its members. Tory propagandists routinely accused the members of various forms of treachery. During the Tory administration of 1710 to 1714 the club clearly came to represent the leaders of the opposition, and Walpole acknowledged that behind the appearance of conviviality at the club, they had a very serious purpose: to organize a central place for the leaders of the Hanoverian opposition party. Tonson was satirized by William Shippen in the anonymously published poem Faction Display'd (1704) as a disseminator of Whig propaganda, and Richard Blackmore's poem The Kit-Cats (1708) claimed that Tonson used the club as a means of acquiring publications for his business. Other writers charged that the club was becoming an arbiter of literary tastes, and it is true that the members' views did find their way into public discourse through Addison's position as editor of the Spectator. Kit-Cat members were also patrons of the arts and raised a substantial amount of money for the building of the Haymarket Theatre in 1705, an activity that is disparaged in the poem A Kit-Cat c——b Described (1705).

As with its early history, the later history of the Kit-Cat Club is the subject of some dispute. Most historical accounts of the club are based on speculation, as those who were involved in the club did not reveal what went on at their secret meetings. Some historians claim that the club was on the wane by 1709, while others suggest that the members were meeting regularly as late as 1718. After the Hanoverian King George I's succession in 1714, many members firmly established themselves in the new court and Whig administration, and it may have been that the need for the club was less urgent. Certainly by 1725 the club was no longer in existence. Perhaps the most significant surviving record of the club is visual rather than verbal. The artist Kneller was commissioned by the club to paint the portrait of each member, using a three-quarter-length format that has come to be known as the “kit-cat.” Paintings of forty-one of the club members now hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London.