Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Literary Club


Out of the casual, but frequent meetings of men of talent at the hospitable board of Sir Joshua Reynolds, in Leicester-square, rose that association of wits, authors, scholars, and statesmen, renowned as the Literary Club. Reynolds was the first to propose a regular association of the kind, and was eagerly seconded by Johnson, who suggested as a model the Club which he had formed some fourteen years previously, in Ivy-lane;[18] and which the deaths or dispersion of its members had now interrupted for nearly seven years. On this suggestion being adopted, the members, as in the earlier Club, were limited to nine, and Mr. Hawkins, as an original member of the Ivy-lane Club, was invited to join. Topham Beauclerk and Bennet Langton were asked and welcomed earnestly; and, of course, Mr. Edmund Burke. The notion of the Club delighted Burke; and he asked admission for his father-in-law, Dr. Nugent, an accomplished Roman Catholic physician, who lived with him. Beauclerk, in like manner, suggested his friend Chamier, then Under-Secretary-at-War. Oliver Goldsmith completed the number. But another member of the original Ivy-lane, Samuel Dyer, making unexpected appearance from abroad, in the following year, was joyfully admitted; and though it was resolved to make election difficult, and only for special reasons permit addition to their number, the limitation at first proposed was thus, of course, done away with. Twenty was the highest number reached in the course of ten years.

The dates of the Club are thus summarily given by Mr. Hatchett, the treasurer:—It was founded in 1764, by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr. Samuel Johnson, and for some years met on Monday evenings, at seven. In 1772, the day of meeting was changed to Friday, and about that time, instead of supping, they agreed to dine together once in every fortnight during the sitting of Parliament. In 1773, the Club, which, soon after its foundation, consisted of twelve members, was enlarged to twenty; March 11, 1777, to twenty-six; November 27, 1778, to thirty; May 9, 1780, to thirty-five; and it was then resolved that it should never exceed forty. It met originally at the Turk's Head, in Gerard-street, and continued to meet there till 1783, when their landlord died, and the house was soon afterwards shut up. They then removed to Prince's, in Sackville-street; and on his house being, soon afterwards, shut up, they removed to Baxter's, which afterwards became Thomas's, in Dover-street. In January, 1792, they removed to Parsloe's, in St. James's-street; and on February 26, 1799, to the Thatched House, in the same street.

"So originated and was formed," says Mr. Forster, "that famous Club, which had made itself a name in literary history long before it received, at Garrick's funeral, the name of the Literary Club, by which it is now known. Its meetings were noised abroad; the fame of its conversations received eager addition, from the difficulty of obtaining admission to it; and it came to be as generally understood that Literature had fixed her social head-quarters here, as that Politics reigned supreme at Wildman's, or the Cocoa-tree. With advantage, let me add, to the dignity and worldly consideration of men of letters themselves. 'I believe Mr. Fox will allow me to say,' remarked the Bishop of St. Asaph, when the Society was not more than fifteen years old, 'that the honour of being elected into the Turk's Head Club, is not inferior to that of being the representative of Westminster or Surrey.' The Bishop had just been elected; but into such lusty independence had the Club sprung up thus early, that Bishops, even Lord Chancellors, were known to have knocked for admission unsuccessfully; and on the night of St. Asaph's election, Lord Camden and the Bishop of Chester were black-balled."

Of this Club, Hawkins was a most unpopular member: even his old friend, Johnson, admitted him to be out of place here. He had objected to Goldsmith, at the Club, "as a mere literary drudge, equal to the task of compiling and translating, but little capable of original, and still less of poetical composition." Hawkins's "existence was a kind of pompous, parsimonious, insignificant drawl, cleverly ridiculed by one of the wits in an absurd epitaph: 'Here lies Sir John Hawkins, without his shoes and stauckins.'" He was as mean as he was pompous and conceited. He forbore to partake of the suppers at the Club, and begged therefore to be excused from paying his share of the reckoning. "And was he excused?" asked Dr. Burney, of Johnson. "Oh yes, for no man is angry at another for being inferior to himself. We all scorned him, and admitted his plea. Yet I really believe him to be an honest man at bottom, though, to be sure, he is penurious and he is mean, and it must be owned that he has a tendency to savageness." He did not remain above two or three years in the Club, being in a manner elbowed out in consequence of his rudeness to Burke. Still, Burke's vehemence of will and sharp impetuosity of temper constantly exposed him to prejudice and dislike; and he may have painfully impressed others, as well as Hawkins, at the Club, with a sense of his predominance. This was the only theatre open to him. "Here only," says Mr. Forster, "could he as yet pour forth, to an audience worth exciting, the stores of argument and eloquence he was thirsting to employ upon a wider stage; the variety of knowledge, the fund of astonishing imagery, the ease of philosophic illustration, the overpowering copiousness of words, in which he has never had a rival." Miss Hawkins was convinced that her father was disgusted with the overpowering deportment of Mr. Burke, and his monopoly of the conversation, which made all the other members, excepting his antagonist, Johnson, merely listeners. Something of the same sort is said by that antagonist, though in a more generous way. "What I most envy Burke for," said Johnson, "is, that he is never what we call humdrum; never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off. Take up whatever topic you please, he is ready to meet you. I cannot say he is good at listening. So desirous is he to talk, that if one is speaking at this end of the table, he'll speak to somebody at the other end."

The Club was an opportunity for both Johnson and Burke; and for the most part their wit-combats seem not only to have instructed the rest, but to have improved the temper of the combatants, and to have made them more generous to each other. "How very great Johnson has been to-night!" said Burke to Bennet Langton, as they left the Club together. Langton assented, but could have wished to hear more from another person. "Oh no!" replied Burke, "it is enough for me to have rung the bell to him."

One evening he observed that a hogshead of claret, which had been sent as a present to the Club, was almost out; and proposed that Johnson should write for another, in such ambiguity of expression as might have a chance of procuring it also as a gift. One of the company said, "Dr. Johnson shall be our dictator."—"Were I," said Johnson, "your dictator, you should have no wine: it would be my business cavere ne quid detrimenti respublica caperet:—wine is dangerous; Rome was ruined by luxury." Burke replied: "If you allow no wine as dictator, you shall not have me for master of the horse."

Goldsmith, it must be owned, joined the Club somewhat unwillingly, saying: "One must make some sacrifices to obtain good society; for here I am shut out of several places where I used to play the fool very agreeably." His simplicity of character and hurried expression often led him into absurdity, and he became in some degree the butt of the company. The Club, notwithstanding all its learned dignity in the eyes of the world, could occasionally unbend and play the fool as well as less important bodies. Some of its jocose conversations have at times leaked out; and the Society in which Goldsmith could venture to sing his song of "An Old Woman tossed in a Blanket" could not be so very staid in its gravity. Bennet Langton and Topham Beauclerk were, doubtless, induced to join the Club through their devotion to Johnson, and the intimacy of these two very young and aristocratic young men with the stern and somewhat melancholy moralist. Bennet Langton was of an ancient family, who held their ancestral estate of Langton in Lincolnshire, a great title to respect with Johnson. "Langton, Sir," he would say, "has a grant of free warren from Henry the Second; and Cardinal Stephen Langton, in King John's reign, was of this family."

Langton was of a mild, contemplative, enthusiastic nature. When but eighteen years of age, he was so delighted with reading Johnson's Rambler, that he came to London chiefly with a view to obtain an introduction to the author.

Langton went to pursue his studies at Trinity College, Oxford, where Johnson saw much of him during a visit which he paid to the University. He found him in close intimacy with Topham Beauclerk, a youth two years older than himself, very gay and dissipated, and wondered what sympathies could draw two young men together of such opposite characters. On becoming acquainted with Beauclerk, he found that, rake though he was, he possessed an ardent love of literature, an acute understanding, polished wit, innate gentility, and high aristocratic breeding. He was, moreover, the only son of Lord Sidney Beauclerk, and grandson of the Duke of St. Albans, and was thought in some particulars to have a resemblance to Charles the Second. These were high recommendations with Johnson; and when the youth testified a profound respect for him, and an ardent admiration of his talents, the conquest was complete; so that in a "short time," says Boswell, "the moral, pious Johnson and the gay dissipated Beauclerk were companions."

When these two young men entered the Club, Langton was about twenty-two, and Beauclerk about twenty-four years of age, and both were launched on London life. Langton, however, was still the mild, enthusiastic scholar, steeped to the lips in Greek, with fine conversational powers, and an invaluable talent for listening. He was upwards of six feet high, and very spare. "Oh that we could sketch him!" exclaims Miss Hawkins, in her Memoirs, "with his mild countenance, his elegant features, and his sweet smile, sitting with one leg twisted round the other, as if fearing to occupy more space than was equitable; his person inclining forward, as if wanting strength to support his weight; and his arms crossed over his bosom, or his hands locked together on his knee." Beauclerk, on such occasions, sportively compared him to a stork in Raphael's cartoons, standing on one leg. Beauclerk was more a "man upon town," a lounger in St. James's-street, an associate with George Selwyn, with Walpole, and other aristocratic wits, a man of fashion at court, a casual frequenter of the gaming-table; yet, with all this, he alternated in the easiest and happiest manner the scholar and the man of letters; lounged into the Club with the most perfect self-possession, bringing with him the careless grace and polished wit of high-bred society, but making himself cordially at home among his learned fellow-members.

Johnson was exceedingly chary at first of the exclusiveness of the Club, and opposed to its being augmented in number. Not long after its institution, Sir Joshua Reynolds was speaking of it to Garrick. "I like it much," said little David, briskly, "I think I shall be of you." "When Sir Joshua mentioned this to Dr. Johnson," says Boswell, "he was much displeased with the actor's conceit. 'He'll be of us!' growled he; 'how does he know we will permit him? The first duke in England has no right to hold such language."

When Sir John Hawkins spoke favourably of Garrick's pretensions, "Sir," replied Johnson, "he will disturb us by his buffoonery." In the same spirit he declared to Mr. Thrale, that if Garrick should apply for admission, he would black-ball him. "Who, Sir?" exclaimed Thrale, with surprise: "Mr. Garrick—your friend, your companion—black-ball him?" "Why, Sir," replied Johnson, "I love my little David dearly—better than all or any of his flatterers do; but surely one ought to sit in a society like ours,

"Unelbowed by a gamester, pimp, or player."

The exclusion from the Club was a sore mortification to Garrick, though he bore it without complaining. He could not help continually asking questions about it—what was going on there?—whether he was ever the subject of conversation? By degrees the rigour of the Club relaxed; some of the members grew negligent. Beauclerk lost his right of membership by neglecting to attend. On his marriage, however, with Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough, and recently divorced from Viscount Bolingbroke, he had claimed and regained his seat in the Club. The number of the members had likewise been augmented. The proposition to increase it originated with Goldsmith. "It would give," he thought, "an agreeable variety to their meetings; for there can be nothing new amongst us," said he; "we have travelled over each other's minds." Johnson was piqued at the suggestion. "Sir," said he, "you have not travelled over my mind, I promise you." Sir Joshua, less confident in the exhaustless fecundity of his mind, felt and acknowledged the force of Goldsmith's suggestion. Several new members, therefore, had been added; the first, to his great joy, was David Garrick. Goldsmith, who was now on cordial terms with him, had zealously promoted his election, and Johnson had given it his warm approbation. Another new member was Beauclerk's friend, Lord Charlemont; and a still more important one was Mr., afterwards Sir William Jones, the linguist. George Colman, the elder, was a lively Club-man. One evening at the Club he met Boswell; they talked of Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands, and of his coming away "willing to believe the second sight," which seemed to excite some ridicule. "I was then," says Boswell, "so impressed with the truth of many of the stories which I had been told, that I avowed my conviction, saying, "He is only willing to believe—I do believe; the evidence is enough for me, though not for his great mind. What will not fill a quart bottle will fill a pint bottle; I am filled with belief."—"Are you?" said Colman; "then cork it up.""

Five years after the death of Garrick, Dr. Johnson dined with the Club for the last time. This is one of the most melancholy entries by Boswell. "On Tuesday, June 22 (1784), I dined with him (Johnson) at the Literary Club, the last time of his being in that respectable society. The other members present were the Bishop of St. Asaph, Lord Eliot, Lord Palmerston (father of the Premier), Dr. Fordyce, and Mr. Malone. He looked ill; but he had such a manly fortitude, that he did not trouble the company with melancholy complaints. They all showed evident marks of kind concern about him, with which he was much pleased, and he exerted himself to be as entertaining as his indisposition allowed him."

From the time of Garrick's death the Club was known as "The Literary Club," since which it has certainly lost its claim to this epithet. It was originally a club of authors by profession; it now numbers very few except titled members (the majority having some claims to literary distinction), which was very far from the intention of its founders. To this the author of the paper in the National Review demurs. Writing in 1857, he says: "Perhaps it now numbers on its list more titled members and fewer authors by profession, than its founders would have considered desirable. This opinion, however, is quite open to challenge. Such men as the Marquis of Lansdowne, the late Lord Ellesmere, Lords Brougham, Carlisle, Aberdeen, and Glenelg, hold their place in 'the Literary Club' quite as much by virtue of their contributions to literature, or their enlightened support of it, as by their right of rank." [How many of these noble members have since paid the debt of nature!]

"At all events," says Mr. Taylor, "the Club still acknowledges literature as its foundation, and love of literature as the tie which binds together its members, whatever their rank and callings. Few Clubs can show such a distinguished brotherhood of members as 'the Literary.' Of authors proper, from 1764 to this date (1857), may be enumerated, besides its original members, Johnson and Goldsmith, Dyer and Percy, Gibbon and Sir William Jones, Colman, the two Wartons, Farmer, Steevens, Burney, and Malone, Frere and George Ellis, Hallam, Milman, Mountstuart Elphinstone, and Lord Stanhope.

"Among men equally conspicuous in letters and the Senate, what names outshine those of Burke and Sheridan, Canning, Brougham, and Macaulay? Of statesmen and orators proper, the Club claims Fox, Windham, Thomas Grenville, Lord Liverpool; Lords Lansdowne, Aberdeen, and Clarendon. Natural science is represented by Sir Joseph Banks, in the last century; by Professor Owen in this. Social science can have no nobler representative than Adam Smith; albeit, Boswell did think the Club had lost caste by electing him. Mr. N. W. Senior is the political economist of the present Club. Whewell must stand alone as the embodiment of omniscience, which before him was unrepresented. Scholars and soldiers may be equally proud of Rennel, Leake, and Mure. Besides the clergymen already enumerated as authors, the Church has contributed a creditable list of bishops and inferior dignitaries: Shipley of St. Asaph, Barnard of Killaloe, Marley of Pomfret, Hinchcliffe of Peterborough, Douglas of Salisbury, Blomfield of London, Wilberforce of Oxford, Dean Vincent of Westminster, Archdeacon Burney; and Dr. Hawtrey, late master and present provost of Eton.

"Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Charles Eastlake are its two chief pillars of art, slightly unequal. With them we may associate Sir William Chambers and Charles Wilkins. The presence of Drs. Nugent, Blagden, Fordyce, Warren, Vaughan, and Sir Henry Halford, is a proof that in the Club medicine has from the first kept up its kinship with literature.

"The profession of the law has given the Society Lord Ashburton, Lord Stowell, and Sir William Grant, Charles Austin, and Pemberton Leigh. Lord Overstone may stand as the symbol of money; unless Sir George Cornewall Lewis is to be admitted to that honour by virtue of his Chancellorship of the Exchequer. Sir George would, probably, prefer his claims to Club membership as a scholar and political writer, to any that can be picked out of a Budget.

"Take it all in all, the Literary Club has never degenerated from the high standard of intellectual gifts and personal qualities, which made those unpretending suppers at the Turk's Head an honour eagerly contended for by the wisest, wittiest, and noblest of the eighteenth century."

Malone, in 1810, gave the total number of those who had been members of the Club from its foundation, at seventy-six, of whom fifty-five had been authors. Since 1810, however, literature has far less preponderance.

The designation of the Society has been again changed to "the Johnson Club." Upon the taking down of the Thatched House Tavern, the Club removed to the Clarendon Hotel, in Bond-street, where was celebrated its centenary, in September, 1864. There were present, upon this memorable occasion,—in the chair, the Dean of St. Paul's; his Excellency M. Van de Weyer, Earls Clarendon and Stanhope; the Bishops of London and Oxford; Lords Brougham, Stanley, Cranworth, Kingsdown, and Harry Vane; the Right Hon. Sir Edmund Head, Spencer Walpole, and Robert Lowe; Sir Henry Holland, Sir C. Eastlake, Sir Roderick Murchison, Vice-Chancellor Sir W. Page Wood, the Master of Trinity, Professor Owen, Mr. G. Grote, Mr. C. Austen, Mr. H. Reeve, and Mr. G. Richmond. Among the few members prevented from attending were the Duke of Argyll (in Scotland), the Earl of Carlisle (in Ireland), Earl Russell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Overstone (at Oxford), Lord Glenelg (abroad), and Mr. W. Stirling (from indisposition). Mr. N. W. Senior, who was the political economist of the Club, died in June, preceding, in his sixty-fourth year.

Hallam and Macaulay were among the constant attendants at its dinners, which take place twice a month during the Parliamentary season. The custody of the books and archives of the Club rests with the secretary, Dr. Milman, the venerable Dean of St. Paul's, who takes great pride and pleasure in showing to literary friends the valuable collection of autographs which these books contain. Among the memorials is the portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with spectacles on, similar to the picture in the Royal Collection: this portrait was painted and presented by Sir Joshua, as the founder of the Club.

Lord Macaulay has grouped, with his accustomed felicity of language, this celebrated congress of men of letters.

"To discuss questions of taste, of learning, of casuistry, in language so exact and so forcible that it might have been printed without the alteration of a word," was to Johnson no exertion, but a pleasure. He loved, as he said, to fold his legs and have his talk out. He was ready to bestow the overflowings of his full mind on anybody who would start a subject, on a fellow-passenger in a stage-coach, or on the person who sat at the same table with him in an eating-house. But his conversation was nowhere so brilliant and striking as when he was surrounded by a few friends, whose abilities and knowledge enabled them, as he once expressed it, to send him back every ball that he threw. Some of these, in 1764, formed themselves into a Club, which gradually became a formidable power in the commonwealth of letters. The verdicts pronounced by this conclave on new books were speedily known over all London, and were sufficient to sell off a whole edition in a day, or to condemn the sheets to the service of the trunk-maker and the pastrycook. Nor shall we think this strange when we consider what great and various talents and acquirements met in the little fraternity. Goldsmith was the representative of poetry and light literature, Reynolds of the Arts, Burke of political eloquence and political philosophy. There, too, were Gibbon, the greatest historian, and Jones, the greatest linguist of the age. Garrick brought to the meetings his inexhaustible pleasantry, his incomparable mimicry, and his consummate knowledge of stage effect. Among the most constant attendants were two high-born and high-bred gentlemen, closely bound together by friendship, but of widely different characters and habits,—Bennet Langton, distinguished by his skill in Greek literature, by the orthodoxy of his opinions, and by the sanctity of his life; and Topham Beauclerk, renowned for his amours, his knowledge of the gay world, his fastidious taste, and his sarcastic wit. To predominate over such a society was not easy. Yet even over such a society Johnson predominated. Burke might indeed have disputed the supremacy to which others were under the necessity of submitting. But Burke, though not generally a very patient listener, was content to take the second part when Johnson was present; and the Club itself, consisting of so many eminent men, is to this day popularly designated as "Johnson's Club."

To the same master-hand we owe this cabinet picture. "The [Literary Club] room is before us, and the table on which stand the omelet for Nugent, and the lemons for Johnson. There are assembled those heads which live for ever on the canvas of Reynolds. There are the spectacles of Burke, and the tall thin form of Langton; the courtly sneer of Beauclerk, the beaming smile of Garrick, Gibbon tapping his snuff-box, and Sir Joshua with his trumpet in his ear. In the foreground is that strange figure which is as familiar to us as the figures of those among whom we have been brought up—the gigantic body, the huge massy face, seamed with the scars of disease; the brown coat, the black worsted stockings, the grey wig with the scorched foretop; the dirty hands, the nails bitten and pared to the quick. We see the eyes and the nose moving with convulsive twitches; we see the heavy form rolling; we hear it puffing; and then comes the 'Why, Sir?' and the 'What then, Sir?' and the 'No, Sir!' and the 'You don't see your way through the question, Sir!'"

[18] The house in Ivy-lane, which bore the name of Johnson, and where the Literary Club is said to have been held, was burnt down a few years since: it had long been a chop-house.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866