Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cat, Christopher

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CAT, CHRISTOPHER (fl. 1703–1733)—the name is given in Hearne's ‘Collections,’ i. 117, as ‘Christopher Calling’—the entertainer of the ‘Kit-Cat Club,’ kept a tavern with the sign of the ‘Cat and Fiddle’ in Shire Lane, near Temple Bar, where he was, as Dr. King in his ‘Art of Cookery’ asserts, ‘immortal made by his pyes’ of mutton. According to one statement this club had its origin in 1688 in the meeting of some ‘men of wit and pleasure about town,’ without reference to politics; but the generally accepted version asserts that it was founded in 1703 by the leading members of the whig party in this tavern in Shire Lane, taking from its entertainer the name of the ‘Kit-Cat Club.’ When he moved to the Fountain tavern in the Strand, the club accompanied him. In the summer the meetings were held in the Upper Flask tavern, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and occasionally the members met at Jacob Tonson's house at Barn Elms. At first there were thirty-nine members, but the number was ultimately increased to forty-eight. The special feature of the club consisted of the toasts, which were written in praise of the chief whig beauties, and were inscribed on the toasting glasses. Several of these effusions will be found in the works of Garth, Addison, and Lord Halifax, and it will be remembered that on one occasion Lady Mary Wortley Montagu when a little girl was introduced by her father to the society of these whig wits and was gravely saluted by them. The club decayed about 1720. The derivation of its name has been disputed, and Dr. Arbuthnot wrote an epigram assigning its origin to its pack of toasts ‘Of Old Cats and Young Kits.’ Another physician, Sir Richard Blackmore, published in 1708 a poem of ‘The Kit-Kats.’

Jacob Tonson built a room in his house at Barn Elms for the reception of its members, and had the walls adorned with their portraits. As it was not sufficiently lofty for pictures of the ordinary size, Sir Godfrey Kneller made use of a smaller canvas, 36 inches long by 28 wide, which has ever since been called a kit-cat. The mezzotint engravings were published by Tonson in 1723, republished by J. Faber in 1795, and reproduced in 1821 in a volume entitled ‘Memoirs of the celebrated persons composing the Kit-Cat Club,’ a volume not to be commended either for accuracy of fact or for grace of style. The originals, with the exception of the portrait of the Duke of Marlborough, are in the possession of Tonson's descendant, Mr. William Baker of Bayfordbury in Hertfordshire. Six of them were shown to the world at the Manchester Exhibition in 1857. The papers relating to the club are also in Mr. Baker's possession.

A writer in ‘Notes and Queries’ (5th series, iii. 259) prints a letter signed ‘Chr. Catt,’ and dated ‘9th of 5th mo. 1711,’ preserved in the archives of the Norwich monthly meeting; which proves Cat (if the writer be the same person) to have been a quaker, and to have possessed an educated and thoughtful mind.

A portrait of Cat by Kneller was lent by Mrs. H. W. Hutton to the Portrait Exhibition in 1867, and a painting in the same collection, also ascribed to Kneller, was said to represent a ‘scene at Christopher Cat's house, Chelsea walk; Steele, Lord Oxford, Addison and his stepson little Lord Warwick, Sir G. Kneller, and others at tea.’ This belonged to the Baroness Windsor.

[Memoirs of Club, 1821; Ned Ward's Clubs of London and Westminster; Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting (Wornum), ii. 591; Quarterly Rev. January 1822, pp. 425–37.]

W. P. C.