Room 9: The Kit-cat Club
© The National Portrait Gallery, London
'The best club that ever met'
Sir John Vanbrugh, Kit-cat Club member, 1725
'Face-painting is no where so well performed as in England'
Sir Richard Steele, Kit-cat Club member, The Spectator, 1712
Sir Godfrey Kneller and the Kit-cat Portraits
This group of portraits show members of the famous Kit-cat Club, which began meeting in Christopher Cat’s tavern near Temple Bar, and took its name from his mutton pies known as ‘Kit-cats’. Despite their comical name and reputation for drinking, it was the most distinguished and influential club of its day. Its members were Whig politicians and their supporters. They were united in their belief in the authority of parliament over the monarchy, and were committed to a Protestant ruler succeeding to the throne. These men were at the centre of opposition politics during the reign of Queen Anne (1702–1714).
Some members of the Kit-cat club were poets and playwrights, and this established their public reputation for culture and refinement. Sir Godfrey Kneller, painted over forty-four portraits of club members. A tradition was established whereby each member presented their portrait to the club secretary Jacob Tonson, who hung them in his house in Putney.
Sir Godfrey Kneller painted the Kit-cat portraits over a period of twenty years. He devised a special size for the portraits, which became known as a 'kit-cat'. Slightly larger than the traditional head and shoulders format, it allows enough space to include one or both hands. So, while the poses in the Kit-cat portraits may look similar, none are actually repeated. When hung together, the overall effect is of a unified club of equals, though each man retains his individuality through distinct gestures, props and costumes. Kneller was born in Germany and settled in England in 1676. He was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown in 1689. He served six monarchs and was in constant demand to paint aristocrats and society figures. His success was attributed to his ability, charm and talent for capturing a sitter’s likeness. He was also an astute businessman, running a busy 'portrait factory' where assistants were responsible for completing the lesser elements – drapery, backgrounds, animals – of many portraits. There are over seventy portraits by Kneller in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Beningbrough hall, the Gallery’s regional partner in Yorkshire, houses half of the group of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s Kit-cat Club portraits in Baroque period rooms and special exhibition galleries. Beningbrough is also home to Making Faces – Eighteenth Century Style, six new interactive galleries that bring portraits to life. There you can 'commission' your own virtual eighteenth century-style portrait, or explore sculpture by touch to find all the hidden details.