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Reference group
Sublime Society of Beefsteaks [Beefsteak Club] (act. 1735–1768) was created as a convivial dining club of twenty-four dancers, painters, publicans, singers, and others who met from 1735 at the Covent Garden Theatre, London, under the patronage of the impresario John Rich. The club was most probably instituted on 6 December 1735 and its rules formalized on 11 January 1736. It lasted until 1869, but its heyday was the late eighteenth century when—now numbering aristocrats and politicians as members—it had become a meeting place of ‘the princes, the nobles, the wits of the land, seated at a plenteous, but frugal board, and in equal brotherhood, keeping alive the old, in-bred good-nature of the better classes of the English people’ (Marsh, 5). In variants of the same story Rich and the painter George Lambert are both credited with founding the club by chance. In the earliest version, published in 1808, Lambert took to cooking in his studio at the top of Covent Garden theatre, being too busy to eat elsewhere. Visitors ‘of the first consideration, both in rank and talents’ (Edwards, 19) called on him, and were invited to share in his beef. The meal ended with a suggestion that the group meet regularly, and so the club was born; Lambert's gridiron became the club's emblem. In another version Rich was the cook, visited in late 1735 by Charles Mordaunt, fourth earl of Peterborough (1708–1779). The story is apocryphal but, for a society whose aristocratic members were required to serve as butlers in their turn, the narrative of sociability—with men of all ranks meeting as equals—was of great importance and ensured that the earl's visit gained a place in club lore.

The Beefsteak's membership was less socially elevated at the outset, though, and was formed from the overlapping networks of two leaders of London's cultural life, Rich and the artist William Hogarth. The painter's friends, who already met as a club at the Bedford Arms tavern in the Little Piazza, Covent Garden, included Lambert; the lawyer Ebenezer Forrest; Gabriel Hunt; Hogarth's brother-in-law, the sergeant painter John Thornhill (d. 1757); and the mariner and antiquary William Tothall (fl. 1732–1768). They were all founder Beefsteaks, as was the tavern's proprietor, Richard Mitchell; another member of the Bedford Arms circle, Benjamin Read, joined the Beefsteaks in 1759. Hogarth's own club was active in the early 1730s, and it was from the Bedford Arms that Hogarth, with Thornhill, Forrest, Tothall, and Samuel Scott, set out in May 1732 on an excursion to Gravesend that Forrest later commemorated as ‘the five days peregrination’.

John Rich moved his company from Lincoln's Inn to Covent Garden in 1733, where he built a new theatre on the profits from his production of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay. Keenly interested in music and the theatre, Hogarth painted a scene from the opera for Rich and celebrated his friend's move with an engraving, Rich's Glory, or, His Triumphant Entry into Covent-Garden. Many of Rich's leading performers were among the club's founding members: the actors Lacy Ryan, Thomas Chapman, and Dennis Delane; the French-born dancers François Nivelon (fl. 1723–1738) and Charles Lalauze (d. 1775); the librettist William Huggins; and the singers Alexander Gordon and Thomas Salway. Another founder, Sir William Saunderson (d. in or before 1782), was one of Rich's shareholders who owned a copy of Hogarth's Beggar's Opera painting. Thornhill and Lambert worked for Rich as scene painters, and both were close to the leading carver John Boson (c.1696–1743), another founding Beefsteak. Associates of Rich who joined the club after 1735 included the musicians John George Cox (d. 1758; joined 1737) and William De Fesch (joined 1738); the actor John Hippisley (joined 1739); Rich's son-in-law James Morris (joined 1739); Charles Serjeant, publican of the Crown inn at Uxbridge, near Rich's country home (who joined in 1740); and the Covent Garden doorkeeper Alexander Crudge (d. 1759; joined 1744). Other possible members from this time (listed by Arnold) are the actor and playwright Theophilus Cibber (said to have joined in 1739) and the artists Francis Hayman and Thomas Hudson (1742 and 1750 respectively). Not surprisingly theatrical rituals and singing became a big part of the Beefsteaks' activities. The Beefsteaks met at the theatre in an upper room known as the Thunder and Lightning at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoons between November and June. The club presidency rotated at each meeting, the president paying for that day's beef. Songs, toasts, wagers, and frivolous rituals were enforced by the club's officers, who also wore fancy dress. For instance new members were introduced blindfolded, led by a member wearing a mitre who was known as the bishop; the novice swore an oath to the club and kissed the bone of beef that had been served that day.

In Covent Garden the early Beefsteaks were at the heart of the nation's creative life, at a time when cultural influences from continental Europe were dominant. Rich was a major employer of painters, singers, composers and musicians, dancers and actors: Nivelon was then London's highest paid dancer, while Hogarth was an eminent painter of the younger generation with a reputation for iconoclasm. However, the occasional identification of the Samuel Johnson who joined in 1780 with the lexicographer is incorrect; club records note that the Beefsteak Johnson lived in Gloucester Street, Queen's Square, while Dr Johnson was then resident at Bolt Court, off Fleet Street.

In their several artistic fields the founding Beefsteaks shared a desire to reform London's cultural market place. In 1735 Hogarth and Huggins were lobbying for a copyright act to prevent the piracy of engravings; Lacy Ryan was pushing to suppress a parliamentary bill that would limit the number of London theatres. Beefsteak members also drew on a tradition that, rejecting continental—and especially French—influences over English culture and manners, sought to assert the independence and value of indigenous art forms. The traditional English dish of roast beef was often used as a symbol of this cultural nationalism and Rich's club was not alone in adopting the name (indeed, it has sometimes been confused with a club led by the actor Richard Estcourt in the 1710s). The gridiron was a suitably robust icon to accompany the motto ‘Beef and liberty’ on club regalia.

Yet it is questionable whether the Beefsteak Club maintained a political identity beyond the founding generation. This was demonstrated soon after Rich's death in 1761 when members' conduct during the Wilkes controversy confirmed the club as a purely social gathering with no agenda for political action. In 1763 John Wilkes, a Beefsteak since 1754, became a massively popular figurehead for the defence of individual liberties against government infringements. If ever there were a cause to rouse the devotees of ‘Beef and liberty’ this was it; yet the club failed to take a stand. John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich, who was the minister responsible for prosecuting Wilkes, had joined the Beefsteaks in 1761—a connection with Wilkes that historians have overlooked. (Both had also been involved in Sir Francis Dashwood's disreputable country club, the Franciscans or Monks of Medmenham, though Wilkes was expelled before Sandwich became a member.) As Wilkes wrote from exile in Paris: ‘Beef and Liberty is the Motto of the Beef-Steak Club; of which Lord Sandwich and I have so long been Members, and where I have heard him and that agreeable Scots Peer, the Earl of Eglinton, join in a Catch’ (St James's Chronicle, 31 March 1764). The Wilkesite press mocked the club, asking: ‘what moral or political good is produced by giving premiums for the most obscene and impious catches, and what single good purpose [has] the Beef Steak … ever answered?’ (Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser, 11 Oct 1765). Sandwich became known popularly as ‘Jemmy Twitcher’, a character in The Beggar's Opera who betrays his friend Captain Macheath. A rival Beefsteak club opened at Appleby's tavern, Parliament Street, offering Wilkes public support.

John Rich's death marked a watershed in the history of the theatre and club alike. The Beefsteaks remained rooted in the theatre but, as the founding generation faded away during the 1760s, the club evolved in step with the growth and prosperity of Covent Garden. Receipts—which stood at about £17,000 per season in the 1740s—topped £100,000 in 1810–11. Rich's immediate successor at the theatre was his son-in-law, the tenor John Beard, an early club member. But when Beard retired in 1767 he and Rich's widow sold their interest for £60,000 to a consortium of businessmen, none of whom was a Beefsteak. Only one, the elder George Colman, was a theatre man, but a protracted row with his main partner, the soap manufacturer Thomas Harris, prevented the latter joining until 1771, after the dispute was resolved; another investor, the bookseller James Leake (1721–1794), joined in 1773. Other recruits from the 1760s included the politician Chase Price and the lawyers John Walton, Edward Bowman, and Theodosius Forrest, son of the founding Beefsteak, Ebenezer, and a former pupil of Lambert. The glamour of the theatre was also beginning to interest élite London society. Charles Howard, then earl of Surrey and later tenth duke of Norfolk, first became a Beefsteak in 1772 and rejoined seven years later; there he encountered the earl of Sandwich and Thomas Howard, third earl of Effingham (1747–1791; joined 1764, rejoined 1782), and later Murrough O'Brien, fifth earl of Inchiquin (1726–1808; joined 1777), and Francis North, first earl of Guilford (joined 1784). The trend was underscored in 1785 by the enrolment of George, prince of Wales [see George IV], and later by his brothers Frederick, duke of York and Albany (joined 1790), and Augustus Frederick, duke of Sussex, who became a Beefsteak in 1808.

With its nationally prominent members the club's activities began to attract the newspapers, which emphasized the Beefsteaks' levity, wit, and song. The dinner held in 1786 to celebrate the club's fiftieth anniversary was written up in detail, describing ‘the once celebrated comedian Mr. Beard … [who] shewed all the fire of youth on this occasion’ (Morning Herald, 1 March 1786). It is unclear to what extent earlier traditions survived into the late eighteenth century, but the Beefsteak Club that was celebrated in nineteenth-century histories was to a large degree a construct of this post-Rich era. Theodosius Forrest's ‘Song of the Day’ replaced the traditional ‘Roast Beef of Old England’ as the club's regular hymn, and most of the Beefsteaks' songs, composed for special occasions by club laureates, the whig man-about-town Charles Morris and the anti-whig actor William Hewerdine (1763–1799), were published in the decades around 1800. In 1797 the Beefsteaks adopted a uniform, comprising a blue coat with a small gridiron engraved on a yellow button. The prefix Sublime was probably also attached at this time, as it does not appear in eighteenth-century records. The fire that gutted the Covent Garden theatre in 1808, which killed twenty-two people, also destroyed the Beefsteak Club room, its contents, and early history, though the iconic gridiron was found among the ruins. Thereafter the club had several temporary homes until 1838, including the old Lyceum Theatre from 1809 until that building's destruction by fire in 1830, on which occasion the gridiron was again saved. In the wake of this second disaster members met at the Bedford Coffee House before moving into the new Lyceum on its opening in 1838. Nevertheless, with its songs and rituals seeming increasingly out of kilter with mid-Victorian society, the Beefsteak Club fell into decline and in 1869 it was wound up, with its property auctioned at Christies. Subsequently several clubs have named themselves after the Beefsteaks, aiming more to reclaim its post-Rich reputation for high society wit and conviviality than the founders' patriotic agenda for the creative professions.

Richard Stephens


BL, Add. MS 30891 · St James's Chronicle (31 March 1764) · Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser (11 Oct 1765) · The Oracle (17 Nov 1797) · J. Nichols, Biographical anecdotes of William Hogarth, and a catalogue of his works chronologically arranged with occasional remarks (1781) · Morning Herald (1 March 1786) · Morning Chronicle (7 Nov 1808) · E. Edwards, Anecdotes of painters (1808) · The Times (8 April 1869) · J. Nichols and G. Steevens, The genuine works of William Hogarth (1817) · E. Forrest, An account of what seem'd most remarkable in the five days peregrination of the five following persons, viz. Messieurs Tothall, Scott, Hogarth, Thornhill and Forrest (1782) · C. Marsh, The clubs of London (1828) · W. Arnold, The life and death of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks (1871) · J. Thorp, ‘Pierrot strikes back: François Nivelon at Lincoln's Inn Fields and Covent Garden, 1723–1738’, conference paper, ora.ouls.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:245a912c-2aee-4639-830a-926a85c699cf, accessed on 26 Aug 2010 · C. Chapman, ‘“Sir, it will not do!” John Rich and Covent Garden's early years’, The Musical Times, 123/1678 (Dec 1982), 831–5 · H. Hoock, ‘From Beefsteak to Turtle: artists' dinner culture in eighteenth-century London’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 66/1/2 (2003), 566–91 · C. J. Horne, ‘Notes on Steele and the Beef-Steak Club’, Review of English Studies, 21/83 (July 1945), 239–44 · F. H. W. Sheppard, ed., The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Survey of London, 35 (1970) · R. Paulson, Hogarth, 3 vols. (1991–3) · Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA · B. Rogers, Beef and liberty: roast beef, John Bull and the English nation (2003) · I. Roscoe, E. Hardy, and M. G. Sullivan, A biographical dictionary of sculptors in Britain, 1660–1851 (2009) · P. Clark, British clubs and societies, 1580–1800: the origins of an associational world (2000)