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


The Athenaeum presents a good illustration of the present Club system, of which it was one of the earliest instances. By reference to the accounts of the Clubs existing about the commencement of the present century, it will be seen how greatly they differed, both in constitution and purpose, from the modern large subscription-houses, called Clubs; and which are to be compared with their predecessors only in so far as every member must be balloted for, or be chosen by the consent of the rest. Prior to 1824, there was only one institution in the metropolis particularly devoted to the association of Authors, Literary Men, Members of Parliament, and promoters generally of the Fine Arts. All other establishments were more or less exclusive, comprising gentlemen who screened themselves in the windows of White's, or Members for Counties who darkened the doors of Brookes's; or they were dedicated to the Guards, or "men of wit and pleasure about town." It is true that the Royal Society had its convivial meetings, as we have already narrated; and small Clubs of members of other learned Societies, were held; but with these exceptions, there were no Clubs where individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments, artists of eminence in any class of the Fine Arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as patrons of science, literature, and the arts, could unite in friendly and encouraging intercourse; and professional men were compelled either to meet at taverns, or to be confined exclusively to the Society of their particular professions.

To remedy this, on the 17th of February, 1824, a preliminary meeting,—comprising Sir Humphry Davy, the Right Hon. John Wilson Croker, Sir Francis Chantrey, Richard Heber, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Dr. Thomas Young, Lord Dover, Davie Gilbert, the Earl of Aberdeen, Sir Henry Halford, Sir Walter Scott, Joseph Jekyll, Thomas Moore, and Charles Hatchett,—was held in the apartments of the Royal Society, at Somerset House; at this meeting Professor Faraday assisted as secretary, and it was agreed to institute a Club to be called "The Society," subsequently altered to "The Athenaeum." "The Society" first met in the Clarence Club-house; but, in 1830, the present mansion, designed by Decimus Burton, was opened to the members.

The Athenaeum Club-house is built upon a portion of the court-yard of Carlton House. The architecture is Grecian, with a frieze exactly copied from the Panathenaic procession in the frieze of the Parthenon,—the flower and beauty of Athenian youth, gracefully seated on the most exquisitely sculptured horses, which Flaxman regarded as the most precious example of Grecian power in the sculpture of animals. Over the Roman Doric entrance-portico is a colossal figure of Minerva, by Baily, R.A.; and the interior has some fine casts of chefs-d'œuvre of sculpture. Here the architecture is grand, massive, and severe. The noble Hall, 35 feet broad by 57 feet long, is divided by scagliola columns and pilasters, the capitals copied from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. This is the Exchange, or Lounge, where the members meet. The floor is the Marmorato Veneziano mosaic. Over each of the two fire-places, in a niche, is a statue—the Diana Robing and the Venus Victrix, selected by Sir Thomas Lawrence—a very fine contrivance for sculptural display. The Library is the best Club Library in London: it comprises the most rare and valuable works, and a very considerable sum is annually expended upon the collection, under the guidance of members most eminent in literature and science. Above the mantelpiece is a portrait of George IV., painted by Lawrence, upon which he was engaged but a few hours previous to his decease; the last bit of colour this celebrated artist ever put upon canvas being that of the hilt and sword-knot of the girdle; thus it remains unfinished. The bookcases of the drawing-rooms are crowned with busts of British worthies. Among the Club gossip it is told that a member who held the Library faith of the promise of the Fathers, and was anxious to consult their good works, one day asked, in a somewhat familiar tone of acquaintance with these respectable theologians, "Is Justin Martyr here?"—"I do not know," was the reply; "I will refer to the list, but I do not think that gentleman is one of our members."

Mr. Walker, in his very pleasant work, The Original, was one of the first to show how by the then new system of Clubs the facilities of living were wonderfully increased, whilst the expense was greatly diminished. For a few pounds a year, advantages are to be enjoyed which no fortunes, except the most ample, can procure. The only Club (he continues) I belong to is the Athenaeum, which consists of twelve hundred members, amongst whom are to be reckoned a large proportion of the most eminent persons in the land, in every line,—civil, military, and ecclesiastical,—peers spiritual and temporal (ninety-five noblemen and twelve bishops), commoners, men of the learned professions, those connected with science, the arts, and commerce, in all its principal branches, as well as the distinguished who do not belong to any particular class. Many of these are to be met with every day, living with the same freedom as in their own houses, for 25 guineas entrance, and 6 guineas a year. Every member has the command of an excellent library, with maps; of newspapers, English and foreign; the principal periodicals; writing materials, and attendance. The building is a sort of palace, and is kept with the same exactness and comfort as a private dwelling. Every member is master, without any of the trouble of a master: he can come when he pleases, and stay away when he pleases, without anything going wrong; he has the command of regular servants, without having to pay or manage them; he can have whatever meal or refreshment he wants, at all hours, and served up as in his own house. He orders just what he pleases, having no interest to think of but his own. In short, it is impossible to suppose a greater degree of liberty in living.

"Clubs, as far as my observation goes, are favourable to economy of time. There is a fixed place to go to, everything is served with comparative expedition, and it is not customary in general to remain long at table. They are favourable to temperance. It seems that when people can freely please themselves, and when they have an opportunity of living simply, excess is seldom committed. From an account I have of the expenses at the Athenaeum in the year 1832, it appears that 17,323 dinners cost, on an average, 2s.d. each, and that the average quantity of wine for each person was a small fraction more than half-a-pint.

"The expense of building the Club-house was 35,000l., and 5,000l. for furnishing; the plate, linen, and glass cost 2,500l.; library, 4,000l., and the stock of wine in cellar is usually worth about 4000l.: yearly revenue about 9000l."

The economical management of the Club has not, however, been effected without a few sallies of humour. In 1834, we read: "The mixture of Whigs, Radicals, savants, foreigners, dandies, authors, soldiers, sailors, lawyers, artists, doctors, and Members of both Houses of Parliament, together with an exceedingly good average supply of bishops, render the mélange very agreeable, despite of some two or three bores, who 'continually do dine;' and who, not satisfied with getting a 6s. dinner for 3s. 6d., 'continually do complain.'"

Mr. Rogers, the poet, was one of the earliest members of the Athenaeum, and innumerable are the good things, though often barbed with bitterness, which are recorded of him.

Some years ago, judges, bishops, and peers used to congregate at the Athenaeum; but a club of twelve hundred members cannot be select. "Warned by the necessity of keeping up their number and their funds, they foolishly set abroad a report that the finest thing in the world was to belong to the Athenaeum; and that an opportunity offered for hobnobbing with archbishops, and hearing Theodore Hook's jokes. Consequently all the little crawlers and parasites, and gentility-hunters, from all corners of London, set out upon the creep; and they crept in at the windows and they crept down the area steps, and they crept in unseen at the doors, and they crept in under bishops' sleeves, and they crept in in peers' pockets, and they were blown in by the winds of chance. The consequence has been, that ninety-nine hundredths of this Club are people who rather seek to obtain a sort of standing by belonging to the Athenaeum, than to give it lustre by the talent of its members. Nine-tenths of the intellectual writers of the age would be certainly black-balled by the dunces. Notwithstanding all this, and partly on account of this, the Athenaeum is a capital Club: the library is certainly the best Club library in London, and is a great advantage to a man who writes."[22]

Theodore Hook was one of the most clubbable men of his time. After a late breakfast, he would force and strain himself at large arrears of literary toil, and then drive rapidly from Fulham to town, and pay a visit "first to one Club, where, the centre of an admiring circle, his intellectual faculties were again upon the stretch, and again aroused and sustained by artificial means: the same thing repeated at a second—the same drain and the same supply—ballot or general meeting at a third, the chair taken by Mr. Hook, who addresses the members, produces the accounts, audits and passes them—gives a succinct statement of the prospects and finances of the Society—parries an awkward question—extinguishes a grumbler—confounds an opponent—proposes a vote of thanks to himself, seconds, carries it,—and returns thanks, with a vivacious rapidity that entirely confounds the unorganized schemes of the minority—then a chop in the committee-room, and just one tumbler of brandy-and-water, or two, and we fear the catalogue would not always close there."

At the Athenaeum, Hook was a great card; and in a note to the sketch of him in the Quarterly Review, it is stated that the number of dinners at this Club fell off by upwards of three hundred per annum after Hook disappeared from his favourite corner, near the door of the coffee-room. That is to say, there must have been some dozens of gentlemen who chose to dine there once or twice every week of the season, merely for the chance of Hook's being there, and permitting them to draw their chairs to his little table in the course of the evening. Of the extent to which he suffered from this sort of invasion, there are several bitter oblique complaints in his novels. The corner alluded to will, we suppose, long retain the name which it derived from him—Temperance Corner. Many grave and dignified personages being frequent guests, it would hardly have been seemly to be calling for repeated supplies of a certain description; but the waiters well understood what the oracle of the corner meant by "Another glass of toast and water," or, "A little more lemonade."

[22] New Quarterly Review.

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