Mutton pies all round! At the National Portrait Gallery you can see a series of ‘Kit-cat’ portraits of 48 leading Whig politicians and men of letters – all members of the ‘Kit-cat’ Club. The Kit-cat club was a dining club for leading Whig politicians and cultured types. They were essentially pro-big business and trade and anti-monarchy. The 48 portraits show them in their collective identify as members of the club – some even wear night-caps, striving for a ‘gentleman at home’ look! They were a witty, boozy and probably somewhat arrogant bunch – but now seen as a force for cultural development during the period. Why Kit-cat? These were the mutton pies produced by a favoured inn keeper, where the club would meet, called Mr Christopher Catt.
These were all painted by the famed portrait painter Sir Godfrey Kneller. Sir Godfrey Kneller was a German national and the leading court painter of his day. (He followed in the tradition of other foreign court painters like Sir Peter Lely, Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens). Sir Godfrey Kneller was created a baronet by King George I on 24 May 1715.
One particular member is of a rather young and cool looking Robert Walpole, an oil canvas painted in 1715.
Robert Walpole was born into a wealthy landowning family. In 1701 he became a member of parliament. He rose to become treasurer of the navy in 1709. In 1714, George I came to the throne. It was still the tradition at this time that the monarch would attend the government cabinet meetings. It was in 1721 that George I attended his last cabinet meeting. Going forward and to mind the affairs of the King he appointed a minister – the so called Prime Minister today. Robert Walpole was the first PM of Great Britain. Walpole pursued a policy of peace abroad, low taxation and reducing the national debt – aspirations of many political leaders today! In 1735, George II gifted Walpole 10 Downing Street – who in turn gifted it to future Prime Ministers.
Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the Whigs were advocates of free trade for the American colonies. He believed that ‘if no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish’. This meant not enforcing laws designed to force trade only with England, Scotland, and Wales. Sadly, successive British governments ended this non-enforcement policy through the introduction of the Stamp Act and Sugar Act – and we know the tensions that caused in 1775.
The republican writings of the radical Whig’s were widely read by the American colonists. Early activists in the colonies even called themselves Whigs – and then ‘Patriots’ during the American Revolution.