Skip to main content

O'Neill Library

exhibit highlights

This exhibit was occasioned by the Boston College Theatre Department's November 2010 production of Oliver Goldsmith's enduring comedy She Stoops To Conquer.

Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and "The Club"

O'Neill Library Lobby - November 2010

In 1764, the English painter Joshua Reynolds and the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson formed what became the most famous intellectual fraternity of the day. They called it the Literary Club or simply "The Club."

In its early years, members of The Club met every Monday for drink, dinner, and "mental intercourse" at the Turk's Head Tavern on Gerrard Street in London's Soho district. Although there was no official president, Johnson was the central authority of The Club. As Charles Burney wrote in 1791, "It was Johnson's wish that our Club should be composed of the heads of every liberal and literary profession, that we might not talk nonsense on any subject that might be started, but have somebody to refer to in our doubts and discussions, by whose Science we might be enlightened.”

Many of The Club's initial members, including the playwright Oliver Goldsmith, were invited to join simply because they were Johnson's friends. Later, as membership expanded, admission was by unanimous vote. Only those eminent in their fields -- be it literature, theatre, medicine, or the law -- were welcome. A single black ball in the ballot box was enough to exclude a candidate.

Over time, The Club met at different venues in central London. The character of the group was already changing when Samuel Johnson died in 1784. Politicians and Members of Parliament soon outnumbered men of letters. But its motto -- "Esto Perpetua," Latin for "Let it be perpetual" -- proved prophetic. The Club lasted well into the 20th century.

About the Image:

The image presented above is an engraving by D. George Thompson titled "A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds's," after an oil painting by James William Edmund Doyle. It was first printed by Owen Bailey in 1851, more than a half century after these men actually gathered.

Joshua Reynolds was famous in his day for what his biographer called "frequent, impromptu and unceremonious dinner-parties, where a dozen or a score were invited to a table prepared for half the number." Thompson's engraving includes many members of "The Club," including its leader Samuel Johnson with pride of place at the head of the table, host Reynolds at his left (holding an ear trumpet), and Goldsmith at the far right.

This exhibit was curated by Christina Lepri '10, now an intern at Actors Theatre of Louisville; Adeane Bregman, Bapst Art Librarian; and Scott T. Cummings, Chair of the Theatre Department. It was designed by Michael Saldarriaga and Michael Swanson of Media Technology Services, with help from Frances Bates, O'Neill Library. The Thompson image is taken from a print in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum and is used by permission.

Learn more:

Read about "The Club" from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Read about Sir Joshua Reynolds from Grove Art Online

Read about Samuel Johnson from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

See images from Artstor

Find books about the play

Watch "She stoops to Conquer", a co-production of the Out of Joint and National Theatre Companies of Great Britain 2003, from the Theatre in Video collection.

View the 1773 printed copy of She Stoops to Conquer: or, The Mistakes of a Night. A comedy. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Covent-Garden written by Doctor Goldsmith from the Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

For further research see the Guide for Literary Research.