These days the title “Queen of the Blues” bring to mind the great jazz singer Bessie Smith, but in 18th century London there was only one candidate for it – Elizabeth Montagu of Montagu House, Portman Square, Bloomsbury.
Montagu was dubbed “Queen of the Blues” by none other than Samuel Johnson. He was one of the male attendees of the Blue Stocking Club of mainly gentrified women, of which Elizabeth and her seriously rich friend Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, were prominent members. Other men who attended her parties included Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke and Horace Walpole.
In those days, the term “blue stocking” did not have today’s dismissive meaning and, curiously, was not inspired by a woman but applied to a man who wore blue worsted stockings, usually associated with the peasantry, to a meeting rather than fashionable white silk ones.
The club began in the 1750s as a meeting place for gentry with time on their hands to talk about literature and engage in other intellectual activities. Although it was undoubtedly posh and exclusive, it also did its social bit. Members of the club were associated with the development of the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children, set up by the great Thomas Coram.
Mrs Montagu herself would hold regular meetings for chimney sweeps every May Day in her palatial London house and was, by all accounts, also popular with colliers in the north of England, despite the riches that her family had extracted from their extensive ownership of coal mines.
In the late 1760s she achieved literary fame in her own right when she published – initially anonymously – an “Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare” which successfully attacked Voltaire’s dismissal of Shakespeare’s importance. In 1776 she attended one of Voltaire’s attacks on Shakespeare at the French Academy in Paris, where her essay had been well received. This helped fan Elizabeth’s reputation as “the first woman for literary knowledge in England”. Following her husband’s death in 1775, Montagu proved herself to have a formidable business talent in managing the fortune and large estates which were left in her control.
Meanwhile, her good friend Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, perhaps the richest woman in Britain, was steadily building up an amazing collection of artefacts of natural history and fine arts, which were housed in her Portland Museum in Whitehall. After Cavendish died, the contents were sold at her request. In 1786, an auction in 4,000 lots took place in the private garden of her house in Whitehall. It lasted from 24 April until 5 June.
In the words of the catalogue, it had been her intention “to have had every unknown species in the three kingdoms of nature described and published to the world”. Other items included artefacts from Captain Cook’s voyages and eighteen portraits by Rubens and Vandyke, not to mention the historic Portland Vase, which merits having a book written about it.
IMPORTANT NEWS. Vic Keegan has gathered many of his Lost London pieces into a very handsome hardback book called…Vic Keegan’s Lost London. You are urged to purchase it immediately.
OnLondon.co.uk provides in-depth coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources, plus special offers and free access to events. Click here to donate directly or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for bank account details.