I‘ve just read THE FIRST 90 YEARS, A HISTORY OF THE PEN AND PALETTE CLUB by the late Alistair Sinton, one of our most distinguished members. I learned a lot from it and I thought newcomers, particularly the ladies and any guests might be interested in a brief summary of our past.
In late 1899 a group of friends (all male) connected professionally with the Arts, Science, Literature and Journalism come together to form a club. Their manifesto was this:
“men of various callings but kindred tastes , they wish to make a sheltered place where they could meet and enjoy each other’s company, encourage each other if need be, and by chance, and when occasion offered, do some work for the world.”
Their first meeting was in an artist’s studio at 22 Blackett Street on January 11th 1900. They decided there would be no business or politics discussed; they would call each other ”brother’, and they would be a forum for the literary and artistic talent of the north of England. Aaron Watson, a newspaper editor, was made the first President.
Next they rented premises at 15 Market Street for £34 p.a., but being blokes they needed some good hearty grub and access to a bar to make discussions flow. Their first dinner was at the County Hotel in Pilgrim Street on 3rd March 1900 and others followed in various restaurants round town until they formed a syndicate to buy number 7 Higham Place just behind the Laing Gallery. The club was formally opened there by the Lord Mayor on 21st October 1908. The syndicate persisted until 1931 when two Fenwick brothers, who were club members, bought the house then leased it back at a generous rent of £65 p.a.
7 Higham Place is a four storeys high town house built by Richard Grainger in 1820. They ran it as a kind of imitation of a London gentleman’s club – they had, and we still do in theory, have connections to the Savage Club in Whitehall. It had a dining room, a club room, a billiard room, kitchens and a top floor flat for the cook-housekeeper. She provided a daily lunch as well as evening meals and the more formal Dinners. The professional men working round the town popped in for a sherry or two, then lunch of steak and kidney pie followed by roly-poly pudding or rice pudding. Whisky was 6 pence a glass and beer 3 pence per bottle. They sat at a round table (we still have it) then retired to sleep it off in the club room armchairs, or had a hand of bridge, read The Telegraph (there were complaints about the state some members left it in) or played billiards or snooker. In 1910 the committee had to put up a notice “intimating to members that they should not get on the table.”
There were frequent day outings to paint which much later grew into weekends away (with wives and non-painters) and these were still going when I joined in 2001 and for several years after. They were in Holiday Fellowship hotels in the Lakes, Yorkshire, Northumberland and so on - great fun and I wish we could revive them. In the 1920s the club sponsored fancy dress Arts Balls in the Old Assembly Rooms which” were advantageous to the interests of art, dancing and Bohemianism.”
The main activity however, then as now, was the dinner with a visiting speaker. These were held on Saturdays. Each speaker signed his name on our visitors’ boards - in the first 90 years none of them were paid and only three of them were women. Here are a few: Earl Grey, Lord Armstrong, Henry Irving, Ernest Shackleton, G K Chesterton, Malcolm Sargeant, John Barbirolli, Compton Mackenzie, Michael Redgrave, Yehudi Menhuin. Peter Scott, Owen Brannigan, Willie Whitelaw and numerous other Mayors, marquises, Honourables, Revs and bishops. Any famous man visiting the city was invited.
At dinners a grace was said, the Loyal toast was sung from the start (though I suspect it is older in origin than the club), but the Open Toast only began in 1938 with a talk on eating bolony sausage in Bologna (this masterpiece is lost). The origins of the Tuppeny End are also lost in the mists of time, though their position “below the salt” is obviously a reference to medieval dining custom where those of very low status were seated out of reach of the valuable commodity of salt. There are two Victorian pennies embedded in their gavel block but I don’t know why. They were supposed to be a source of banter, sniping at the President and other members with irreverent questions, though this role has mellowed over the last decade. Perhaps it’s a male thing. Anyway, if anyone can help explain the 2d End we would all be grateful.
All the club’s activities were published in the twice yearly Papers by The Recorder in Ordinary (currently Pat Cooper), an archive interrupted only by the two world wars. We also began to acquire other possessions: silverware, a library, furniture (including Thomas Bewick’s armchair) and pictures donated by the club’s own artists – some of them of museum standard. These are in our office upstairs in the Mansion House.
By 1980 it was becoming difficult to find suitable housekeepers . Several were fiddling the books and there were frequent sackings recorded in the Minutes. It was decided to let a professional restaurateur use the ground floor provided they also catered for our monthly dinner meetings. This proved to be only intermittently satisfactory so, with dry rot, roofing problems, a single dodgy lavatory and stairs so steep some ageing members couldn’t tackle them it was decided in 2011 to sell 7 Higham Place. After a spell at Gosforth Golf Club we ended here. With the sale came a healthy bank balance and we are now able “when occasion offered do some work for the world” by giving grants totalling up to £5000 to local arts, theatre and music groups.
The club has had its crises in terms of finances and recruiting members, particularly younger ones, but it has staggered though. It thought of itself as rather exclusive and had a blackball system to exclude undesirable applicants – in 1962 some poor chap received three blacks. We still have the box. By 1947 the fees had reached 3 guineas to join and 3 and a half guineas annual fee, and they have risen ever since, though now we are able to subsidise the meals, membership fees and to pay our speakers and musicians (though any club member giving a talk is not paid).
The biggest boost of all has been the admission of ladies in January 2016 , an event stoutly resisted for over a century. Even in 1970 the committee unanimously rejected a suggestion that ladies be admitted on special evenings during the week. By 1972 they had weakened enough to admit them on Thurdays only, after 4.30. Later came Ladies’ Night Dinners, but a request in 1986 by the wives to show their paintings in the club was firmly booted out. Resistance crumbled steadily until here we are 119 years after our foundation, still with our original manifesto , but now it begins: “Men and women of various callings but kindred spirits etc.
Malcolm Yorke, President.