Guest Journal / History / Journal

Francis Dashwood, Portraiture, and the Origins of the Hellfire Club

Jason Kelly.

Francis Dashwood, Portraiture, and the Origins of the Hellfire Club

The Monks of Medmenham Abbey, more popularly known as the Hellfire Club, were one of thousands of associational groups that formed in Britain and Ireland during the eighteenth century. During the 1750s and early 1760s, they met at the estate of Sir Francis Dashwood, a baronet whose family derived their wealth from trading silks in the Levant. Dashwood took numerous grand tours in the 1720s and 1730s, travelling to France and Italy, but also to Russia and the Ottoman Empire. He was well known for his interest in architecture and politics, as well as women and wine. And, like many of his fellow Britons, he had a particular fondness for masquerade, which found itself expressed through a penchant for dressing up as priests, monks, and popes.

Definitive proof of the group’s existence is not available until the 1750s. However, a variety of circumstantial evidence points to the origins of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey in the Grand Tour world of the 1730s and 40s. On his Grand Tour in 1740, Dashwood was signing letters to his friends as ‘St. Francis,’ and in a letter to Lord Boyne, he noted that he longed ‘to make a party of Monks with you into the Country, remember that I am a Franciscan.’ [1]  He had travelled with Boyne on a tour to Italy in 1730-31, and it is possible that this was a reference to their earlier revelries on the continent. [2] But, in any case, it suggests that Dashwood was already holding parties where he dressed up as a friar as early as the 1730s.  His letter to Boyne further indicated that he had composed a dozen songs for Lord Middlesex – perhaps the same songs that he performed a few weeks later in a mock conclave upon the death of Pope Clement XII. Written from Rome, this note to Boyne may be the first evidence of Dashwood’s interest in creating a group in which members masqueraded as clergymen.

In 1740, Charles de Brosses reported that Dashwood and William Matthias Stafford-Howard, 3rd Earl of Stafford – ‘mauvais catholiques’ as he called them – caused a ‘vrai scandalum magnatum’ by holding the mock conclave and impersonating Cardinal Ottoboni. [3] From ‘[c]e damné Huguenot’ came a ‘repertoire de chansons libertines contre la papauté.’  [4] A portrait – probably from the late 1730s or early 1740s – portrays Dashwood as a somber Franciscan friar. This is the first recorded evidence of him portraying himself as a member of the Roman Catholic church. In it, his left hand rests on a Bible next to a momento mori.

In 1742, Dashwood commissioned George Knapton to paint him as a Franciscan. It was one of over twenty portraits that Knapton completed for the Society of Dilettanti, which required its members to present Kit-Kat style paintings of themselves to the organization. [5] In a reference to his grand tour alter ego, Dashwood plays the role of SAN: FRANCESCO DI WYCOMBO.  In his hands, he holds a goblet on which is inscribed the words MATRI SANCTORU[M] – ‘the mother of the saints.’ The phrase had a double-entendre, referring, in part, to the metaphysical status of the Roman Catholic Church as mother of all Christians.  On the other hand, the wine and the Venus de Medici reminded the viewer of the corporal world – of the senses, of desire and lust.  It was the sexualized body of women that actually produced saints. To encourage this reading, Knapton removed the hand of the Venus revealing ‘the hallow’d gloom of maidenhead thicket’ as John Wilkes would later describe it. [6] But, removing the hand of the Venus provided the viewer with another reading as well.  At the time, there was much debate about the quality of craftsmanship on the statue’s extremities. Jonathan Richardson declaimed the fingers as ‘excessively long’ with poor detail. [7] Removing the hand suggested that Dashwood had come to a similar conclusion, deciding that it was an inferior restoration. So, in addition to portraying himself as a libertine, Dashwood evoked his taste and knowledge of classical statuary.

By 1745, evidence suggests that Dashwood may have been organizing a club at West Wycombe. George Bubb Dodington wrote to Dashwood about a small group that met at Dashwood’s residence, ‘I must confess, I never met with more Improvement, as well as Entertainment, in so small a Company; & do verily believe, there are as many Sallies of true Witt, & Humour in Them, as most of the Societies in Town, which most pretend to Both can boast of.’ [8]

In the early 1750s, Dashwood once again commissioned a painter to represent him as a member of the clergy. Adrien Carpentiers showed Dashwood dressed as Pope Innocent III.  He performs the act of transubstantiation next to a herm topped with the visage of his wife Sarah Ellys, described by Walpole as ‘a poor forlorn Presbyterian prude.’ [9] Her relationship with her rakish husband was no doubt strained. Two months before their wedding in 1745, Dashwood was writing to friends bragging that he was ‘employing 20 of the 24 hours wither upon [his] Belly, or from thence, like a Publick Reservoir, administering to those of other People, by laying [his] Cock in every private Family that has any Place fitt to receive it.’ [10]

The first certain evidence of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey meeting comes from a letter from Richard Grenville, Earl Temple to Dashwood from October 1754. He refers to three other members of a club – a ‘wicked company’ of John Wilkes, Paul Whitehead, and Sir George Lyttelton – who celebrated a ‘Love feast’ and sat together at a ‘table of the Saints.’ While the references are obscure, later documentation reveals that these were all members of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey and that the religious symbolism was used widely in their private writings and letters to each other. Earl Temple wrote to Dashwood,

It is very gracious and kind in the pious Aeneas, after his conversion, after the Love feast, to keep up that of friendship with one, who has so slender a claim to be admitted to the table of the Saints; but I am sorry to hear you are exalted to so high a story of faith and godliness, because great may be the fall thereof, and this Scotch taste of architecture is so contrary to the fashionable style of building in this country, that I fear it will never prevail, and that you will return to your humbler roof of mortality and every social virtue, with as much ardor, as if you had never deviated into the higher regions of cherubim and seraphim, or the conversion of [John] Wilkes, compared with that of St. Paul [Whitehead]; however, if I should live to see you in the bosom of our father Sir George [Lyttelton], I shall only now and then drink to the pious memory of the delightful moments I have passed in your wicked company, and begin to attach myself to all the interested pursuits of this world, as the sure road to a better. [11]

In 1757, Dashwood commissioned William Hogarth to mimic Knapton’s painting in yet another portrait as a member of the Roman Catholic clergy. Sir Francis Dashwood at His Devotions, modelled on Agostino Carracci’s St. Francis Adoring the Cross portrays him leering at a naked, prostrate woman. An open book, referring to the poems of Ovid, and a masquerade mask lie nearby as a tray of fruits and wine tumbles to the floor, referring the viewer to the excess of Carnival and the attendant rites of Bacchus and Venus. The nimbus over his head is the profile of his friend and fellow Medemenham Monk John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.

These early visual depictions and writings point to a decades-long development of the group.  The association seems to have emerged from the male libertine sociability of the Grand Tour and the rage for masquerade that was such a feature of elite social life in the early eighteenth century. ■

This article originally featured on Jason Kelly’s blog Secrets of the Hellfire Club.

Jason M. Kelly is the author of The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment. He is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. For more information on his current research projects,  visit his website.


[1] Dashwood to Boyne, 30 January 1740 NS, West Wycombe Archives, copy from an unidentified auction catalog in the West Wycombe Archives.

[2] Brinsley Ford and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy, 1701-1800 / Ingamells, John. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1997), 278.

[3] Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’Italie du Président de Brosses, vol. 2 (Paris, 1986), 445.

[4] Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’Italie du Président de Brosses, vol. 2 (Paris, 1986), 445.

[5] Jason M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009), 37–56.

[6] Reprinted in A Select Collection of the Most Interesting Letters on the Government, Liberty, and Constitution of England, vol. 2 (London, 1763), p. 37.  This was an extension of Public Advertiser, 2 June 1763.

[7] Jonathan Richardson, An Account of Some of the Statues, Bas-reliefs, Drawings and Pictures in Italy (London, 1722), 55.

[8] George Bubb Dodington to Dashwood, 5 October 1745, Bodleain MS D.D. Dashwood (Bucks) C.5 B11/1/5, 1r.

[9] Walpole, Corr., 19.224

[10] George Bubb Dodington to Francis Dashwood, 5 October 1745, Bodleain MS D.D. Dashwood (Bucks) C.5 B11/1/5.  The marriage took place on 11 December 1757 according to Joseph L. Chester and George J. Armytage, Allegations for Marriage Licences Issued by the Bishop of London, 1520 to 1828, Harleian Society, vol. 26 (London, 1887), p. 345.

[11] Earl Temple to John Wilkes, 12 October 1754, The Grenville Papers: Being the Correspondence of Richard Grenville Earl Temple, K.G., and the Right Hon: George Grenville, vol. 1, ed. William James Smith (London: 1852), 125-7.


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