Francis Dashwood, Portraiture, And The Origins Of The Hellfire Club

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The Monks of Medmenham Abbey, or the Hellfire Club, were part of numerous 18th-century groups in Britain and Ireland. They gathered at Sir Francis Dashwood’s estate during the 1750s and early 1760s.

Dashwood, a wealthy baronet, earned family wealth through silk trading in the Levant.

Francis DashwoodHe had a well-known passion for architecture, politics, women, and wine, having traveled extensively in the 1720s and 1730s to France, Italy, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire.

Like many Britons, he enjoyed masquerades, often dressing as a priest, monk, and pope.
Definitive evidence of the group’s existence emerges in the 1750s. Circumstantial clues link the Monks of Medmenham Abbey to the 1730s and 40s Grand Tour world.

During his 1740 Grand Tour, Dashwood signed letters as ‘St. Francis.’ He desired to form a party of monks with Lord Boyne, with whom he had toured Italy in 1730-31. Dashwood’s reference suggests earlier revelries.

His letter to Boyne reveals that Dashwood hosted friar-themed parties in the 1730s. Additionally, Dashwood composed songs for Lord Middlesex, possibly performed in a mock conclave upon Pope Clement XII’s death.

This marks the early signs of his interest in forming a group where members masqueraded as clergymen.

Francis Dashwood and Stafford’s Eccentric Impersonation (1740)

In 1740, Charles de Brosses reported Dashwood and William Matthias Stafford-Howard, 3rd Earl of Stafford, as ‘mauvais catholiques.’ They caused a ‘vrai scandalum magnatum’ by impersonating Cardinal Ottoboni.

The ‘damné Huguenot’ contributed to a ‘repertoire de chansons libertines contre la papauté.’ A portrait from the late 1730s or early 1740s depicts Dashwood as a serious Franciscan friar, the first recorded instance of him portraying a Roman Catholic church member.

In the portrait, his left hand rests on a Bible next to a momento mori.

In 1742, Dashwood commissioned George Knapton to paint him as a Franciscan, one of over twenty portraits for the Society of Dilettanti. Members presented Kit-Kat style paintings of themselves.

Playing SAN: FRANCESCO DI WYCOMBO, Dashwood holds a goblet inscribed with MATRI SANCTORU[M] – ‘the mother of the saints.’ This phrase has a double-entendre, referencing the Roman Catholic Church’s metaphysical status and the corporal world of senses, desire, and lust.

Knapton removed the Venus de Medici’s hand, revealing ‘the hallow’d gloom of maidenhead thicket,’ emphasizing the sexualized body producing saints.

This removal also suggests Dashwood’s critique of the statue’s craftsmanship, aligning with contemporary debates. Beyond portraying a libertine, Dashwood showcases his taste and knowledge of classical statuary.

Francis Dashwood Club A Glimpse in 1745

By 1745, evidence hints at Dashwood possibly organizing a club at West Wycombe. George Bubb Dodington wrote about a small group gathering at his residence to Dashwood.
Dodington acknowledged significant improvement and entertainment, believing in the group’s wit and humor surpassing many town societies.
In the early 1750s, Dashwood had Adrien Carpentier paint him as Pope Innocent III. Performing transubstantiation, he stood next to a herm bearing his wife Sarah Ellys’ visage. Walpole called her a ‘poor forlorn Presbyterian prude.’

Dashwood’s relationship with Sarah was likely strained. Two months before their 1745 wedding, he bragged about his amorous exploits, stating he spent most of his time either on his belly or administering to others.

The first evidence of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey meeting dates to October 1754. Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, wrote to Dashwood about three club members – John Wilkes, Paul Whitehead, and Sir George Lyttelton – celebrating a ‘Love feast’ and sitting at a ‘table of the Saints.’

Later documentation confirmed their membership and the use of religious symbolism in their private writings. Earl Temple suggested further activities within the club.

Dashwood’s Papal Portrait (Early 1750s)

carpentier dashwood wycombe
In the early 1750s, Dashwood had Adrien Carpentiers paint him as Pope Innocent III. Performing transubstantiation, he stood next to a herm bearing his wife Sarah Ellys’ visage. Walpole called her a ‘poor forlorn Presbyterian prude.’

Dashwood’s relationship with Sarah was likely strained. Two months before their 1745 wedding, he bragged about his amorous exploits, stating he spent most of his time either on his belly or administering to others.

The first evidence of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey meeting dates to October 1754. Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, wrote to Dashwood about three club members – John Wilkes, Paul Whitehead, and Sir George Lyttelton – celebrating a ‘Love feast’ and sitting at a ‘table of the Saints.’

Monks’ Documentation and Club Dynamics

Later documentation confirmed their membership and the use of religious symbolism in their private writings. Earl Temple suggested further activities within the club.

Aeneas, post-conversion, graciously maintains friendship despite my slim claim at the Saints’ table. However, I’m concerned about your elevated faith and godliness. This Scottish architectural taste contradicts our country’s fashionable style. I fear it won’t prevail, and you’ll return to your humbler abode with the same ardor.

The conversion of Wilkes, compared to St. Paul Whitehead, makes me skeptical. If I witness you with Sir George Lyttelton, I’ll toast the memory of our wicked moments. I might then shift focus to worldly pursuits as a sure path to a better afterlife.

Also Read: What Happened To Barnaby Joyce Face? Footpath Video Viral

Portrait Commission by Dashwood (1757)

In 1757, Dashwood engaged William Hogarth to create another portrait in the Roman Catholic clergy attire, mimicking Knapton’s painting. Titled “Sir Francis Dashwood at His Devotions,” the artwork depicts Dashwood leering at a naked, prostrate woman.

The composition includes symbols like an open book referring to Ovid’s poems, a masquerade mask, and a tray of fruits and wine, alluding to the excess of Carnival and the rites of Bacchus and Venus.

The nimbus over Dashwood’s head features the profile of fellow Medemenham Monk John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.

These early visual depictions and writings indicate a lengthy evolution of the group.

The association seems to have originated from the male libertine sociability of the Grand Tour and the widespread enthusiasm for masquerades in the early eighteenth-century elite social life.

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

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