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Jacob Tonson

Jacob Tonson and me

Here I am with my family on my sixteenth birthday, about to leave for Drury Lane to see The Four Musketeers.

I visited Drury Lane for the first time when I was sixteen to see The Four Musketeers and fell in love with the place. I've been hanging around theatres ever since. I read English at Trinity College, Cambridge – the alma mater of Dryden and Byron – and worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford before becoming involved with public policy institutes. I have written and edited books on education and other aspects of social policy, including The Corruption of the Curriculum, From Two Cultures to No Culture and Octavia Hill's Letters to Fellow Workers.

Jacob Tonson (1655/6–1736) was an influential publisher who acquired the rights to Milton's Paradise Lost and turned it into a classic. He claimed to have made more money from it than from any other work. He published John Dryden's translation of Virgil's Aeneid and the very first edited collection of Shakespeare's plays. He used his profits from publishing to found the Kit-Cat Club, a dining club that had an immense influence on British culture. The Kit-Cat Club brought writers together with wealthy and aristocratic patrons. Tonson was able to promote the careers of young Kit-Cats like Williams Congreve, John Vanbrugh, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison.

And here I am again, 45 years later, with Clemence Dane's bust of Ivor Novello in the rotunda of Drury Lane. Photo by Gemma Reynolds.

Publications such as The Spectator and The Tatler (produced by Steele and Addison) established a conception of Britishness that prevails to this day: tolerant, good-humoured, averse to extremism, progressive but also respectful of tradition. Horace Walpole said of the Kit-Cats that although they were 'generally mentioned as a set of wits, [they] were, in reality, the patriots that saved Britain' in turbulent times that saw the Hanoverian accession and the defeat of the Old Pretender.