The Oyster Club
Occasionally during these meetings the discussion would turn anecdotally to other groups which had gotten together to talk. It seemed we had always missed something - the Cedar Tavern scene, Smithson confronting Andre in Max's Kansas City and so many other great debates of our artworld recently passed. History is jammed with extraordinary conversations missed, but given the choice to sit in anywhere at any time I would cherish a cornerseat at the Oyster Club.
The Oyster Club was one of the numerous supper clubs for the 'literati'
which haunted the taverns Old Town Edinburgh during the latter half of
the eighteenth century. Edinburgh was a city crowded with hostelries offering
an early afternoon dinner liberally lubricated with claret, champagne,
gin, ale, brandy and whiskey. These social clubs allowed men of varied
professions to meet, share ideas and laughs over dried salt haddock and
oysters. The Scottish lawyers, writers, philosophers, doctors and artists
had made the city one of Europe's prominent intellectual centers.
I first encountered references to the Oyster Club some years ago, while
reading about the discovery of Geological Time. A hero in that discovery
was one of the Oyster Club's founders, James Hutton, said to be the father
of the science of geology and certainly one of the first men to begin
to appreciate and theorize the enormous antiquity of the planet. He along
with Joseph Black, a giant in the history of chemistry and the economist/
author Adam Smith established the Oyster Club as a weekly meeting for
Edinburgh intellectuals as well as visiting thinkers (James Watt and Benjamin
Franklin, for example). David Hume, John Clerk, Adam Ferguson, William
Robertson were all members and avid eaters of Oysters. Each week, in a
different tavern, since the meetings were often a bit too sought after,
they would convine to discuss art, architecture, philosophy, politics,
physical science, economics, each giving a brief update on their special
projects. The discussions were, in Hutton's words "informal and amusing
despite their great learning". Hutton never drank spirits.