Those who knew John best will be well aware of his long connection with the Savile Club. The Savile, at 69 Brook Street W1, is a traditional London gentleman’s club with membership restricted to men, although women have for some years been welcomed as guests. The Club was founded in 1868 by a group of distinguished literati, including Rudyard Kipling and Henry James, and over the years membership has always appealed to creative and eccentric people – writers, artists, actors and musicians. However, as the Club’s website records: “When electing members the Savile has always been less concerned by what a candidate does, or by who he is, than by what kind of a person he is as a man, and whether he will fit congenially into the “Sodalitas”of the club.” The Club motto is Sodalitas Convivium which can be roughly translated as convivial companionship. John, who joined the Savile in January 1979, when he was well established in his career as a BBC writer, broadcaster, producer and trainer, was very well qualified for membership on both these counts.
The Club has many time-honoured traditions. One of these which definitely appealed to John was the game of Savile Snooker, with its own special and idiosyncratic rules, first written down – and possibly invented – by Stephen Potter of ‘Gamesmanship’ fame. But this deserves a separate post at a later date. The long Members Table in the Dining Room has a thriving tradition of lively conversation between those who gather round it.
Another historic Club tradition which John helped to carry forward at the Savile was that of taking snuff. The practice of inhaling snuff, or powdered tobacco, became common in Europe in the 17th century, continued throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries, and still has many adherents. The Club had a communal snuff box, stocked with different varieties of snuff, and made available for the use of members. John, as one who relished this perk, was happy to take on the not particularly arduous task of choosing and ordering snuff to replenish the contents of the box as and when required. In recognition of this role, he was awarded the title of Honorary Keeper of the Snuff.
At home, John also took snuff, which he stored in one or more of several small individual snuff boxes he collected over the years. Although whether he acquired this habit before or after he had been indoctrinated at the Savile, I cannot now remember.
The original historic Savile snuff box was – according to John himself, in an email I discovered on his computer after he died – a silver box engraved with the Club name and donated c. 1880 by one Henry John Hood, who was elected in 1869 a year after the Club’s foundation. He was Hon Secretary 1879-99 and a Trustee 1912-16 when he died. He was a conveyancing and property solicitor. There is a portrait of him, heavily moustached, in the Drawing Room. His snuff box was stolen about a dozen years ago and replaced with an inferior snuff mull, a portion of a ram’s horn surmounted with a pewter eagle. However, a year or two before John died, this eagle was also stolen, a dastardly crime commemorated in one of John’s comic verses, Upon the Theft of the Eagle from the Savile‘s Snuff Mull.
As the 150th anniversary of the Savile’s foundation approached, there was a proposal by John and the Club Chairman Robert Harding to celebrate the occasion by replacing the damaged snuff horn with a new and superior snuff box, with three rather than two compartments for the snuff, and too large to be pocketed. This proposal was carried forward by Robert, and funded by a donation from the Turtle family in memory of John. Bryony Knox, a former student of Bishopsland, a school for silversmiths run by a previous chairman of the Savile, was commissioned to design and execute the work.
Bryony’s beautiful and unusual design is for a three-sided mahogany box with a lid, surmounted with the silver head of a snow leopard. The lid is removed to reveal three individual silver snuff boxes lined with gilt and with airtight spring-loaded lids to keep the snuff in top condition. The lids are chased with illustrations of the tobacco plant – leaves, buds and flowers. Each side of the box has an engraved silver plaque, one of which is in memory of John. Bryony’s more detailed description of the commission can be read in her Snowie Description.
The new snuff box is now kept safely in a locked trophy cabinet in the Dining Room, and circulated for the use of members on appropriate occasions. If you are ever in the Savile, do request a viewing – it is a splendid work of art and a fitting memorial to the most convivial of men.