Younger readers might be excused if they thought that the IT Girl phenomenon, as illustrated by the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, was a product of the computer social media age but those of us who are somewhat more mature can remember such as Jacqueline Lee “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis (née Bouvier) and Bianca Jagger (born Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias), who were IT Girls of their respective generations. In fact I assume there have been IT Girls as long as there has been human society. That is young attractive women, who became famous or even infamous purely on the strength of their appearances and social behaviour.
In the Augustan age of London at the beginning of the eighteenth century one such IT Girl was Catherine Barton who’s beauty was celebrated at the Kit-Kat Club, drinking den of the Whig Party grandees, in the following verse:
At Barton’s feet the God of Love
His Arrows and his Quiver lays,
Forgets he has a Throne above,
And with this lovely Creature stays.
Not Venus’ Beauties are more bright,
But each appear so like the other,
That Cupid has mistook the Right,
And takes the Nymph to be his Mother.
Now those not already in the know are probably wondering why I’m wittering on about an eighteenth-century It Girl instead of the history of science, especially in the first part of my traditional Christmas Trilogy, which is normally dedicated to Isaac Newton who was born 25 December 1642 (os). The answer is very simple, because the charming Catherine Barton was Newton’s niece, the daughter of his half sister Hannah Baton née Smith, and his housekeeper for part of the thirty years that he lived in London.
It is not know for certain when Newton brought his niece, who was born in 1679, from her native Lincolnshire to look after his house in London but not before 1696 when he first moved there himself and probably not later than 1700, however she stayed with her uncle until she married John Conduitt in 1717.
As well as being the toast of London’s high society Catherine Barton played an important part in Newton’s London life. For example she was closely acquainted with the satirist Jonathan Swift and it was through his friendship with Barton that the Tory Swift approached the Whig Newton in 1713 to try to persuade him to relinquish the Mastership of the Mint, an important political sinecure that the Tories wished to bestow on one of their own, in exchange for a state pension of £2,000 per annum, a very large sum of money. An offer than Newton simply refused remaining Master of the Mint until his death.
Catherine’s fame or maybe notoriety extended beyond London to the continent. Rémond de Monmort, a member of the French Regency Council, who met her in 1716 whilst visiting Newton later wrote of her, “I have retained the most magnificent idea in the world of her wit and her beauty”. More famously Voltaire wrote of her:
I thought in my youth that Newton made his fortune by his merit. I supposed that the Court and the city of London named him Master of the Mint by acclamation. No such thing. Isaac Newton had a very charming niece, Madame Conduitt, who made a conquest of the minister Halifax. Fluxions and gravitation would have been of no use without a pretty niece.
Voltaire was wrong. It was indeed Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax, who appointed Newton initially to the Wardenship of the Mint in 1696, the two had been friends when Montagu was a student at Cambridge in the 1680s, but this was before Newton had brought Catherine to London so Montagu could not have known her then. However Voltaire’s quip was almost certainly based on knowledge of a real scandal involving Lord Halifax and Catherine Barton.
Halifax had become acquainted with Catherine by 1703 at the latest when he engraved a toasting glass at the Kit-Kat Club with her name and composed the following verse to her:
Stampt with her reigning Charms, this Standard Glass
Shall current through the Realms of Bacchus pass;
Full fraught with beauty shall new Flames impart,
And mint her shining Image on the Heart.
Montagu may have been a successful politician and a great economics expert but he was no poet. Toasting a beauty at the Kit-Kat Club does not constitute a scandal but Halifax’s will, originally drafted in 1706, did. In a codicil he bequeathed Catherine £3,000 and all his jewels, “as a small Token of the great Love and Affection I have long had for her”. Faced with this anything but small token, and there was worse to come, Newton’s nineteenth-century biographers were left snapping for air in their attempts to find a not scandalous explanation for this act. Later in the year he even purchased a £200 per annum annuity for her. Was she his lover, his mistress? This explanation seems to offer itself. In 1710 Mrs Mary de la Rivière Manly a Tory satirist published a satire on the Whig’s, which featured a mistress called Bartica for the Halifax figure.
As I said above, the situation got worse in 1713 when Halifax revoked the first codicil and drew up a new one bequeathing £5,000 to Mrs Barton with the grant during her life of the rangership and lodge of Bushey Park and all its furnishings, to enable her to maintain the house and garden, the manor of Apscourt in Surrey. “These Gifts and Legacies, I leave to her as a Token of the sincere Love, Affection, and Esteem I have long had for her Person, and as a small Recompence for the Pleasure and Happiness I have had in her Conversation”.
Flamsteed, always eager to to get in a jibe against Newton, writing to Abraham Sharp on hearing of the bequest after Halifax’s death said sarcastically that it was given to Mrs Barton “for her excellent conversation”. In his desperate attempt to avoid the obvious implications for the morality of the Newton household, Augustus De Morgan, in his Newton biography, constructed a secrete marriage between Catherine and Halifax to explain the level of the bequest, which now, including the worth of the house, stood at about £25,000, a very large sum indeed. However when Catherine married John Conduitt, a retired soldier, following a whirlwind romance in 1717, she gave her status as spinster and not widow. Newton appeared to have no problems with the bequest, ever a shrewd businessman rather than a moralist, as he assisted Catherine with negotiations with Halifax’s heirs to settle the bequest.
Catherine is also one of two sources for the infamous apple story, the other being William Stukeley, Newton’s personal physician in his later life. Her version of the story appears in her husbands never finished or published memoir of Newton’s life and more importantly, it was she who told the story to Voltaire, who published it and thus started the legend.
Newton spent his last days living with the Conduitts and it fell to Catherine’s husband John to divide up the spoils amongst the various half brothers and sisters and their offspring. These eager to screw as much as possible out of Uncle Isaac’s estate forced Conduitt to sell off Newton’s extensive library of almost 2,000 volumes and wanted him to also sell off Newton’s papers convinced that anything connected with the great man would fetch a good price. Conduitt persuaded them to let the papers be sorted and evaluated for publication and in the end only Newton’s Chronology, an original draft of Principia and his Observations upon the Prophecies were printed and published the rest of his papers becoming the property of Catherine and her husband. After their deaths the papers passed to their daughter Catherine, who married the Hon. John Wallop, Viscount Lymington. Their son became the second Earl of Portsmouth and thus Newton’s papers were passed down through the years by the Portsmouth family who eventually disposed of them in the 1930s, but what became of them then is another story.
Female beauty and glamour are not things that one would normally think of if somebody mentions the name of Isaac Newton, but through the famous witty Mrs Barton these things did indeed play a role in Newton’s later life.
 This and all other quotes, as indeed the meat of the story, are all taken from Richard Westfall’s excellent Newton biography Never at Rest