Joseph Addison was hugely influential in the early 1700s – partly down to the popularity of his breezy, conversational style of writing, but also because of his real flair for publicity. He was personally responsible for setting up Button's Coffee House and establishing it as the daily meeting-place for some of the most renowned wits and literary figures of the day. And it was that instinct for a good PR story that gave him the inspiration for the Lion's Head.
Richard Steele, his best friend from schooldays, had started the new daily paper The Guardian on March 12th 1713 while Addison was busy completing his play Cato, which opened to much acclaim the following month and went on to influence George Washington and the Founding Fathers of the United States later in the century.
Steele and Addison had achieved great success with their previous papers The Tatler and The Spectator, so The Guardian was guaranteed to find a ready audience. Steele was responsible for the contents of the early editions, helped by Alexander Pope and other friends who frequented Button's.
After his triumph with Cato, Addison was able to devote himself to The Guardian and took over as editor in July. It's possible circulation wasn't going as well as its predecessor The Spectator for he clearly felt the need to drum up interest in the new paper and find some fresh material to excite readers and get people talking.
After several humorous articles about lions – including a discourse on the famous lion's mouths letter post boxes in Venice – he hit on the idea of installing a splendid carved Lion's Head letter box in Button's as a talking point and as a receptacle for contributions to The Guardian.
Every edition of The Guardian is written in the voice of the fictional editor, Mr Nestor Ironside Esq – who represents the "Guardian" himself. Speaking as Mr Ironside, Addison wrote: “It is my intention to erect a Lion's Head, in imitation of those I have described in Venice, through which all the private intelligence of that commonwealth is said to pass. This head is to open a most wide and voracious mouth, which shall take in such letters and papers as are conveyed to me by my correspondents, it being my resolution to have a particular regard to all such matters as come to my hands through the mouth of the Lion.
"There will be under it a box, of which the key will be in my own custody, to receive such papers as are dropped into it. Whatever the Lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the public. This head requires some time to finish, the workman being resolved to give it several masterly touches, and to represent it as ravenous as possible. It will be set up in Button's Coffee House in Covent Garden, who is directed to shew the way to the Lion's Head, and to instruct any young author how to convey his works into the mouth of it with safety and secrecy."
On July 22nd he wrote: "I think my self obliged to acquaint the public that the Lion's Head, of which I advertised them about for a fortnight ago is now erected at Button's Coffee House in Russell Street, Covent Garden, where it opens its mouth at all hours for the reception of such intelligence as shall be thrown into it. It is reckoned an excellent piece of workmanship, and was designed by a great hand in imitation of the Antique Egyptian Lion, the face of it being compounded out of that of a lion and a wizard. The features are strong and well furrow'd. The whiskers are admired by all that have seen them. It is planted on the western side of the coffee house, holding its paws under the chin upon a box, which contains everything that he swallows. He is indeed a proper emblem of Knowledge and Action, being all Head and Paws."
Beneath the Lion's Head were two lines by the Roman poet Martial:
Servantur magnis isti Cervicibus ungues
Non nisi delecta pascitur ille fera
The lines are from two of Martial's Epigrams and translate as:
Those talons are kept for mighty necks
He feeds only on the beast of his choice
Addison wanted his lion to roar – but the only people who needed to fear him were those who abused their position to "contrive the ruin of their fellow subjects".
The Lion became an instant celebrity – attracting a constant stream of contributions and fan mail. It prompted Addison to announce his next innovation – a unicorn letterbox to be installed in a place frequented by women so they could post contributions to a paper of their own.
Coffee houses in 18th century London were places for men only – unless you made or served the coffee!
So Addison wrote: "As I have here a Lion's Head for the men, I shall there erect an Unicorn's Head for the ladies, and will so contrive it that they may put in their intelligence at the top of the horn, which shall convey it into a little receptacle at the bottom prepared for that purpose. Out of these two magazines I shall supply the town from time to time with what may tend to their edification”.
Sadly there's no record to suggest that the Unicorn's Head was ever put into use.
The Lion's Head continued to be talked about long after The Guardian ceased publication in October 1713. A sketch of the head was published in 1794 in a book containing illustrations by Hogarth. The book contained four illustrations by Hogarth of "characters who frequented Button's Coffee Shop about 1720" – characters including Addison and Alexander Pope. The author and owner of the illustrations, Samuel Ireland, said the sketch had been made a few months previously and wrote: "This head is now at the Shakespeare Tavern, Covent Garden, where it has been ever since Button's Coffee House was taken down, which was about fifty years ago. It was given to the then master of the tavern by the landlord of the coffee house".
Some authors in the 19th century named Hogarth as the designer of the Lion's Head – but it appears this was a mistake, perhaps due to the inclusion of the sketch of the Lion in the collection of Hogarth illustrations.