We all know the caustic comment on Horace Walpole about the membership of the Society of Dilettanti; that the nominal qualification was having been in Italy, the real one, being drunk. And indeed there was much in the behavior of the members to fill out such an image of their bibulousness or what Robert Ward, a member, spoke of more soberly as their friendly and social intercourse. Yet amidst the other interests they shared was also the promotion of the arts; and, if in their various Horatian mottos, “Sed tamen amoto quaeramas seria ludo”, “Hae Nugae, in Seria ducunt”, they openly acknowledged their social pleasures, so too also they took note of the more serious possibilities of the activities they encouraged and sponsored. The volume here has been produced in connection with an exhibition at the Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, curated by the author, Bruce Redford, and by Claire Lyons, curator of antiquities at the museum. And it is a particular pleasure to see how, at this moment in the history of the Classical Tradition, these two sides of the social life of London, or what Redford calls the antic and the antique, were indissolubly linked to extend the implications of the word delectare, that is to say to take pleasure, yet also to exercise a wide-ranging curiosity that crossed all boundaries of knowledge. This was the beginning. The end of the intellectual influence of the Society of Dilettanti was far less happy when, amidst the discussions about the age and quality of the Elgin Marbles and the remarks of Richard Payne Knight, a prominent member of the Society, the authority of amateurs was displaced by what could be referred to as a new kind of “associational world”, associational referring here to arguments grounded in more evidently professional practices.
The history of the Dilettanti is laid out by Redford in seven crisply focused chapters: the Amateur Moment; the set of portraits of members by George Knapton; the volumes of the “Antiquities of Athens” and “Ionian Antiquities”; Payne Knight’s “Expedition into Sicily”; the portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds; Payne Knight on Priapus; James Gillray’s caricatures of cognoscenti; and finally the volume of “Specimens of Antique Sculpture”, put out by Charles Townley and, after his death in 1805, by the ever-present Payne Knight. The foundation of the Society in 1734 was not an unusual event for, as a contemporary John Macky put it, there was at that time in London an infinite number of such clubs, concerned with learning and what he called “keeping up with good humour and mirth”. Here might be mentioned the Virtuosi of St. Luke, founded in 1698 and the Society of Antiquaries, a tavern club like that of the Virtuosi who held their first meeting in the Bear Tavern on the Strand in 1707. But the Dilettanti were of a different order socially; for, whereas the members of the Virtuosi or the Antiquaries were more often what Redford is prepared to call working professionals, the Dilettanti were clearly wealthy, able to afford to travel on the Continent and grounded in an a form of republicanism, marked in the clothing of the President of the Society — and such dressing up was part of their fun — in a scarlet toga as he sat in a mahogany chair covered with crimson velvet like the sella curalis of the Roman magistrates. These are tokens of the culture of the amateur, an ideal of knowledge, as Redford reports almost nostalgically, radically different from ours where we assume that there are professionals of thought in every field of endeavor. Yet the publications sponsored by the Society, part of what has been called the rage for ordering in England in the XVIIIth century, were serious enough: the “Antiquities of Athens”, by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, the first volume of which appeared in 1762; the “Antiquities of Ionia”, put out in 1796; the “Discourse on the Worship of Priapus”, by Payne Knight, published in 1786; and last but not least the luxurious text “Specimens of Antient Sculpture. . .selected from Different Collections in Great Britain”, that appeared in 1809. Occasionally these texts in all their details, have been seen, as Eileen Harris put it, “precise almost to excess. . .not inspiring”. But as Redford notes the information on classical monuments they made so available, fired as it was by what has been spoken of as a culture of measurement, proved extremely influential on both the public and professionals alike.
All of this and much besides is laid out in rich detail in the chapters here; particularly interesting are the drawings of Ionian architecture by Willam Pars, now in the British Museum, that seem so close in spirit and style to those of James Stuart; the image of the Hindu temple sculpture from the isle of Elephanta near Bombay, included by Payne Knight in his treatise on Priapus; and the images of sculpture in the volumes of the Specimens by such artists as John Samuel Agar, Henry Howard and John Brown, which accompanied the text, Winckelmannian in its linking of style to politics, that spoke with such rapture and care of the wondrous details of the figures, the hair, the eyes, the surface of the limbs. Redford is able to quote a nice tribute to the achievements of the Dilettanti offered in 1825 by the German scholar Friedrich Kruse, that with the foundation of the Society and its publications there began what Kruse called a new period in the rediscovery of Greece, marked by the greatest precision in the determination of geographical and topographical relationships, “in particular regarding the measurements of ancient temples”.
But all this was to end. As Redford lays out in his chapter on the caricatures of Gillray, the ideal of the connoisseur and the Dilettanti came under strain in the 1790s when foreign interests were seen to undermine the devotion to King and Country, necessary in such troubled times. It was immediately easy for religious groups to argue that the collecting of antique pieces and their subject matter — Payne Knight was an obvious target — undermined both morals and manners. Yet it was Gillray, in his portraits of connoisseurs and virtuosi, who in the manner of William Hogarth years earlier, provided richer documentation of this now hostile attention to the Dilettanti, the amateurs, the lovers of all things foreign. In 1794 Sir Thomas Lawrence had painted a noble portrait of Payne Knight that harks back to an equivalently grand portrait of Sir William Hamilton, done by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1777. This, in his image of Payne Knight, Gillray openly mocked, converting, as Redford nicely puts it, aesthetic rapture into sexual arousal, with Payne Knight seen sitting with his legs apart, in a chair with evidently phallic arms, gazing with a magnifying glass at a figure of Priapus. More such images followed; a chubby Dido, in dishabille; a Cognoscenti (sic) contemplating the wrong way through a pair of spectacles “ye Beauty of ye Antique”; an image that refers to Sir William Hamilton and his affair with the actress Mrs Jordan; a nice image of connoisseurs examining paintings by George Morland, one of two pigs sleeping, above this a picture of two rustics grappling in a stall and another of two others copulating.
To which, to add to the discredit of the Dilettanti, was added the brouhaha — a word doubtless they would have liked — over the Elgin Marbles and the testimony of Payne Knight before the Parliamentary Committee, charged with deciding whether to purchase the marbles for the nation. Thanks to what Redford calls his careless and condescending performance before the committee, the authority of the Dilettanti to speak of ancient art was challenged. For against the testimony of such artists like Joseph Nollekins and John Flaxman the arguments advanced by Payne Knight about the age of these sculptures seemed obviously wrong, that they were from the time of Hadrian, mere restorations as he said, or if Greek, not by the famed Phidias but by Ictinus and Callicrates and perhaps then done by “their workmen, hardly higher than journeymen”. The damage was done. And if later the architect William Wilkins, also a member of the Dilettanti, could say that these pieces were of the highest quality and “of very great importance”, even he doubted that they were by Phidias, at which point, he added, “they loose the greater part of their charm”. Social dissensions emerged and it was easy enough for the painter James Barry to dismiss the whole idea of the private collecting the Dilettanti indulged in, “filled with the vanity, self-importance, and rarity of their own acquisitions”. At which point, he continued, it was just such vanity that made the Dilettanti object to the acquisition of these works “too dirty for their drawings rooms, too pure for their propensities and too elevated for their comprehension”.
All this material, or most of it, is familiar to students of the classics; here we might think of William St. Clair’s history of Lord Elgin and the biography of Payne Knight by Andrew Ballantyne. But it is very helpful to have everything here gathered together, and Redford writes with particular elegance about the historical and social issues circling around the Dilettanti. The volume, perhaps through the beneficence of the Getty, is richly illustrated; and here it is especially nice to see reproduced in full color the set of portraits done in the 1740s by George Knapton that show members in their various guises, Charles Sackville as Julius Caesar, Sir Brownlow Sherrard as Poseidippos, Samuel Savage dressed as to go to a Venetian masquerade and the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood in the habit of a Franciscan friar, moving with a chalice in his hand towards the groin of the Medici Venus. The Dilettanti, it should be acknowledged, are still there, meeting a dozen times a year for conversation and drinks. And they still commission portraits, as is recorded in an amusing story by Sir Brinsley Ford, a pillar of the society and known for the parties, or routs, he often held for them at his house on Wyndham Square. Among the members was the prominent artist Sir William Coldstream, and it was suggested in 1965 that he should paint a conversation piece of the thirty current members. Yet then it was remembered that for his single portraits Coldstream would often request 30 sittings, that is to say 60 hours, which multiplied by 30 would give 1800 hours, which, given all his other commitments, would perhaps require 900 weeks of work, or by this calculation, 17.3 years, assuming that all the sitters would last that long, which seemed unlikely. The commission in the end went to a far speedier painter, John Ward and the final result can be seen, among the many other portraits of past members at the present home of the Dilettanti, at Brooks’s Club on St. James’ Street, off Piccadilly.