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Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England by Bruce Redford


Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England by Bruce Redford

A famous double portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows members of the Dilettanti Society sipping away while making rude gestures about vaginas while holding up gemstones from classical antiquity and admiring painted Greco-Roman vases.

Dilettanti by Bruce Redford
Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England
by Bruce Redford
Getty Publications, 232 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Fun, Games, Phalluses and Art

The moment Britain went to war with Napoleon, the English turned their backs on all things French, including the notoriously libertine mores of French society. This attitude fed into the Victorian era’s turgid morality in England, and also into the creation of most of London’s private clubs. The Travelers, the Oxford and Cambridge, the Garrick, the Reform—all date from the Victorian era, and still exude a certain stuffy aura.

Until then, however, the English had enjoyed a good time, and that is how the sometimes bawdy pre-Victorian clubs came into being. Their members were well-to-do and well connected males (no women, obviously), who tottered around hereditary estates, Parliament, and met in taverns. The carousing evolved into private clubs, but the members were often as devoted to politics and the arts as to whiskey; and it is this blending of the frivolous and the serious which became their distinguishing characteristic.

Of London’s earliest private clubs, the Society of Dilettanti, founded in 1732, was the epitome of the English Enlightenment era’s peculiar mix of upper crust revelry and connoisseurship, in this case based on a shared nostalgia for their Grand Tour years on the Continent. In the words of art historian Bruce Redford in Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England, the Dilettanti combined “the Bacchic, the sexual, the classical, and the sacrilegious.”

A famous double portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows members of the Dilettanti Society sipping away while making rude gestures about vaginas while holding up gemstones from classical antiquity and admiring painted Greco-Roman vases. Jokes aside, the members fostered the study of antiquities and their buying and selling; and this subsequently led to significant donations of objects from members’ individual collections of antiquities to public institutions like the British Museum.

Perhaps the best known of the Dilettanti members was Sir William Hamilton, England’s envoy to the Tuscan-Bourbon court of Federico II of the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies. While in Naples, Hamilton assembled a collection of over one thousand painted Greco-Roman vases, and in so doing literally launched the previously disregarded collecting of vases (marble sculptures were the rage), all looted—as we would say today—from tombs in the South of Italy.

A founding member was the notorious libertine Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1701), founder also of the eccentric, rabidly anti-Catholic Hellfire Club of West Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire (midway between Oxford and London). Despite his “sexual and sacrilegious antics” during his two Grand Tours in the 1730’s, he is described by Redford as a serious antiquarian and connoisseur—as this writer had not realized—qualified enough to be elected as a fellow to the Royal Society and to the Society of Antiquarians.

In tracing the history of the Society, Redford compares it with predecessors like the Virtuosi of St. Luke. The members of that club, similarly launched in a public tavern around 1689, also indulged in drink and good times, and from the start they also purchased paintings. In 1711 several of its members rallied to help establish London’s Academy of Painting. However, unlike the amateur but skillful connoisseurs of the Dilettanti, the Virtuosi tended to be professionals.

This professionalism was also true of the influential Society of Antiquaries, another tavern drinking club from about 1707. Its members were historians who advocated the study of the past as it may “Illustrate and Relate to the History of Great Britain.”

The Society of Dilettanti (the word comes from the Latin verb dilectare, to take delight in) differed. For them, the study of the past mattered, but their focus was the present. The club’s members were relatively wealthier and more amateurish. Drawn together by their experience of the usual two years of a Grand Tour, they looked to the past for its capacity to add style and grace notes to their own lives. They followed Johann J. Winckelmann’s dictum that of all the arts, sculpture was the finest, and that the finest sculptures came from ancient Greece.

The Dilettanti operated at a time when the divine right of kings was just beginning to be questioned as political doctrine. Unlike the other clubs, they had a slightly more democratic edge, for they looked to the Roman Republic for inspiration, and for this reason the presiding officer wore a scarlet toga and sat in the Roman consul’s traditional seat of office, the sella curulis.

Redford devotes considerable space to an often neglected figure in the history of antiquarian art, Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824). From Shropshire, Payne Knight made his Grand tour in 1772-1773, followed by a long trip to Sicily in 1777. Turning thirty, he entered Parliament and joined the Dilettanti. His notable collections of bronzes, gems, coins and Old Master drawings were all bequeathed to the British Museum.

While head of the Dilettanti, Payne Knight published a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus. The study was sparked by a letter to the Society from Naples written in 1781 by Hamilton, who discussed saints’ day fetes in Isernia, near Naples, where peasant women hoping to get pregnant offered up wax models of male genitalia along with prayers. The theme was elaborated upon in both a scholarly fashion and with detached irony by Payne Knight, who knew Naples well. Illustrated copies (and some of the illustrations could have served for the Kama Sutra) were sent to the Prince of Wales and to the British Museum upon publication.

Today’s Dilettanti would want to revel in owning and reading and rereading this handsome book, lavishly illustrated and printed in Singapore on high quality paper. Even those well versed in the abundant literature of the Grand Tour, popularized in countless exhibitions in Europe and the U.S., will find fresh ideas and fresh illustrations.

Dilettanti is not a museum catalogue per se, but was published to accompany exhibitions on the Dilettanti Society at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. While discussing the impact of the Elgin Marbles on the British idea of antiquity, it is otherwise largely limited to the 18th century. Unfortunately Redford somewhat slights the early 19th century, when the Society had evolved into funding excavations in Greece. After he worked in Greece, its delegate in Italy was architect William Gell, the first to make ancient Pompeii known to the English-speaking world, in part because advances in printing made his illustrated book Pompeiana widely available.

Gell had lasting influence on the outside world’s knowledge of Pompeii. In addition to his own book of drawings and reconstructions of Pompeii, he personally accompanied to the site Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, inspired by that experience to write The Last Days of Pompeii. Published in the late 1830’s, Last Days has been endlessly transformed into movies, including in our own day. Through the British Museum and Bulwer-Lytton, the Dilettanti live on.

Judith Harris was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and began selling articles to the "Cleveland Press" of Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen. A graduate of Northwestern University she is today a regular contributor to "ARTnews" of New York and to "Current World Archaeology" of London. She lives in Rome, Italy, with her partner David Willey.

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