Gentlemen Did Not Dig

Rosemary Hill

  • The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment by Jason Kelly
    Yale, 366 pp, £40.00, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 15219 7

On 30 January 1734 eight young men met for supper at the Golden Eagle Tavern in Suffolk Street near Charing Cross. They were a high-spirited, hard-drinking and well-connected group. One was an earl, two of the others were viscounts and all but one were members of the recently formed Society of Dilettanti. As the evening wore on one thing led to another. Some of the diners started a bonfire outside the inn. A crowd gathered and words were exchanged with the gentlemen. After that a riot broke out, the guards had to be called from St James’s to restore order and the night ended with a £100 bill for damages and a great deal of heated comment in the papers. According to one of the supper party, Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, who sent an excited account of the events to his friend Joseph ‘Spanco’ Spence in Oxford, ‘it has been the talk of the Town and the Country and small beer and Bread & Cheese to my friends the Garretteers in Grubstreet for these few days past.’

Jason Kelly, writing for a transatlantic audience, goes to greater lengths to account for this and other similar ‘moments of semiotic disjuncture’, as he calls them, than is perhaps necessary for a British readership whose ears still occasionally ring to the sound of the upper classes baying for broken glass. It would be inadequate to describe the Society of Dilettanti as an 18th-century Bullingdon Club, but it would not be essentially inaccurate. There was the same proclivity for bad behaviour, and for clashes with the lower orders, along with the same justified assumption that none of it would prevent them from holding high public office. In both cases their goings-on generated a certain amount of amused popular support as well as finger-wagging from the more thoughtful sections of the press and the Dilettanti also had a penchant for dressing up and commissioning rather stagey pictures of themselves.

The roots of the society lay in the Grand Tour, the aristocratic gap year – it might stretch to as much as a gap decade – which allowed moneyed young men to see the Low Countries, France and Italy, to finish their education, collect antiquities of varying degrees of interest and authenticity and sow some wild oats at a convenient distance from home. The quality they were supposed to acquire was virtù, an Enlightenment ideal of culture combined with personal and intellectual nobility that raised ‘Knowledge to its highest Perfection’. The pursuit of this desideratum was frequently combined with what the exasperated tutor who travelled with the Earl of Charlemont called ‘nauseous Dreggs of Riots, Revels, Idleness, Stupidity and Nonsense’. It was two dozen or so alumni of the Grand Tour who founded the Dilettanti in London in 1732 as a dining club to perpetuate the ethos of virtù and vandalism on home ground. ‘The nominal qualification,’ Horace Walpole, who was not a member, observed, ‘is having been in Italy, and the real one being drunk.’ The heyday of the society began with the riot at the Golden Eagle and ended, in Kelly’s account, on the eve of the French Revolution with the Dilettanti’s circulation of Richard Payne Knight’s strikingly illustrated work, A Disquisition on the Worship of Priapus, in 1786.

Kelly’s thoughtful if frustrating book is intended to save the Dilettanti from themselves. He seeks to show that they were more than the glamorous Hoorays that history has sometimes held them to be, or the dabblers with which the word is now synonymous. Their learning in some cases was considerable. Spence was a literary scholar and professor of poetry at Oxford, and several Dilettanti, including Knight and William Hamilton, made important collections of antiquities. As a group, too, their achievements were significant. From his researches among the society’s port-stained minutes, Kelly hopes to set the Dilettanti in context in ‘the theatre of 18th-century social life’, as one expression of a period when British society in general and London society in particular was undergoing great and self-conscious change. Intellectual categories, social classes and character types were seen to be shifting as the inhabitants of an expanding capital at the heart of an expanding empire found themselves thrown together in new and odd configurations. The bourgeoisie and its mores were in the ascendant. In public and in private – Addison in the Spectator, Boswell in his journal – many men and women wondered ‘what manner of person’ they and others were, interrogating themselves about how they might behave and what character they might adopt in the mutable city. The dilettante, the libertine, the antiquary, the virtuoso, the rake, the fop, the Grub Street hack and the man of feeling, all the crowded company of Hogarth’s ‘modern moral subjects’, were distinct and recognisable types to their fellow citizens.

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