Priapus Knight

Marilyn Butler

  • The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight 1751-1824 edited by Michael Clarke and Nicholas Penny
    Manchester, 189 pp, £30.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 7190 0871 9

Richard Payne Knight was an important English intellectual of the era of the French Revolution. He flourished from the 1770s until his death, perhaps by suicide, in 1824. Most of that time he wielded great influence in the art world, as a leading collector, connoisseur and aesthetician, but as the theorist of potent subjects like myth and symbol he mattered almost as much to the poets. So what is oddest about this capable, lively man is that, as far as literary scholarship at least is concerned, he has almost disappeared from sight. Amends are being made by the current exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, and by the collection of specialist studies which doubles as a catalogue.

Knight’s background had something in common with that of men like Wedgwood and Watt. He sprang from a Shropshire and Herefordshire family of ironmasters, and kept the vitality, the eye for detail and the eclectic curiosity of his fathers. A brother was a horticulturist; Knight’s own journals include jottings about odd facts in natural history, such as the smell of elephants. The family fortunes were made in an earlier generation, so that Knight inherited land and an income of between £5,000 and £6,000 a year. His most important friends were wealthy men with a taste for the arts – his neighbour Uvedale Price, Sir William Hamilton, Britain’s ambassador at Naples, and the collector Charles Townley. By the mid-l780s Knight moved in the liberal, not to say liberated Whig circles that had Charles James Fox as a hero, and ancient Athens as an inspiration.

Knight’s first literary attempt was to describe a tour of Sicily in 1777. He hired two artists to accompany him, and briefed them to make meticulous drawings of the archaeological sites. His commentary concluded that Sicily in the late 18th century had been brought low by political tyranny and by the Catholic Church. Goethe, into whose hands the unpublished manuscript afterwards fell, translated the more topographical and antiquarian parts, and omitted the political peroration. Back in England, Knight began to build himself a highly original, irregular country house, Downton Castle in Herefordshire, which is Classical within and castellated without. Nicholas Penny suggests that Downton is not so much Gothic as Romano-British, and certainly the quest for the truly primitive was to be a driving force behind Knight’s forays into other artistic fields. About the same time, the mid-l780s, he began to collect ancient bronzes, coins and gems, and became a member of the Society of Dilettanti, which, despite the frivolous modern connotations of its name, was a powerhouse of scholarly research into ancient civilisation. The Dilettanti travelled to Italy and Greece, drawing, measuring, reporting home, and came back laden with spoils for their private collections.

Compared with their modern counterparts, scholars funded by Mellon, Ford, Guggenheim and the British Academy, the Dilettanti had a striking characteristic: they were not so much specialists as universalists. By the time Knight joined it, the Society was absorbing the fruits, not only of archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but of Asiatic researches into the history, language, religion and art of Persia and India. In ancient art of many cultures, it was clear, an erotic element was salient. Comparative religion had long provided the weapons for assailing the state religions of Western Europe, and comparative art supplied powerful reinforcements. Hamilton, his French protégé d’Hancarville and Knight all began contributing to the theme that primitive man worshipped not a tyrant-god but the elements – sun, moon, stars, earth and waters – and the principle of attraction in the natural order which ensured perpetual renewal. The male and female organs of generation suddenly proved startlingly omnipresent in the religion and mythology of the world. For the next decade or so, intellectual polemicists like Volney and Dupuis; Erasmus Darwin and Tom Paine promoted the notion that in this respect Christianity was originally like other religions and so no better than it should be. Hamilton led the way by writing a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, the Secretary of the Dilettanti, in which he described the curious rites still extant at Isernia in Southern Italy, where a festival in honour of the saints Cosmus and Damianus culminated in a church service to bless an organ euphemistically known as ‘the great toe’. Knight amplified this report with a 174-page Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, an ironic, Voltairean exercise which supported Hamilton’s impudent suggestion that the cross itself was a stylised version of the phallus. Though the essays were issued privately to the Dilettanti, which at this time was a club of like-minded sophisticates, their contents became common knowledge, and Knight’s name as a controversialist was made.

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