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 Goethe, into whose hands the unpublished manuscript afterwards fell, translated the more topographical and antiquarian parts, and omitted the political peroration.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.

It was only after the French Revolution that anything resembling a concerted campaign against him got under way. When a group of Anglican clergymen founded the British Critic in 1793, especially to prevent ‘the corruption that prevails among scholars and persons of the higher orders of life’, Knight became a favourite target. He was also lampooned in The Anti-Jacobin, and in the Rev. T.J. Mathias’s satiric poem ‘The Pursuits of Literature’. Mathias later appended a footnote in which he observed darkly: ‘the Dilettanti Society best know what emblem modelled in wax is laid upon the table at their solemn meetings.’ True or not, the story illustrates how Knight’s preoccupations and the Society’s had become synonymous. Viewed from the right angle, this was the degenerate face of aristocracy.

Knight had clearly set out to shock and went on doing it all his life, though he omitted references to the phallus or even the great toe in works designed for the general public. Evidently some of his fellow collectors were less militantly committed to publicising the emblems of primitive religion. The rich but unintellectual Henry Blundell of Ince Blundell in Lancashire had a statue which had attracted d’Hancarville’s admiring notice, of a reclining hermaphrodite with infants at the breasts. Blundell heretically declared it unnatural and took a short way to putting matters right. ‘By means of a little castration and cutting away the brats it became a sleeping Venus and as pleasing a figure as any in this collection.’

Knight went about wholeheartedly preaching the cause of free love and paganism, to which he adhered as a matter of practice as well as of theory. He had a reputation as a debauchee in youth, and remained in the habit of keeping a mistress. He admired the celebrated beauties Lady Hamilton and Lady Oxford, and in 1801 was described as ‘philandering’ the latter down the Wye. Lady Oxford already had a liaison with Sir Francis Burdett, as she was later to have with Byron, and the paternity of her children was considered so doubtful that they became known as the Harleian Miscellany. Lady Holland wondered if the blame for Lady Oxford’s promiscuity should be traced back to Knight, who had ‘corrupted her mind by filling her head with innumerable vain conceits, and teaching her to exclaim against institutions, especially that of marriage, to which she says she has been a helpless victim.’ In old age Knight found it more difficult to make willing converts, but did not forego his pleasures. He retired from Downton Castle to a small cottage nearby, where, ‘in a very secret and comfortable way’, he described himself enjoying love ‘of a sort which was to be bought ready made’. Like the free-living, free-thinking Byron in the next generation, he seemed at ease with any kind of heterosexual relationship but matrimony.

In The Arrogant Connoisseur, a team of modern specialists pool their expertise in order to cover a career of impressive range. Nicholas Penny takes on Downton, and Knight’s activities as a collector and judge of ancient art; Michael Clarke assesses him as a connoisseur of paintings and drawings; Claudia Stumpf deals with the ‘Expedition into Sicily’ and Peter Funnell with the more general critical writings: A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), and An Inquiry into the Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology (1818). Individually the chapters are often absorbing and informative; together they convey the sense of a good career, a collector who laid out his money wisely, a critic whose aesthetic judgments were generally sound.

But Knight’s career was that of a polemicist as well as an expert. The drawback of multiple authorship is that it is nobody’s job to explain Knight’s politics, which are as a result consistently underrated. By calling him, and their book, the ‘Arrogant Connoisseur’, the editors personalise and trivialise what should have been the general intellectual thrust behind Knight’s many interests. Like other cultivated liberals of his day, he was radical on principle, and applied this guiding insight to the arts in what now seems a curiously literal way. When discussing the ancients, he valued the primitive, early or original; for painting, his ideal was direct dealing with nature. He created a storm with his poem ‘The Landscape’ (1794), which was not just a poem criticising the aesthetics of landscape gardening as practised by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton: it made the social case against aristocratic vanity and waste, a provocative topic in the year following the execution of the King and Queen of France. ‘Knight was never generous in his polemics,’ says Penny, in the introductory Brief Life which is invariably too brief on such matters, ‘and this, combined with his apparent admiration for disordered nature, led some to react politically.’ Readers like Horace Walpole and Anna Seward were indeed putting the aesthetic two and the political two together, and making four. ‘Knight’s system appears to me,’ cried Anna Seward, ‘the Jacobinism of taste ... save me, good Heaven, from living in tangled forests, and amongst men who are unchecked by those guardian laws, which bind the various orders of society in one common interest ... may the people, amongst whom I live, be withheld by stronger repellants than their own virtue, from invading my property and shedding my blood!!’

Knight was by temperament a stirrer, who enjoyed surprising and annoying the Establishment. But he was no blinkered ideologue. He was quick to spot the tyranny latent in all orthodoxies, including those associated with republicanism, and was as critical of the ‘principles and practice’ of the leading painter of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David, as he was of Repton and Brown. In discussions of painting Knight professed himself a colourist. He disliked the contemporary fashions for heroic subjects, statuesque figures, the rigidities of planar composition and line, while he praised painters like Wilkie for their ‘detailed adherence to the peculiarities of common individual nature’. One would like to know more about Knight’s relations with painters like James Barry, for whom the heroic style signified political preferences not dissimilar from Knight’s own. And what of his relations with conservative fellow patrons, men like Sir George Beaumont? Penny hints that they were sometimes fraught, alludes tantalisingly to a scene in 1798 when Knight had his pigtail publicly cut off by Lady Oxford, and provides one of those conclusions in which nothing is concluded. ‘[Uvedale] Price seems to have feared that Knight might be excommunicated [from the Beaumont circle], and there must have been tensions.’

To the puzzled reader between the lines, it seems surprising that there were not more. As late as 1824, he could be summed up in a letter to Constable as ‘Priapus Knight’. His steady rise to eminence after that remarkably bold beginning was achieved against the current of opinion, in the heyday of conservative English reaction against the French Revolution, when it was usual for moralists to carry the day: he was, after all, the nearly exact contemporary of the Rev. Thomas Bowdler. Knight’s career seems to illustrate either the continued ideological softness of the English upper orders, or the relative immunity of the wealthy from sustained journalistic attack, or the tacit tolerance of dangerous opinions provided they were not broadcast to the public at large. Somewhat oddly, then, Knight was perhaps the connoisseur to be reckoned with when, in 1806, the Elgin Marbles reached England.

The contest, Knight v. the Elgin Marbles, lasted more than a decade and remains the best-known episode of his career. Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador at Constantinople, had carried off the sculptures of the Athenian temples, after a century of wanton damage by Turkish soldiery, and before they could be looted piecemeal by the rival collectors of Europe. Elgin, who was considerably less wealthy than Knight, could not afford the vast outlay he incurred – the bribes to the Turks who ran Athens, the wages of up to 150 Greek workmen who shifted the marbles, the cost of salvage when the ship the Mentor sank in Greek waters with several cases of statuary aboard. To cap a run of bad luck in Greece, he got himself interned in France between 1803 and 1806. He arrived back in England, impoverished, to be encountered at a dinner party by Knight, who called out to him across the table: ‘You have lost your labour, my Lord Elgin.’ Knight based his first opinion on an over-hasty impression derived from his reading, and he soon had to retreat from the assertion that most of the marbles dated only from the time of the Emperor Hadrian. But he never enthused over them as London’s community of artists began to do. His grudgingness was held against him, and his first snap judgment was remembered better than his retractions, Public men should strive not to be too quotable when they are in the wrong.

Why Knight got himself into this mess is not a central issue for the current book, but Penny seems justified in casting doubt on some earlier hypotheses about his behaviour. This no longer looks like a man who would have rubbished marble because his own holdings were in bronze; or who became myopic over colossal figures because he had spent a lifetime poring over cabinets of coins and gems; or who failed to appreciate Greek originals because he had acquired a taste for Roman copies. Imaginatively, intellectually, Knight had every reason to venerate these relics of Athenian glory. So what went wrong? Was there political animus in his Whig circle against Elgin, whose connections were Tory? Was the wholesale stripping of the Acropolis too much to take, after all, for a lover of ancient art and religion? It was all very well for British artists – Nollekens, Flaxman, Westmacott, Chantry, Lawrence, Haydon, West – to hail the marbles as a national acquisition and to urge the government to buy them off Elgin. Their professional status was enhanced by the notion that they could henceforth go to school to Phidias. Elgin had achieved rather less for the image of the international collector.

If the business aroused Knight’s unease as well as his cussedness, he made matters worse when he gave evidence to the Parliamentary commission set up in 1816 to inquire into the question of purchase. Knight’s evidence was emphatically commercial – what value the marbles had if they were viewed as ‘furniture’, or as part of a specialist collection, or as models for artists. It was left to Benjamin West, the President of the Royal Academy, to rise to the occasion in the kind of language Knight himself commonly used of ancient masterpieces: ‘To such works as these, which have appeared but once in the world, I cannot set any pecuniary value ... I judge of the Elgin Marbles, from their purity and pre-eminence in art over all others I have ever seen, and from their truth and intellectual power.’

Both book and exhibition represent a challenge, the greater because they leave many questions unanswered, and some unasked. No one asks, for example, whether this theorist of the arts had any significance for literature. Yet his Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste went rapidly into four editions after its appearance in 1805, and was the most notable general study of its subject for the next decade. Through this, and even more through his genius for controversy, Knight attracted the attention of the young Thomas Love Peacock, whose own career as a controversialist on cultural isues clearly owes much to Knight’s example. Headlong Hall, the first of Peacock’s satires, draws heavily on Knight’s primitivist critique of landscape gardening, and shares both his high opinion of the ancients and his low opinion of the Church.

Yet, odd and unsavoury as some of this work now seems, it was for his writings on the symbolic meaning of early art that Knight must have mattered most to poets. The aim of his Symbolical Language is to distinguish between those compositions ‘which are mere efforts of taste and fancy, and those which were emblems of what were thought divine truths’; he represents the language of the latter as a religious language, communicating by myth, allegory and symbol. This is rather headier stuff than one would guess from Penny’s observation that much of the book ‘reminds us of the sterile labours of Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch’.

Years earlier, the fame of Knight’s Discourse upon the Worship of Priapus, his first exploration of the subjects of religion and sexuality, coincided with the early work of Blake. Whether or not the Discourse was known to Erasmus Darwin, whose long poems extolled the generative principle, or to Paine before he wrote The Age of Reason, it helped to inform the intellectual world of the 1790s in which both were received. Coleridge and Wordsworth, Christian critics of the pagan pantheon, resolutely prim on sexual matters, stood aside from the taste which Knight represented: they were part of a middle-class backlash. But the younger generation of poets, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Peacock and Leigh Hunt, were all enthusiastic mythologisers. When Shelley uses a serpent in ‘The Revolt of Islam’, or Keats uses one in ‘Lamia’, there is some indication that they know the symbolic language of primitive art, of which Knight is the main English exponent. Shelley’s exquisite ‘Witch of Atlas’ even reads like a mythological poem by Knight’s rules, a statement of divine truths such as how the gods were made and what they signified when the world was young.

Knight’s writings on the implications of ancient symbolism, because they attacked Christianity, were harder to come by than his other books. On the other hand, their polemical edge made the ideas in them easy to transmit – a world which knew ‘Priapus Knight’ had essentially got his message. Knight’s literary contribution, unsung in the present book, was to popularise the thesis that myth is meaningful. Read his way, remote exotic subjects would strike dissident fellow-intellectuals not as escapist, but as alive with challenging ideas. Because of him and others like him, the younger Romantic poets pushed on into their own experiments with myth and mythopoeic symbolism. In fact, he proved most usable just where he now looks daftest – riding his phallic hobbyhorse.