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.

One man might nevertheless play several parts. The young Boswell was always trying on new personalities and describing them to himself in his diary. Francis Dashwood, prime mover in the notorious set later known as the Hellfire Club, was not only a member of the Dilettanti but also of the much more respectable, not to say staid, Society of Antiquaries. The particular characteristic of the Dilettanti, at least as they described it to themselves, was the idea of seria ludo, ‘serious play’, a motto which Dashwood proposed for their seal and which cast the most flattering light on their combination of classical learning and libertinism. Virtuosi, by contrast, were more scholarly and by implication ink-stained, while antiquaries might involve themselves in the study of absurd points of etymology and unfashionable topics such as local history and folklore. Walpole resigned from the Society of Antiquaries when it made a spectacle of itself, in his opinion, with a lecture on Dick Whittington’s cat.

Within this fluid social scene, groups, clubs and societies, some more formal and long-lasting than others, coalesced, dissolved or manifested themselves suddenly as flying islands of sociability. In 1734 the Society of Dilettanti was still too new to have registered with the public. Since the incident at the Golden Eagle took place on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, the troublemakers were characterised in the press as a ‘Calves’ Head Club’, a group meeting to commemorate Charles as saint and martyr, though it isn’t clear that that was their original intention. Over the following decades the identity of the Dilettanti, for better and worse, became established in the popular mind. Their efforts to re-create the pleasures of Rome in London began with an ill-fated attempt to import Italian opera – and Middlesex’s mistress Lucia Panichi. A combination of financial incompetence and Panichi’s dubious vocal abilities led to mixed reviews and there were few subscribers. As ruin loomed, the society took the extraordinary step of attempting to sue these subscribers in the Court of Chancery to recover their losses. As Kelly notes, they ‘never again pursued the corporate support of music’.

More viable plans to commission a building for their own use came to nothing and they were among several groups who mooted unrealised schemes for something like what emerged, in 1769, as the Royal Academy. Where the Dilettanti were both original and successful was in sponsoring artists to travel to the eastern Mediterranean and publishing the results in handsome folios. Thus they not only extended the boundaries of the Grand Tour beyond the now well-beaten Italian track, but brought home to Britain the glory that was Greece. The rediscovery of Greek sculpture and architecture was felt throughout polite society, in buildings, landscape gardens, poetry, fashion and the increasingly animated debate about the nature of taste. Several of the society’s members had already travelled in pursuit of Greek remains at a time when this was an unusual and sometimes hazardous thing to do. It was still a daring enterprise when the artists James Stuart and Nicholas Revett began, in Naples, to consider the project that eventually appeared under the Dilettanti’s auspices as The Antiquities of Athens. Despite nearly losing their drawings at sea, getting caught up in civil unrest and, in Revett’s case, having to escape would-be assassins by feigning madness, they came home in triumph in 1755 and were duly elected to the society. A sailor’s son from Scotland, Stuart not only joined the gentlemen but acquired the sobriquet ‘Athenian’, after which he seems to have developed an aristocratic taste for drink and leisure. When in 1769 the Dilettanti initiated and sponsored the expedition that resulted in Ionian Antiquities, Revett was joined instead by the artist William Pars and a scholar, the epigraphist Richard Chandler, who had never been abroad. ‘Turned fresh out of Magdalen to a difficult and somewhat fatiguing voyage’, as one Dilettante put it, he nevertheless survived the experience.

The published results found their way into the libraries of country houses and Oxford and Cambridge colleges, as well as the homes of Garrick, Sterne, Lancelot (Capability) Brown and Burke, who all subscribed to The Antiquities of Athens. Succeeding volumes took decades to appear and Stuart saw only the first of them through the press. Gradually, however, their effect was felt and the society presided, as J. Mordaunt Crook put it, over a ‘veritable second Renaissance’ in which the achievements of Rome were matched, and in many eyes surpassed, by those of Greece. The importance of the Dilettanti in bringing this about has long been acknowledged: Crook was writing more than 30 years ago, and their activities have been much discussed and documented since, most recently by Bruce Redford in his study Dilettanti (2008). Kelly’s contribution is to offer considerable and interesting detail about the various journeys, how they went, what was included, and how, in time, the Grecian taste began to spread. He also suggests, less successfully, another interpretation of the society’s projects by exploring the connections between their ventures in what he calls ‘archaeology’ and the mutable identity of the 18th-century gentleman.

Kelly, who has a habit of repeatedly setting out his intentions and conclusions in lists, as if writing a thesis, is bent on examining the question from three angles: ‘virtù’, ‘sociability’ and ‘libertinism’. It is not clear why he has chosen to divide his subject like this and while it leads him to make some good points it means he misses others. He distinguishes carefully between dilettanti and virtuosi but lumps together ‘antiquarians’, ‘connoisseurs’ and ‘their ilk’. He also fails to take enough account of the distinctions that were absent from this finely nuanced cultural landscape. To the Dilettanti and their contemporaries, ‘science’ simply meant knowledge and ‘scientist’ was not yet a word. Although, as a table at the end of the book shows, the gentlemen who pursued what was usually called ‘natural philosophy’ at the Royal Society included several Dilettanti and many antiquaries, Kelly does not consider the implications of the overlap. This makes it difficult to understand what he means by such phrases as ‘scientific and antiquarian communities’. More confusingly he offers no definition of ‘archaeology’, the term on which his argument about identity depends.

The year of Stuart and Revett’s return from their travels saw the publication of Johnson’s dictionary, which defines archaiology simply as ‘a discourse on antiquity’. The word was not much used and Johnson did not include it in the abridged version of the dictionary the next year. Stuart and Revett seem not to have used it at all. By 1837, when William Whewell gave it its most usual modern meaning, ‘the scientific study of the remains and monuments of the prehistoric period’, a great deal had changed in attitudes towards the past and the ways in which its physical remains could be used and understood. Some of these changes were reflected in the Dilettanti’s activities and Kelly might reasonably have argued that a contribution to the development of field archaeology was among their achievements. Instead, by begging the question of what exactly they thought they were doing, he finds himself having to grapple with difficulties largely of his own creation, which lead him to unsatisfactory conclusions along the lines of ‘the development of monumental classical archaeology in the British Enlightenment was rather inconsistent.’ In fact the society’s understanding of the value of the past and its monuments was, as he suggests, closely allied to their sense of themselves as gentlemen of taste. But their idea of what a ‘discourse on antiquity’ might be was significantly different from what the next century would understand as archaeology.

The most striking difference is the fact that The Antiquities of Athens and Ionian Antiquities are not much concerned with the fabric of ancient monuments in themselves. Stuart and Revett were artists, not historians or classicists. They copied inscriptions, relating them to ancient texts as they could, but the argument they deduced from the buildings and sculpture they measured and drew was primarily aesthetic. They were pursuing ‘the study of architecture’, and the argument of The Antiquities of Athens was about taste, specifically that the ‘true Taste and Elegance’ of Greek art were superior to the ‘ruined Edifices of Rome’ as ‘Models and Standard[s]’ to be copied in new buildings. The plates, with their measured details and profiles, were ‘the most useful and interesting part’ of the work. Although not many architects could afford to subscribe, their patrons did, and soon after their return Stuart and Revett were busy with commissions from the more go-ahead aristocrats in and around the Dilettanti circle. Stuart was creating delicately opulent interiors for Spencer House in London, while Revett added an Ionic portico to West Wycombe Park, Francis Dashwood’s Buckinghamshire home. As the fashion spread, the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall sported decorations in the Grecian taste. Architecture was the enduring legacy of the Dilettanti project, to be found in the streets of London, Liverpool and Edinburgh, ‘the Athens of the North’, in William Wilkins’s National Gallery, Elmes, Cockerell and Rawlinson’s St George’s Hall and Robert Smirke’s British Museum.

Although the scale and scope of the society’s activities was new, the premise that Greek monuments were valuable primarily as a visual quarry for the improvement of British art was not. Ever since the Earl of Arundel had begun to take an interest in Greek sculpture in the previous century the idea had been to ‘transplant old Greece into England’. In many cases it was a literal ambition. Stuart noted with regret in his journal that the ‘stones filled with inscription’ they found at Delphi were ‘rather too large to take away’ and the century ended with the arrival in London of the Parthenon marbles. Topographical artists like Stuart and Revett saw themselves as transporting antiquity metaphorically by translating it into the aesthetic language of the 18th century. Although, as Kelly points out, they made great play of the accuracy of their drawings, they took care to make them pleasing. Delphi was to be understood as ‘a most romantic spot’ set among ‘picturesque and immense rocks’. A Doric temple in its ‘awful dignity’ was an example of the sublime, as expounded by their subscriber Burke.

Intrepid as they were, Stuart and Revett were neither explorers nor excavators. Their archaeology involved no digging and took no notice of anything visually unappealing. Local people directed them to the sites and if, as was often the case, ‘it was … necessary to get a great quantity of earth and rubbish removed,’ Stuart and Revett paid someone to do it, often at ‘very considerable expense’. In so far as this sort of archaeology formed part of contemporary identity it established its practitioners and their audience as cultivated, genteel, scholarly and modern, patrons or practitioners of the arts. Gentlemen did not dig and they did not deal in rubbish or second-rate art. This was the view that lay behind Knight’s notorious dismissal of Elgin’s fragments of the Parthenon frieze as ‘not Greek’ but ‘Roman of the time of Hadrian’. In part it was a mistake based on the historical information available to him, but it was also an expression of taste. ‘These are merely architectural sculptures,’ he wrote, ‘meant to be seen at more than 40 feet from the eye.’ If they were not good art by contemporary standards, they had no value.

Yet even in the mid-18th century the Dilettanti view of ancient artefacts was not the only one. Just over the cultural fence, at the Royal Society and later at the Society of Antiquaries, a different and in the event more prescient approach to the remains of the past was going forward, one which Kelly ignores, although it too had its place in the shaping of ideas and identities. As early as 1719, William Stukeley, first secretary of the Antiquaries, had been presenting ‘curious communications’ about megaliths to the Royal Society. Twenty-two years before the first volume of The Antiquities of Athens appeared, he published his Stonehenge, which was followed by a volume on Avebury, the first archaeological surveys of both sites. Stukeley was not above doing his own digging; indeed having trained as a doctor and been a pioneer in the vertical dissection of corpses, he was inspired to apply the same technique to excavation and got ‘great pleasure and instruction’ from it.

Stukeley’s interest in British antiquities, so soon after the Act of Union, like his willingness to get his hands dirty, had clear social and political implications in his own and other minds. His first book, the Itinerarium Curiosum, published in 1724, was presented as an anti-grand tour of domestic places of interest. It explicitly suggested that rather than careering round the Continent, the ‘young nobility and gentry’ might do well to develop ‘a more intimate knowledge of Brittain’ [sic]. Stukeley was presenting himself as genteel, but self-consciously an expert, or ‘adept’ as he put it, with an interest in local history, all of which were anathema to a dilettante. The essential difference, however, was that Stukeley cared about the past for its own sake. Although he did build a little Druid temple in his garden, his purpose was not to revive early British art, but to establish what megaliths could tell him about themselves. He used his researches to develop a fuller knowledge of Stonehenge and Avebury as structures from which he deduced a complicated, not to say fantastical theory about the society that had built them.

This question of what the material past is for, whether it is to be investigated in its own terms as a way of understanding history and prehistory, or merely to be mined for its present usefulness, echoes through Kelly’s book without ever quite being addressed. Yet the virtuosi, the connoisseurs, the antiquaries and the rest all had their own variations in the discourses they undertook both on and with antiquity. If, for the Dilettanti, ancient Greece was largely a giant pattern book for drawing-rooms and garden temples, there was nevertheless something radical in their suggestion that Greek art was superior to Roman. This was a challenge not just to conventional taste, but to Enlightenment ideas of progress. The Greek was, in their account, a fountainhead, thus the idea of the primitive gave way to the idea of the pure and as the century went on and tendrils of romantic sensibility began to wrap themselves around the appreciation of classical art, so it acquired an associational, narrative interest. Curiosity about the past in itself, the little town in Tempe or in Arcady, began to enter the imagination if not of the Dilettanti then of those who were influenced by their rediscovery of Greece.

Among the Dilettanti themselves, there were other pasts that might be useful for the playing out of personalities. Dashwood and his companions in their mock monastic order of St Francis looked, as Walpole was doing at Strawberry Hill, to Gothic and Roman Catholic history as a setting for behaviour that self-consciously flouted prevailing mores. Although Dashwood had his own house improved in the Greek taste, he held his Rabelaisian revels at Medmenham Abbey, originally a Cistercian house of the 13th century, which he extended in the medieval style complete with cloisters. On his estate at Downton in Herefordshire, Knight built a house that was Gothic on the outside, to suit a picturesque landscape, but classical on the inside, as befitting a gentleman. All these permutations were revolved by Knight and his neighbouring squire and fellow Dilettante, Uvedale Price, in writings about taste and the picturesque at the turn of the 19th century about which Kelly says too little. Knight in particular was experimental, venturing beyond aesthetics into the nature of association, with an account of ancient art for which Pevsner could find no other word than ‘psychoanalytic’.

With the last decades of the century it is generally agreed that there was a falling off in the standing of the Dilettanti, though the reasons for it are disputed. Kelly argues, convincingly, that it had nothing to do with the appearance of Knight’s Worship of Priapus, a study of phallic ex-votos. The book was not a sensation. Its circulation was small and it was in any case far too late for anyone to be shocked by the society’s interest in sex. Nor did Knight’s misjudgment about the Parthenon Marbles in itself cause the loss of authority, although it was indicative of a change in cultural temper with which the society was out of step. Redford described this decline as the end of the age of the ‘amateur’, another word Kelly uses too casually, and that was certainly part of it. As private collections passed into museums the professionalisation of the past was beginning. At the same time the Revolutionary Wars made much of the Continent inaccessible and Stukeley’s domestic grand tour was more or less the only one available. It was no longer necessary to be rich to enter the debate about taste. Elizabeth Bennet could travel to Derbyshire in pursuit of the picturesque and Keats could seal a letter to his sister with a Tassie gem, one of the cheap reproduction cameos sold in Leicester Square.

All this would repay more, or more delicate, analysis than Kelly gives it. For him the change from Enlightenment to sentiment in viewing the remains of classical Greece offered ‘a syncretic epistemological support for a supposed hierarchy of ethnohistorical difference’. This seems harsh, as well as being clumsily put. He might bear in mind instead what Knight wrote in his Worship of Priapus about judging the past by the standards of the present; we should not, he said, ‘take this as an opportunity to slander the customs of the people who have left us such relics’.