The Dilettanti Society
The origin of this Society, which has now existed some 130 years, is due to certain gentlemen, who had travelled much in Italy, and were desirous of encouraging at home a taste for those objects which had contributed so much to their intellectual gratification abroad. Accordingly, in the year 1734, they formed themselves into a Society, under the name of Dilettanti, (literally, lovers of the Fine Arts,) and agreed upon certain Regulations to keep up the spirit of their scheme, which combined friendly and social intercourse with a serious and ardent desire to promote the Arts. In 1751, Mr. James Stuart, "Athenian Stuart," and Mr. Nicholas Revett, were elected members. The Society liberally assisted them in their excellent work, The Antiquities of Athens. In fact it was, in great measure, owing to this Society that after the death of the above two eminent architects, the work was not entirely relinquished; and a large number of the plates were engraved from drawings in the possession of the Dilettanti. Walpole, speaking in 1743, of the Society, in connexion with an opera subscription, says, "The nominal qualification [to be a member] is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy." We need scarcely add, that the qualifications for election are no longer what Walpole described them to have been.
In 1764, the Society being possessed of a considerable sum above what their services required, various schemes were proposed for applying part of this money; and it was at length resolved "that a person or persons properly qualified, should be sent, with sufficient appointments, to certain parts of the East, to collect information relative to the former state of those countries, and particularly to procure exact descriptions of the ruins of such monuments of antiquity as are yet to be seen in those parts."
Three persons were elected for this undertaking, Mr. Chandler, of Magdalen College, Oxford, editor of the Marmora Oxoniensia, was appointed to execute the classical part of the plan. Architecture was assigned to Mr. Revett; and the choice of a proper person for taking views and copying the bas-reliefs, fell upon Mr. Pars, a young painter of promise. Each person was strictly enjoined to keep a regular journal, and hold a constant correspondence with the Society.
The party embarked on June 9, 1764, in the Anglicana, bound for Constantinople, and were just at the Dardanelles on the 25th of August. Having visited the Sigæan Promontory, the ruins of Troas, with the islands of Tenedos and Scio, they arrived at the Smyrna on the 11th of September. From that city, as their head-quarters, they made several excursions. On the 20th of August, 1765, they sailed from Smyrna, and arrived at Athens on the 30th of the same month, having touched at Sunium and Ægina on their way. They staid at Athens till June 11, 1766, visiting Marathon, Eleusis, Salamis, Megara, and other places in the neighbourhood. Leaving Athens, they proceeded by the little island of Calauria to Trezene, Epidaurus, Argos, and Corinth. From this they visited Delphi, Patræ, Elis, and Zante, whence they sailed on the 31st of August, and arrived in England on the 2nd of November following, bringing with them an immense number of drawings, etc., the result of which was the publication, at the expense of the Society, of two magnificent volumes of Ionian Antiquities. The results of the expedition were also the two popular works, Chandler's Travels in Asia Minor, 1775; and his Travels in Greece, in the following year; also, the volume of Greek Inscriptions, 1774, containing the Sigæan inscription, the marble of which has been since brought to England by Lord Elgin; and the celebrated documents containing the reconstruction of the Temple of Minerva Polias, which Professor Wilkins illustrated in his Prolusiones Architectonicæ, 1837.
Walpole, in 1791, has this odd passage upon the Ionian Antiquities: "They who are industrious and correct, and wish to forget nothing, should go to Greece, where there is nothing left to be seen, but that ugly pigeon-house, the Temple of the Winds, that fly-cage, Demosthenes's Lantern, and one or two fragments of a portico, or a piece of a column crushed into a mud wall; and with such a morsel, and many quotations, a true classic antiquary can compose a whole folio, and call it Ionian Antiquities."
But, it may be asked, how came the Society to associate so freely pleasure with graver pursuits? To this it may be replied, that when the Dilettanti first met they avowed friendly and social intercourse the first object they had in view, although they soon showed that they would combine with it a serious plan for the promotion of the Arts in this country. For these persons were not scholars, nor even men of letters; they were some of the wealthiest noblemen and most fashionable men of the day, who would naturally sup with the Regent as he went through Paris, and find themselves quite at home in the Carnival of Venice. These, too, were times of what would now be considered very licentious merriment and very unscrupulous fun,—times when men of independent means and high rank addicted themselves to pleasure, and gave vent to their full animal spirits with a frankness that would now be deemed not only vulgar but indecorous, while they evinced an earnestness about objects now thought frivolous which it is very easy to represent as absurd. In assuming, however, the name of "Dilettanti" they evidently attached to it no light and superficial notion. The use of that word as one of disparagement or ridicule is quite recent. The same may be said of "Virtù," which, in the artistic sense, does not seem to be strictly academical, but that of "Virtuoso" is so, undoubtedly, and it means the "capable" man,—the man who has a right to judge on matters requiring a particular faculty: Dryden says: "Virtuoso the Italians call a man 'who loves the noble arts, and is a critic in them,' or, as old Glanville says,' 'who dwells in a higher region than other mortals.'
"Thus, when the Dilettanti mention 'the cause of virtue' as a high object which they will never abandon, they express their belief that the union into which they had entered had a more important purpose than any personal satisfaction could give it, and that they did engage themselves thereby in some degree to promote the advantage of their country and of mankind.
"Of all the merry meetings these gay gentlemen had together, small records remain. We, looking back out of a graver time, can only judge from the uninterrupted course of their festive gatherings, from the names of the statesmen, the wits, the scholars, the artists, the amateurs, that fill the catalogue, from the strange mixture of dignities and accessions to wealth for which, by the rules of the Society, fines were paid,—and above all, by the pictures which they possess,—how much of the pleasantry and the hearty enjoyment must have been mixed up with the more solid pursuits of the Members. Cast your eye over the list of those who met together at the table of the Dilettanti any time between 1770 and 1790." Here occur the names of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Earl Fitzwilliam, Charles James Fox, Hon. Stephen Fox (Lord Holland), Hon. Mr. Fitzpatrick, Charles Howard (Duke of Norfolk), Lord Robert Spencer, George Selwyn, Colonel Fitzgerald, Hon. H. Conway, Joseph Banks, Duke of Dorset, Sir William Hamilton, David Garrick, George Colman, Joseph Windham, R. Payne Knight, Sir George Beaumont, Towneley, and others of less posthumous fame, but probably of not less agreeable companionship.
The funds must have largely benefited by the payment of fines, some of which were very strange. Those paid "on increase of income, by inheritance, legacy, marriage, or preferment," are very odd; as, five guineas by Lord Grosvenor, on his marriage with Miss Leveson Gower; eleven guineas by the Duke of Bedford, on being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty; ten guineas compounded for by Bubb Dodington, as Treasurer of the Navy; two guineas by the Duke of Kingston for a Colonelcy of Horse (then valued at 400l. per annum); twenty-one pounds by Lord Sandwich on going out as Ambassador to the Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle; and twopence three-farthings by the same nobleman, on becoming Recorder of Huntingdon; thirteen shillings and fourpence by the Duke of Bedford, on getting the Garter; and sixteen shillings and eightpence (Scotch) by the Duke of Buccleuch, on getting the Thistle; twenty-one pounds by the Earl of Holdernesse, as Secretary of State; and nine pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence, by Charles James Fox, as a Lord of the Admiralty.
In 1814, another expedition was undertaken by the Society, when Sir William Gell, with Messrs. Gandy and Bedford, professional architects, proceeded to the Levant. Smyrna was again appointed the head-quarters of the mission, and fifty pounds per month was assigned to Gell, and two hundred pounds per annum to each of the architects. An additional outlay was required; and by this means the classical and antique literature of England was enriched with the fullest and most accurate descriptions of important remains of ancient art hitherto given to the world.
The contributions of the Society to the æsthetic studies of the time also deserve notice. The excellent design to publish Select Specimens of Antient Sculpture preserved in the several Collections of Great Britain was carried into effect by Messrs. Payne Knight and Mr. Towneley, 2 vols. folio, 1809-1835. Then followed Mr. Penrose's Investigations into the Principles of Athenian Architecture, printed in 1851.
About the year 1820, those admirable monuments of Grecian art, called the Bronzes of Siris, were discovered on the banks of that river, and were brought to this country by the Chevalier Brondsted. The Dilettanti Society immediately organized a subscription of 800l., and the Trustees of the British Museum completed the purchase by the additional sum of 200l.
It was mainly through the influence and patronage of the Dilettanti Society that the Royal Academy obtained a Charter. In 1774, the interest of 4000l. three per cents. was appropriated by the former for the purpose of sending two students, recommended by the Royal Academy, to study in Italy or Greece for three years.
In 1835 appeared a Second Volume on Ancient Sculpture. The Society at this time included, among a list of sixty-four names of the noble and learned, those of Sir William Gell, Mr. Towneley, Richard Westmacott, Henry Hallam, the Duke of Bedford, Sir M. A. Shee, P.R.A., Henry T. Hope; and Lord Prudhoe, afterwards Duke of Northumberland.
That a Society possessing so much wealth and social importance as the Dilettanti should not have built for themselves a mansion is surprising. In 1747 they obtained a plot of ground in Cavendish Square, for this purpose; but in 1760, they disposed of the property. Between 1761 and 1764 the project of an edifice in Piccadilly, on the model of the Temple of Pola, was agitated by the Committee; two sites were proposed, one between Devonshire and Bath Houses, the other on the west side of Cambridge House. This scheme was also abandoned.
Meanwhile the Society were accustomed to meet at the Thatched House Tavern, the large room of which was hung with portraits of the Dilettanti. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was a member, painted for the Society three capital pictures:—1. A group in the manner of Paul Veronese, containing the portraits of the Duke of Leeds, Lord Dundas, Constantine Lord Mulgrave, Lord Seaforth, the Hon. Charles Greville, Charles Crowle, Esq., and Sir Joseph Banks. 2. A group in the manner of the same master, containing portraits of Sir William Hamilton, Sir Watkin W. Wynne, Richard Thomson, Esq., Sir John Taylor, Payne Galway, Esq., John Smythe, Esq., and Spencer S. Stanhope, Esq. 3. Head of Sir Joshua, dressed in a loose robe, and in his own hair. The earlier portraits are by Hudson, Reynolds's master.
Some of these portraits are in the costume familiar to us through Hogarth; others are in Turkish or Roman dresses. There is a mixture of the convivial in all these pictures: many are using wine-glasses of no small size: Lord Sandwich, for instance, in a Turkish costume, casts a most unorthodox glance upon a brimming goblet in his left hand, while his right holds a flask of great capacity. Sir Bouchier Wray is seated in the cabin of a ship, mixing punch, and eagerly embracing the bowl, of which a lurch of the sea would seem about to deprive him: the inscription is Dulce est desipere in loco. Here is a curious old portrait of the Earl of Holdernesse, in a red cap, as a gondolier, with the Rialto and Venice in the background; there is Charles Sackville, Duke of Dorset, as a Roman senator, dated 1738; Lord Galloway, in the dress of a cardinal; and a very singular likeness of one of the earliest of the Dilettanti, Lord Le Despencer, as a monk at his devotions: his Lordship is clasping a brimming goblet for his rosary, and his eyes are not very piously fixed on a statue of the Venus de' Medici. It must be conceded that some of these pictures remind one of the Medmenham orgies, with which some of the Dilettanti were not unfamiliar. The ceiling of the large room was painted to represent sky, and crossed by gold cords interlacing each other, and from their knots were hung three large glass chandeliers.
The Thatched House has disappeared, but the pictures have been well cared for. The Dilettanti have removed to another tavern, and dine together on the first Sunday in every month, from February to July. The late Lord Aberdeen, the Marquises of Northampton and Lansdowne, and Colonel Leake, and Mr. Broderip, were members; as was also the late Lord Northwick, whose large collection of pictures at Thirlestane, Cheltenham, was dispersed by sale in 1859.
 Edinburgh Review, No. 214, p. 500.
Club Life of London Vol. I