The Society of Dilettanti and the Planning of a Museum


“The Society of Dilettanti and the Planning of a Museum”Dr. Jason M. Kelly Assistant Professor of British History Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis


Society of Dilettanti
Joshua Reynolds. The Dilettanti Vase Group: Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Bt. (in President’s robes); John Taylor; Stephen Payne-Gallway; Sir William Hamilton; Richard Thompson (in Arch Master robes); Walter Spencer-Stanhope; John Smyth. 1777-9. Oil on canvas. 196.8 x 142.2 cm. London, Society of Dilettanti. Photograph: Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art

The Society of Dilettanti was formed in 1732 by a group of elite men whose travel to Italy brought them into the same associational circles.[i] The 1736 roll included forty-eight men, and this number remained more or less stable throughout the century. Originally formed as a convivial dining society, by mid-century the Society of Dilettanti took on a new role in cultural matters through sponsoring several studies of the ancient art of Greece as well as through their support of new institutions such as the Royal Academy and the British Museum.  While the Society of Dilettanti is often remembered for its youthful members' indiscretions, today I want to ignore them and focus on the group's interest in what contemporaries would have called "polite knowledge," and more particularly its consequences for their plans to construct an academy and a museum for the Dilettanti between 1748 and 1768.

My talk emerges from the research for my book, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 2010).  It is based on the premise that even though the Society of Dilettanti's immediate goals of founding an academy and a museum were never realized, the group's activities fundamentally transformed what I refer to in The Society of Dilettanti as the eighteenth-century "culture of dilettantism."  This culture of dilettantism helped set the stage for the creation of such institutions as the Royal Academy.  And, when the members of the Society of Dilettanti -- men such as Sir William Hamilton, Charles Townley, and Richard Payne Knight -- considered the role that their aesthetic interests would play in the wider world, they decided to offer their important collections to the British Museum.

While this talk focuses on the Dilettanti's projects in London, it should be kept in mind that the members of the group made up the core of the major collectors of classical antiquities in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland.  Because of this, we may reflect on the fact that the Dilettanti's academy and museum projects were never entirely dissociated from their interests in building their private collections, both in the city and in the countryside.  And, while I won't have time to discuss it today, we might consider the fact that the Dilettanti's projects mirrored changing patterns of collecting and display in their house museums.  For example, over the course of the century, we see increased regulation of private collections.  This regulation took several forms.

First, traditional notions of hospitality gave way to notions of increased divisions between elites and the public.  In the context of the country house, this meant that there were fewer feasts and election entertainments, which limited access to house collections.  When tenants were invited to the manor house, they were more often separated from the host and his friends.  This could mean that tenants dined on one level, while the local elites dined on another.  Eighteenth-century architecture reflected this transformation with halls often dissociated from circuits of rooms for entertaining.

Secondly, the growth in country house tourism meant that those who visited were increasingly regulated in the style of their visit.  Rather than being hosted by the owner as hospitality guidebooks suggested, visitors were more likely to be guided by servants who sold guides, demanded tips, and oftentimes rushed visitors through the house.  Demands for access to houses -- and it is interesting the extent to which tourists saw it as their right to enter manor houses -- were ignored despite the idealization of hosting all comers in the literature of hospitality.  And, by the second half of the century, some owners of townhouses restricted access by ticket admission.

The Academy Schemes of 1748-1756

While originally simply a dining society with a tendency towards libertinism, by the 1740s, the members of the Dilettanti began to rethink the identity of the society within the British social world.  Certainly, the members wanted to retain the group’s convivial elements, but they also wanted to distinguish it from the average club.  They commissioned paintings and regalia.  They even sponsored the Earl of Middlesex's opera for the 1744 season.  Most importantly, the group purchased a plot of land in Cavendish Square on which to build a formal assembly room in 1747, a decision commemorated in George Knapton’s 1742 portrait of Henry Harris.[ii] By 1748, the Society of Dilettanti turned its attention to becoming patrons to a new national academy of arts in London.  This development in the Society of Dilettanti’s interests was both an accident of the events of 1748 and an institutionalization of the interests that they had cultivated while on the grand tour.  Within a few years, the Dilettanti’s efforts to appear as contributors to art and public science became a parallel rhetoric to the libertinism that had earlier characterized the group.  So, at the same time the group enjoyed their private vices, the British public would benefit from their munificence.  The Society of Dilettanti was at the center of public discussions about a national academy of arts between 1748 and 1756, when the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce began hosting exhibitions with premiums.

In 1748, a group of London-based artists, including William Hogarth and Allan Ramsay, were meeting regularly at the newly instituted Foundling Hospital.  This was in addition to the other academies meeting in London and well described by Dr. Ilaria Bignamini.  At the Foundling Hospital, artists displayed their works to a relatively broad middling and elite public.  In fact, after 1745, the Foundling Hospital functioned as a public art gallery of sorts.  The artists had regular contact with the Board of Governors and financial contributors, which included a number of Dilettanti members.  During 1748, John Gwynn, one of the artists, drafted An Essay on Design: Including Proposals for Erecting a Public Academy to be Supported by Voluntary Subscription, which found its way to the Society of Dilettanti through the hands of Robert Dingley (Dil. 1736).[iii] Dingley, a founding member of the Dilettanti, was an active patron of the Foundling Hospital.[iv] In February 1749, Dingley and six other members of the Dilettanti’s Building Committee met in a London tavern.  Led by their chairman and toastmaster, Lord Holdernesse, the group, by their own admission, grew “a little noisy and drunk” – par for the course at any Dilettanti meeting.[v] But their meeting also marked a decisive moment in the Society’s history, for, between toasts, the men approved funding for John Gwynn’s plan for a Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

Why plans for an academy were in the works in the 1740s is due to a number of factors.  As Dr. Bignamini argued, it was, in part, a response to Jean-Bernard le Blanc's (1707-81) Lettres, published in French in 1745 and in English in 1747.[vi] In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Dubos (1670-1742), Le Blanc wrote that "Painting, sculpture and the other arts that depend on drawing, are as yet either unknown here, or in their infancy at most.[vii] He attacked both English taste and British artists, and the cause of this situation was partly the lack of an academy.  Le Blanc described those groups that saw themselves as respectable associations or academies, such as the Dilettanti, as follows: "All those societies in a word, under the imposing names of independents, LITERATI, VIRTUOSI, &c. are nothing more than clubs of topers [buveurs]: and after the pleasures of the table, they seldom relish any but those of gaming."[viii] To what extent Le Blanc's attacks prompted the artists and Dilettanti to form an academy is debatable. But, le Blanc's arguments did not go unnoticed.[ix]

However, there were other forces at work that encouraged the Dilettanti's support for the creation of an artistic academy in the late 1740s.  First, if we look at the foundation of literary, artistic, and scientific academies across Europe in general, we see a significant increase in the numbers that were founded between 1740 and 1760.[x] Thus, to some extent, their interest was tied to a more general transformation within Europe towards forming academic institutions.

The Foundation of Academies in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Of course, we must also keep in mind that the 1740s were the years of the War of Austrian Succession.  By the late 1740s, the British had recently put down the Jacobite invasion of 1745 and were riding a wave of success against France and Spain.  Patriotism was at a high, and it manifested itself in the arts as well as in politics.  A note in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1749 argued, "That the English excel in genius, and have a natural taste superior to that of foreigners, I think, is very evident, from the great improvements which they have made in the polite arts, unassisted by the important auxiliaries which are furnished abroad by public academies."[xi] Thus, the impetus of national interest encouraged the Dilettanti to pursue the establishment of an academy that would bring honor to them and improvement to the nation.

There were other political impetuses as well.  During the 1740s, Frederick, the Prince of Wales, was forming what A.N. Newman once called a "shadow court."[xii] Central to this court was artistic patronage.  We should not be surprised that prominent within Frederick's circle were members of the Dilettanti.  Arguably the most important position, Master of Horse, went to the Earl of Middlesex.  They had the ear of the Prince and no doubt Frederick knew that the Dilettanti was considering helping to found an Academy of Arts in London.  In fact, soon after John Gwynn published his proposal for an academy, George Vertue was discussing royal sponsorship with the Prince.[xiii] The plan must have been gaining traction, for Francis Hayman began sketching a painting showing the artists petitioning the Prince in 1750-1 (Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).  With the Prince's death in 1751 however, the artists' and dilettanti's hopes for a royal academy were dashed.

Economic interests were on the minds of the patrons of the national academy.  Many expected that it would provide premiums for artisans who worked in industries that competed internationally.  Thus one writer optimistically proclaimed:

" Tho' I am as great a friend to the British Herring fishery as any man in it, I am yet convinced that [a national academy of art] would bring as much money into this nation as can be drawn out of the ocean in herrings by all the nets in the island.[xiv]

In addition to the general impetuses of competition with France, nationalism, links to the court of Frederick, and economic interests, transformations within the Society of Dilettanti went a long way to inspiring them to support an academy.  First, the Society of Dilettanti's membership was aging.  They were established in politics and society, and there was an increased interest in the 1740s to become seen publicly as something more than just a club.  Thus, they purchased the land in Cavendish Square to establish a home for the group.  Secondly, the languages of duty to the "public good" and "polite learning" were becoming powerful signifiers of social standing in the early 1700s.  This is why between 1720 and 1750, we see the establishment of so many hospitals and charity schools.  To be a reputable individual meant improving the nation.  Societies that supported the sciences clearly had a practical import, but so did those that supported the arts.  In eighteenth-century parlance, they had the potential to elevate the morals and character of the nation.   As Lord Kames wrote, "Refinement of taste in a nation, is always accompanied with refinement of manners: people accustomed to behold order and elegance in public buildings and public gardens, acquire urbanity in private."[xv]

So, when Dingley presented Gwynn's proposals to the members of the Dilettanti, they were receptive.  Any sponsorship contributed to their reputation and to the nation. Gwynn’s proposed academy was modeled on France’s academies.  Initially, it would be subscription-based, but he hoped that George II and Parliament would eventually support it as a chartered academy.  Gwynn suggested that the academy have a private residence and that "there should be a Fund to support [the students]."[xvi] In response, the Dilettanti immediately committed awards for the first and second place prizes in the painting, sculpture, and architecture.  Their support won praise from George Vertue who called the Society of Dilettanti “The Grand Clubb for promoting the Arts of Drawing, painting, &c.”[xvii]

Thus, in 1749, the Society of Dilettanti began rethinking the nature of the group’s planned clubroom in Cavendish Square.  Rather than simply being an association room, the group flirted with a grander plan of turning their meeting space into a sculpture gallery and academy premises in accordance with Gwynn’s proposal.  Several Dilettanti members commissioned architects to contribute designs for the new academy.

George Gray probably encouraged John Vardy, to contribute a design in 1751.[xviii] That same year, James Gray, George’s brother in Venice, prompted a promising young architect, Stephen Riou to submit a building plan.[xix] Riou’s neo-Palladian design provided a cast gallery as well as “commodious appartments for the different services of an House hold – including Director Pensioners &c.”[xx]

Jolivet's Plan for Cavendish Square

Sometime between 5 May 1751 and 3 May 1752, Francis Dashwood had his architect, Maurice-Louis Jolivet, draft a design as well.[xxi] Jolivet’s plan proposed a four-column portico on the north and south entrances.  On the east wing would be the “Academy for Painting and Sculpture,” and on the west wing would be the “Academy for Architecture.”  The main body of the house would serve as the Dilettanti’s “Grand Council Room,” which included a cast gallery.  But, in the end (May 1752), the Society of Dilettanti decided on an "Antique Building as a Model."[xxii] The building in question was the consequence of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's drawings of Pola, which James Gray, then Resident at Venice, presented to the Dilettanti in early 1753.[xxiii]

However, momentum stalled.  It took until the 1755 season for an academy scheme to gain traction.  This was prompted by the return of Stuart and Revett from Greece.  As both artists and members of the Society of Dilettanti, they served as mediators between the practitioners and patrons of the arts.  The new scheme by the “Select Committee of Painters, Statuaries, Architects, Gravers, &c.” was little more than an updated version of John Gwynn’s earlier proposal to the Dilettanti.  And, in fact, Gwynn was one of the signatories on the petition to the Dilettanti in January 1755.[xxiv] It claimed that if in fact the Dilettanti sponsored an academy, “the Productions of our Painters, Statuaries and Architects, could be brought to equal those of our Authors [i.e. Shakespeare, Milton, and Newton], it would become as much a Requisite to a finish’d Education for those abroad to visit us.”[xxv] In other words, if the Dilettanti would support their work, the grand tour would be flipped on its head.

Much has been written about the Dilettanti's failure to support the academy.  William Hogarth claimed that the Dilettanti were seeking to control the academy and that the artists would have none of it.  But this is not entirely true.  The Dilettanti did seek to control the academy, but along the lines of the French academy system.  Robert Strange, provided a counterpoint to Hogarth, accusing artists such as Hogarth for undermining the project.  He wrote, “satisfied with their own performances and the moderate degree of abilities they possessed, wished, I believe, for nothing more than to remain, as they then were, masters of the field.”[xxvi]

In the end, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (1756) and the Duke of Richmond's gallery (1758) filled the role that the Dilettanti wished to play -- at least in the short term -- and the Dilettanti abandoned their plans, appealing "to the trustees of the British Museum" to inquire whether there were rooms at Montagu House for the society,”[xxvii] Likely, the Dilettanti hoped to add a cast gallery to Montagu House, providing the British Museum with a much needed collection of sculptures.  This then was the first attempt by the Dilettanti that focused solely on a museum.  And, it was towards the display of classical antiquities that the Dilettanti then turned its interests.

A Dilettanti Museum, 1761-1768

In March 1761, Dilettanti members discussed the possibility of creating a cast gallery.[xxviii] It would be a museum, representing the “best Statues, Bustsos & Bass-relievos & that may be now in Great-Britain & Ireland.”[xxix] The committee also decided to “purchase abroad, any fine Casts of the best Statues, &c. ------ in the manner, & att the time the Society shall direct.”[xxx] Dilettanti members who had contacts in Europe would “make out the names of such Gentlemen abroad, who they think, might be willing to assist, in procuring those peices [sic] of Virtù, wch are the objects the Society have in view, & letters to be wrote to ‘em, & signed by their members – desiring their assistance on this occasion.[xxxi] The significance of this move should not be overlooked.  The only comparable projects were Matthew Brettingham’s aborted plan for a cast gallery in 1749 and the Duke of Richmond’s cast gallery, which opened in 1758.[xxxii] Since the Duke of Richmond’s gallery already catered to artists, there was not a strong need for another cast academy in London.

Instead, what the Dilettanti were proposing was a public sculpture gallery.  The Dilettanti planned to amass the masterpieces of antiquity into a single building, creating the best classical collection in Europe.  They again hoped to build a structure based on “an exact copy of an Antique Templle [sic]” – something completely unique that wou’d be a publick ornament, & the first examplle [sic] of this kind in his Majesty’s Dominions – & redound greatly to the honour of this Society.”[xxxiii] But, the discussion was tabled until 1764.

When the plan re-emerged in 1764, the members of the Dilettanti sought not only to create a museum, but to obtain a royal charter.  They wanted to be an organization on par with the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries.  The building scheme that they proposed illustrates how they imagined their significance in the British cultural landscape, figuratively and actually.  The Society of Antiquaries leased the premises of the former Robin’s Coffee House in Chancery Lane.[xxxiv] The Royal Society had two buildings on Crane Court, near Fleet Street.  As institutional premises they were diminutive, especially when compared to the premises housing the continental academies.  The Dilettanti desired a building that would double as a public gallery and a meeting space.  Ideally, it would rival their continental counterparts and place the Dilettanti at the forefront of British architectural taste.  The group proposed two locations off Green Park.[xxxv]

Of the many architects to whom the Dilettanti could turn, they asked a relatively unknown to draw up an outline.    William Newton, worked in the office of Stuart and Revett’s friend’s father, Matthew Brettingham the elder.[xxxvi] Newton’s original notes from his first meetings with members of the Dilettanti’s Building Committee still survive.[xxxvii] Outlining four key elements of architecture, “the Use,” “Place, “Person”, and “Ornaments,” the notes give an idea of what the Dilettanti wanted him to design.  The building’s use was for a new academy “for Promoting & Discoursing on fine Arts.”  Expanded from the earlier incarnations of their plan, this new academy had a more general understanding of the “Polite Arts.”  The iconography included representations of poetry, painting, music, sculpture, and architecture, suggesting that the building would be a museum to the arts in general.  In the spirit of neoclassicism, the Building committee wanted a structure that was “Elegant Delicate Genteel Refin’d,” and “Display of ye Greatest Genius Purity & perfection in ye Arts and of ye Use Honour [&] pleasure of them.”  Purpose-built for a “Great City,” it needed to avoid any rural or provincial elements by being “Very Refin’d, regular Civiliz’d.”

Newton sketched several concepts for the Society of Dilettanti.  The design which most caught the Society’s interest, was a relatively derivative version of Colen Campbell’s design for the east wing of Henry Hoare’s Stourhead.[xxxviii] Campbell’s precedent was Palladio’s Villa Emo at Fanzolo, but his treatment of the columns is reminiscent of the façade of Il Redentore which Stuart had earlier sketched.  The floor plan departed from both Campbell and Palladio.  Through the entrance, one entered an Ionic Hall.  To the left and right were Committee Rooms, and, unlike Jolivet’s earlier Dilettanti design, there were no studio rooms for teaching.  The Ionic Hall led to the Great Room, for which several designs exist, including some with a cupola.  This room would hold the Dilettanti’s sculpture gallery, many of which would be placed in wall niches around the room.  The coves and the ceiling of the Great Room would be painted and lit by a combination of light from the cupola and windows hidden behind the wall and cornice.[xxxix]

The Society of Dilettanti’s choice of a Palladian Villa in Green Park underlines the Society of Dilettanti’s aesthetic program, which, while recognizing the beauty of classical buildings, did not advocate a wholesale rejection of modern artistic invention – despite, on occasion, flirting with the idea of a residence modeled on a classical building.  Rather, in unity with the general ambivalence in British circles to the Greek-Roman debate, they saw architectural design as subservient to an overarching classical aesthetic derived from ancient precedents.  The ancients’ art and architecture embodied a transcendental idea of beauty, which, if captured, could be represented through a variety of innovative forms.  Thus, in Newton’s notes, he transcribed their idea of creating a “Gallery of Ancient Merit” and a “Gallery of Modern Merit,” essentially a sculptural program that paralleled Ancient and Modern genius.[xl] As in Shaftesbury, beauty was an eternal ideal, regardless of time, but only in certain periods or through certain individuals sensible to this ideal could true perfection be realized.

The King rejected their plan, and by January 1767, the group was again looking for premises.[xli] Nevertheless, their efforts in 1764 are representative of the Society of Dilettanti’s attempt to reshape its image as a group on par with other important British organizations such as the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries.

The Afterlife of the Museum

From the late 1760s through the early 1780s, most of the Dilettanti's funds went towards publishing projects, especially the Antiquities of Ionia.  But, from 1784, the Society of Dilettanti began considering its legacy.  And, once again, a plan for reviving a Dilettanti museum resurfaced.  The instigator of the new plan was Thomas Pitt, Baron Camelford (Dil. 1763), whose scheme helped bring the young John Soane to prominence among dilettanti patrons.  Camelford became a member the same year that Stuart and Revett published Antiquities of Athens.  He had been with the Dilettanti through the Ionian expedition, and he had seen the marbles with which Chandler, Revett, and Pars returned.  Most importantly for later artists were two fragments from the Parthenon north frieze, but contemporaries were also interested in the ten inscriptions they collected.[xlii] Camelford’s plan coincided with the Dilettanti’s decision to lend the two fragments of the Parthenon frieze to the Royal Academy and donate their inscription collection to the British Museum.[xliii] Two active, but little remembered members and allies of Richard Payne Knight,– John Peachey, later 2nd Baron Selsey, and Joseph Windham, the draughtsman for Charles Cameron’s Baths of the Romans (1772) – proposed the donation of the inscriptions.[xliv] By depositing their marbles in the British Museum, the Dilettanti hoped to increase its public notoriety.  The motion, which the group passed in the affirmative, stated that inscriptions should credit the Dilettanti:

The Members of the Dillettenti [sic] Society who are Trustees of the British Museum shall approve & proper inscriptions be affixed to them Commemorating the gift of the Dilletenti Society.[xlv]

Still, the importance of these sculptures for the Society of Dilettanti should not be overestimated.  Until Flaxman requested to copy one of the Parthenon panels in 1783, the sculptures and inscriptions were treated as an afterthought to their other endeavors.[xlvi] Entering the collection of Thomas Brand (Dil. 1741/2) in 1766, they remained at his estate, The Hoo, Hertfordshire, until his death in 1770.  Between 1771, when the Dilettanti requested the return of their collections from Hollis’s son, and 1784, the marbles passed through the houses of John Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil (Dil. 1764), Bessborough, and Joseph Banks.[xlvii] One wonders whether any prominence was given to the Dilettanti collection considering these owners’ other collections.  And, the fact that Bessborough damaged one of the inscriptions (which him to donate three marble heads to the Dilettanti) may indicate that the Dilettanti marbles were generally neglected.

Camelford broached the topic of a museum to Joseph Banks, the Secretary to the Dilettanti, in 1784, perhaps in reaction to the dispersion of the Society’s collections.  The idea was to have John Soane redesign the two townhouses that Camelford owned in Grosvenor Square for the Dilettanti.  Camelford had built the townhouses on speculation, and could not rid himself of them at auction.  In return for his offer, the Society would pay for the rent, allow him to retain ownership of the gardens, and provide him with a private entrance to the library.[xlviii] Before Banks could present the plan to the Society of Dilettanti, Camelford’s architect, John Soane began planning the proposed £2500 renovation, which he published in 1788.  The rooms would house casts of important classical sculptures and a library.  The ground floor would be a library, and the first floor would be a museum with a small “Council Chamber” of nineteen by sixteen feet.  The museum had three galleries – two twenty by thirty foot galleries and a third fifty-two by twenty foot hall.  The room itself would reflect the history and archaeological interests of the Society of Dilettanti.  In the galleries, Ionic screens separated the large gallery from the small galleries.  The order that Soane proposed was that of the Temple of Minerva Polias in Athens, long associated with the designs of James Stuart.  The frieze replicated that of the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome.  The sculpture niches were pedimented with twisted, Ionic columns, and above them were inset medallions.  Above a large, coved niche in the center of the hall was a bas relief of a sacrificial procession, which Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey has argued may have been Soane’s proposed position for the Parthenon friezes.  In all, the plan alluded to the display of antiquities in Roman museums, quite probably the Cortile di Palazzo della Valle Capranica, reinterpreted for a neoclassical audience.

Banks put the following proposal before the Society of Dilettanti February 1785:

We have the most noble repositories for natural History, and we have establishments for the encouragement of the Arts; but a Musaeum for what is properly called Virtu has been long wanting.  I am persuaded that were such a gallery once inistuted, contributions would not be wanting; and that valuable acquisitions would soon render it an object to all such as have s true relish for the beauties of Antiquity.[xlix]

The Society rejected the proposal, arguing the “Expence of Providing Furniture & Inside decorations & the Annual Charge of Ground rent Repairs Taxes Servants &c.”[l] Perhaps, the group reacted negatively to a scheme that seemed self-aggrandizing on Camelford’s part.  On the other hand, the costs of a 1785 supplement to volume 1 of Ionian Antiquities, the second volume of Antiquities of Ionia, and Knight’s Priapus were costing them dearly.  Coupled with a general ambivalence to the Society’s collections, this may have ultimately led to the rejection of the final museum scheme.             Having deposited their collections of sculptures and inscriptions and abandoned any pretensions to a museum, the Dilettanti bound Pars’s and Revett’s drawings into two volumes in 1799 and donated them as well.[li] By 1800, the Society’s entire Enlightenment archive – except for the Parthenon frieze slabs – became part of the British Museum.


In the end, the Society of Dilettanti was not successful in their immediate objectives.  Nevertheless, they were influential and indirectly responsible for helping to shape the landscape of academy life and museum culture in eighteenth-century England.  For example, the first three PresideSociety of Dilettantints of the Royal Academy were active members of the Society of Dilettanti.  And, the collection of antiquities at the British Museum owes much to its Dilettanti patrons, who also served prominent trustees.

For more information on the Society of Dilettanti and the eighteenth-century culture of dilettantism, see Jason M. Kelly, The Society Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 2010).  Available from Yale's UK and US websites.

[i]A note on abbreviations: The Society of Dilettanti's Minute Books and Letter Books have been deposited at the Society of Antiquaries in London.  SDSM refers to the Dilettanti's minute books.  SDCM refers to the Committee minute books.  SDLB refers to the letter books.

[ii] Plans for a building were afoot as early as 1741/2 when the Dilettanti began a voluntary subscription.  But, the Building Committee was only approved for £400 to purchase land from the cash-strapped Henry Brydges, 2nd Duke of Chandos, on 6 December 1747.  SDSM, 7 March 1741/2 and 6 December 1747.

[iii] John Gwynn, An Essay on Design: Including Proposals for Erecting a Public Academy to be Supported by Voluntary Subscription, (Till a Royal Foundation can be Obtained) for Educating the British Youth in Drawing, and the Several Arts Depending Thereon (London and Dublin, 1749), p. 42.  The plan was printed on 17 March 1749 after receiving the Dilettanti’s approval.  See General Advertiser, no. 4488 (17 March 1769).  All references are to the London printing.

[iv] John H. Appleby, “Robert Dingley, F.R.S. (1710-1781): Merchant, Architect, and Pioneering Philanthropist,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 45, no. 2 (1991), pp. 139-54.

[v] SDCM, 18 February 1748/9.

[vi] Jean-Bernard le Blanc, Lettres d’un Français concernant le gouvernement, la politique et les moeurs des Anglois et des François, 3 vols (The Hague, 1745) and Letters on the English and French nations, 2 vols. (London, 1747).

[vii] Le Blanc, Letters on the English, p. 156.

[viii] Le Blanc, Letters on the English, p. 39.

[ix] James Parsons, Human physiognomy explain'd: in the Crounian lectures on muscular motion (London, 1747), pp. iv-v.

[x] The chart below is based on data extracted from the University of Waterloo Library's Scholarly Societies Project, see <>.

[xi] Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 19 (July 1749): 319.

[xii] A.N. Newman, "Communication," Historical Journal 1, no. 1 (1958): 68-75, 68.

[xiii] Bignamini, "George Vertue," p. 14.  Bignamini claims that Vertue's Scheme for an Academy and Drawing School dates to this July 1749 when he was discussing the academy with the Prince.  See Vertue, Notebooks II, Walpole Society, vol. 20 (1931-32): 150-55 and Bignamini, "The Accompaniment to Patronage: A Study of the Origins, Rise and Development of an Institutional System for the Arts in Britain, 1692-1768" (Ph.D. Thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1988), pp. 404-18.

[xiv] Spectator (1753), no. 4 (13 November 1753): 20.

[xv] Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 1, ed. James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), p. 118.

[xvi] Gwynn, Essay on Design, p. 31.

[xvii] George Vertue, “Vertue - VI. Miscellaneous Note-books and Notes,” Walpole Society 30 (1955), p. 150.

[xviii] James Vardy and George Gray, Design for Spencer House, 1760, RIBA MSS SD47/16.  Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain 1760-1791; The Free Society of Artists 1761-1783: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from the Foundation of the Societies to 1791 (Bath: Kingsmead Reprints, 1969 [1907]), p. 266.

[xix] Stephen Riou to William Lee, 27 December 1753, RIBA MSS DC/Riou, Stephen; James Bettley, “A Design by Stephen Riou for an Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture,” Burlington Magazine, 128, no. 1001 (1986): 579, 581-2.

[xx] Riou to Lee, 27 December 1753.

[xxi] SDSM, 5 May 1751 and 6 May 1753; Dashwood to George Gray, 9 July 1753, SDLB, f. 105.  Anne Purchas, “Maurice-Louis Jolivet’s Drawings at West Wycombe Park,” Architectural History 37 (1994): 68-79 suggests a terminus ante quem of 9 July 1753 for Jolivet’s drawing, since this is the date that he left West Wycombe.  However, since the Dilettanti decided on an “Antique Building as a Model” on 3 May 1752, this should serve as a new terminus ante quem.

[xxii] SDSM, 3 May 1752.

[xxiii] Giornale de’ Letterati, Rome, 1753, pp. 367-8. Gray left his post at Venice in August 1752, asking Holdernesse to replace him.  See Gray to Holderness, 28 October 1751 NS and 28 June 1752, BL Eg. MSS 3464, ff. 252r, 368r-369v.  He left Italy, returning via Genoa to his new post at Naples in 18 December 1753.  See Gray to Holderness, 22 December 1753, BL Eg. 3464, ff. 303r-304v.

[xxiv] Select Committee of Painters, Statuaries, Architects, Gravers, &c. to the Society of Dilettanti, 31 January 1755, SDLB, f. 122.  The first rumblings of the plan were heard in London on 23 October 1753.  See William Sandby, The History of the Royal Academy of Arts from Its Foundation to the Present Time, v. 1 (London: Longman, 1862), pp. 26-7.  This should be compared to An Essay In Two Parts, On The Necessity and Form Of A Royal Academy For Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (London, 1755).

[xxv] Select Committee of Painters, Statuaries, Architects, Gravers, &c. to the Society of Dilettanti, 31 January 1755, SDLB, f. 125v.

[xxvi] Strange, Inquiry, p. 61.

[xxvii] SDSM, 6 April 1756.

[xxviii] SDSM, 1 March 1761.

[xxix] SDLB, 7 March 1761, f. 152r.

[xxx] SDLB, 7 March 1761, f. 152r

[xxxi] SDLB, 7 March 1761, f. 152r

[xxxii] J. Kenworthy-Browne, “Designing around Statues, Matthew Brettingham’s Casts at Kedleston,” Apollo 137 (1993): 248-52 and “Matthew Brettingham’s Rome Account Book 1747-1754,” Walpole Society 49 (1983): 37-132; Kurtz, The Reception of Classical Art in Britain, pp. 130-132; Martin Postle, "Naked Authority? Reproducing Antique Statuary in the English Academy, from Lely to Haydon," Sculpture and Its Reproductions, ed. Anne Hughes and Erich Ranfft (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), pp. 79-99.

[xxxiii] SDLB, 14 March 1761, f. 153r.

[xxxiv] Joan Evans, A History of the Society of Antiquaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 112.

[xxxv] SDCM, 1 May 1764.

[xxxvi] Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 2nd ed (London: J. Murray, 1978), p. 591.

[xxxvii] William Newton, “Notes and Design for an Academy of Arts & Sciences,” ca. 1760,  RIBA SC115/3/1v.

[xxxviii] Colen Campbell, “Design for East Façade of Stourhead. ca. 1721,” Vitruvius Britannicus, vol. 3 (London, 1767), p. 42; Summerson, Architecture in Britain, p. 196.

[xxxix] William Newton, “Sketch of ye Section of the Great Room,” RIBA SC115/2/10.

[xl] RIBA SE11/4/1v.

[xli] SDSM, January 1767; SDCM, 26 January 1767.

[xlii] The inscriptions, now in the British Museum’s Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities are 1785, 0527.1-10.  The frieze panels are also in the British Museum as panels XXVII and XL (or, using the Michaelis system, panels XXII and XXXV).

[xliii] SDMB, 6 April 1784, 22 may 1784.

[xliv] Charles Cameron, The Baths of the Romans Explained and Illustrated (London, 1772).

[xlv] SDSM, 22 May 1784.

[xlvi] SDSM, 11 May 1783. Flaxman permitted to sketch one of the frieze panels, which he used as the model for the knight in his designs for Wedgwood’s 1785 chess set.  See Margaret Whinney, “Flaxman and the Eighteenth Century. A Commemorative Lecture,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 19, no. 3/4, (1956): 269-282, 275.

[xlvii] SDSM, early 1771, May 1771, December 1775

[xlviii] Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey, John Soane: The Making of an Architect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 243.

[xlix] Camelford to Banks, 7 February 1785, SDLB, ff. 310-11.

[l] Banks to Camelford, 13 February 1785, SDLB, f. 312.

[li] SDSM, 2 June 1799.

PresentationsJason Kelly