A Regency Capriccio: Thomas Hope, Dilettantism, Aesthetics, and Race
At the time of his death in 1831, Thomas Hope was well-known as a patron of the arts, a widely travelled aesthete, author and interior designer, as well as an interested practitioner of natural philosophy. His patronage reached across Europe. Flaxman, West, Canova, Gauffier, Thorvaldsen – to name just a few – benefitted from his munificence. At one time, he even employed Lord Byron. Hope was, in turn, a member of the Society of Antiquaries (1794); the Royal Institution (1799); the Society of Dilettanti (1800); the Royal Society (1804); The Royal Society of Arts (1804); and one of the founding members of the British Institution (1805). The son of a wealthy Dutch banking family, Hope had the education and finances to experiment with design. He put his theories to practice at his townhouse in Duchess Street, London and in his country estate, The Deepdene in Dorking, Surrey.
Evidence is contradictory about his personality – he was, on the one hand, a very opinionated public figure in the cultural world of eighteenth-century Europe, but on the other hand, he could be aloof and solitary. He was, according to his contemporaries and historians alike, the quintessential dilettante.
Thomas Hope, though surprisingly overlooked in historical scholarship until recently, has been most often remembered for his contributions to the Regency interior.
In fact, he was the first person to introduce the term “interior design” into the English lexicon, a term he borrowed (along with an aesthetic approach to architecture, decoration, and display) from Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853) in his book, Household furniture and interior decoration, which he published in 1807.
An avid traveler and collector, Hope acquired a massive array of antiquities and Old Master paintings, which he integrated into his several publications. Citing his collections and the monuments he visited, he borrowed decorative motifs and styles to create furniture and interior spaces that suited the eclecticism of Regency Britain. In 1804, the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, claimed that Hope’s house was “the finest specimen of true taste that is to be found either in England or in France.” He had one of the largest Greek vase collections outside of the British Museum, and his London townhouse became a multi-purpose residence, museum, and salon. He even offered admissions tickets to visitors. Their London house was “the place to be,” especially under the direction of Thomas Hope’s wife Louisa – a famous beauty and hostess. Discussing a party at the Hopes on 10 May 1802, The Times reported:
One of the most splendid Routs that has taken place this season was given by THOMAS HOPE . . . which was attended by nearly one thousand persons of the first rank and fashion in the country. Sixteen rooms were opened to receive visitors, which were decorated with great taste, and very brilliantly lighted up so as to excite great admiration: there were two hundred and fifty wax lights in the different rooms, many of which exceeded in weight two pounds and a half. The golden candlesticks, so much admired on the Prince of WALES'S visit, were under the direction of Mrs. WILLIAM HOPE, who did the honours of the house. His Royal Highness the Prince of WALES was among the guests.”
Hope’s design ran the gamut of Regency styles – from Byzantine to Egyptian to Gothic to Greek. He concentrated on fusing space, architecture, furniture, and display into a didactic arrangement that spoke to moral values, aesthetics, history, and natural philosophy. As such, Thomas Hope represents the culmination of the Georgian “culture of dilettantism.” Beneath his eclecticism were common themes that fused imagination and science – aesthetic philosophy and natural philosophy – that appealed to his fellow dilettantes. By examining these, we can uncover important insights about the aesthetic milieu of the Regency period.
A good place to start considering Thomas Hope’s interiors is not with the interiors themselves. Rather, we might look at Hope’s spatial imagination, examining what I will refer to as Thomas Hope’s “dilettantish cappricci.” Hope commissioned this painting from Michael William Sharp sometime between 1811 and 1815.
Hope was already a patron of Sharp, the fashionable portraitist, having purchased Sharp’s prize winning Music Master at the 1808 British Institution exhibition. What we are looking at is a capriccio of Thomas Hope’s Duchess Street residence. Much has been written about Hope’s residences – the layouts, the iconographic programs, etc. – but Sharp’s painting provides us with an altogether different perspective on the Duchess house – not as it was physically constructed, but rather how it was imagined – not how it was necessarily, but what it could be. Sharp and his patron have left us a capriccio, but rather than simply dismiss it as a fantasy painting, or a simple assemblage of artifacts and people, it’s worthwhile to contemplate what Hope and Sharp are doing with this painting. The metaphor of the capriccio is a key that can help us unlock some of the mystery that surrounds Thomas Hope.
So, what was a capriccio? What did it mean to Thomas Hope and his contemporaries? At the simplest level, a capriccio was an imagined landscape, integrating elements of real or imagined architecture in a fanciful tableau. This is what distinguishes them from vedute. Examples of capricci date to ancient Rome, but the modern rage for capricci as art objects – particularly among British grand tourists – dates to Venice in the 1720s. There, an Irish dealer named Owen Swiney (1676-1754) tapped into the growing tourism by British and Irish travelers. Acting as an agent for a variety of artists, including Rosalba Carriera, Marco and Sebastiano Ricci, and Canaletto, he fostered a rage for capricci among young milordi – most notably in his twenty-four painting commission celebrating British worthies.
As the genre developed, the capriccio could range from near frivolity in tone to a cold didacticism.
The potential of the architectural fantasy was explored by a range of artists, most notably Panini and Piranesi. British artists, especially at the turn of the century exploited it for its potential to effect romantic sentiments. John Michael Gandy, “The English Piranesi,” represents the power of the sublime capriccio in a watercolor that he completed in 1805. Unsurprisingly, knowing Thomas Hope’s good taste and penchant for supporting young artists, he was the purchaser of a number of capriccios, one of which was the Sharp capriccio.
Sharp presents us with a polychromatic tapestry of rooms that hint at, rather than represent the layout of Hope’s first floor galleries. The overall impression is akin to so many eighteenth-century interior capricci, and it evokes a domestic-sized version of the grand tour fantasies of painters such as Panini, Hubert Robert, and Charles-Louis Clérisseau.
While the architecture makes reference to Thomas Hope’s grand tour travels – most noticeably the frieze, which was adapted from the Temple of Antinonus and Faustina in Rome – the central theme is the social world of Thomas Hope.
In the background is Hope’s collection of Old Master paintings. In the foreground are two of Hope’s most prized sculptures, which were situated opposite each other in the Duchess Street sculpture gallery. Assembled among Thomas Hope’s galleries are over a dozen visitors, several in fancy costume.
This capriccio encapsulates what it meant to be a dilettante at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In fact, by this point Hope was not only a member of the Society of Dilettanti, but a prominent one. However, when we think about the dilettanti of this period, it is necessary to imagine of a more general type – one who engaged in a wider culture of dilettantism rather than simply being a member of the Society of Dilettanti. Being a dilettante was a mode of thinking and practice. Some have anachronistically suggested that a reputation for dilettantism was on the wane at this time – going so far as to suggest that the dilettante was an outdated, eighteenth-century character, now under attack. In fact, it’s clear from this image that Hope not only saw a dilettantish reputation as no problem, but he saw it as a respectable aspiration.
A dilettantish reputation at the turn of the century had transformed a bit from the time that the Society of Dilettanti introduced the term into the English lexicon in 1732. Most members of the Society of Dilettanti and the wider world of dilettantes, tended to distance themselves from the more extreme examples of their predecessors' libertinism – a shift that was underway as early as the 1760s. Dilettantes still considered themselves as lovers of all things artistic, including painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre, and music. The dilettantes at the turn of the century were, like many of their predecessors, as knowledgeable as most in the fields of architecture and classical sculpture in particular. And, they prided themselves on being savvy patrons and collectors. Increasingly, with such members as the Duke of Richmond at mid century and Sir William Hamilton and Charles Townley in the late eighteenth century, their private collections were open to a vast array of visitors – often through tickets with the ostensible purpose of improving public knowledge and taste. However, most dilettanti rejected didacticism and pedanticism in favor of a sociable appreciation of ancient and modern art. Thus, a spirit of playfulness and an emphasis on polite and sociable learning dominated their approach to knowledge – which, as the century wore on and the concept of professionalization took root, found itself slowly replaced by a more academic approach.
Sharp’s painting embodies the dilettantish mode of learning as self-representation. It shows Thomas Hope as a collector and patron – a traveler, whose knowledge of painting and sculpture was exceptional. The portayal of his collection was on par with other dilettantish collections, including that of Charles Townley, well known for his own knowledge and discriminating taste.
Prominently displayed in Sharp’s image, as it was in Hope’s sculpture gallery, is the Hope Athena, discovered in 1797 at Ostia. The Hope Athena was widely recognized as of similar type to the Farnesi Athena that had been discovered at Herculaneum.
His possession of such a magnificent sculpture gave him one of the finest examples from classical Greece – or so contemporaries thought. Winckelmann had described the Farnesi version as an example of the sublime. And, while modern archaeologists recognize it as a Roman copy after a Hellenistic prototype, Hope’s fellow European collectors generally thought his was a copy after Phidias’ Parthenon Athena. And, the Society of Dilettanti thought so highly of it that they published images of it in both volumes of their celebrated Specimens of Antient Sculpture.
The base is also worthy of comment. This is not the base on which it was displayed in Hope’s galleries. Instead, it is a copy of a Roman altar from the period of Augustus, which he had sketched near Kynaea, along the coast of Asia Minor.
Also in the image is a lesser known, but clearly beloved item in Thomas Hope’s collection – an Osiris Antinous. This bust is barely visible in plate 1 of Household Furniture.
It is situated opposite the Hope Athena, suggesting the central position that these played in his gallery. Hope’s Antinous came from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, and it is quite similar to the Louvre’s Osiris Antinous, discovered at Tivoli in 1771. Like the Hope Athena, the Osiris Antinous was placed atop a tripod table of lion’s heads. This was a favorite motif in Hope’s designs for tables, which he crafted from ancient examples. One can see them throughout Household Furniture, in Wetmacott’s 1824 survey of Hope’s collection, and in Penry Williams’s illustrations for John Britton’s Illustrations of the Deepdene.
Let’s return to the big picture again and survey the scene, which shows Hope demonstrating his knowledge and love of painting and sculpture as well as his role as patron-collector. But, this capriccio represents a particular mode of appreciation that is characteristic of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century dilettanti culture.
The scene is a gathering of fashionable London. Fortunately, some of the sitters were still remembered when the painting went to auction. And, when compared to the collections in the National Portrait Gallery and the Garrick Club, we can identify a number of the sitters. Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (1797-1856), better known as Madame Vestris, is the young woman in white. Her premier on the English stage was in 1815, and the following year, she left with her husband for the continent. Because of this, the painting's date might reasonably be 1815-16 rather than the 1811 date that previous auction catalogs have stated. Consequently, the painting might also not be a celebration of Hope’s role in the reopening of the Drury Lane Theatre Royale in 1812, as others have suggested. Behind Madame Vestris is John Liston, the comedic actor. The man with the ear horn is Thomas Potter Cooke. Embracing the Antinous is John Philip Kemble.
Comparing the woman on the right in the black dress to Sir Martin Archer Shee’s 1807 painting of Louisa Hope, a good case can be made for it being the portrait of Thomas Hope’s wife. This being the case, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the man in the hussar’s uniform is Thomas Hope. Both appear somewhat disengaged from the action – as observers rather than participants. Likewise, their dress is both distinct from the actors and complementary to each other. If this is the case, then this would be the only portrait of the two in the same painting.
In any case, what the painting presents is a celebratory reflection upon the hospitality of the owners. Well known for their extravagant parties – in one case the house was so full that the waiting line stretched down the street – the role of a generous host was central to Hope’s dilettantish reputation. The jests implied in the painting and the pleasant atmosphere that it evokes plays with concepts that were central to the members of the Society of Dilettanti. Seria ludo – their motto – suggests the close interaction between entertainment and knowledge, always relying upon double-entendres and insides jokes. One wonders what the impish man to the left is uncovering. And, the portrayal of the Antinous, nearly tipping over from the actors suggest that behind their interest lies an unrestrained exuberance. The image of the older man peering through a glass at the Antinous was a standard trope of misguided art appreciation – one that is compounded by Cook’s over-the-top use of the ear horn to hear the disquisition of an actor on classical matters.
Thus, this image shows a comprehensive view of Thomas Hope’s dilettantish capriccio. He is a collector, a traveler, a patron, a sociable host, a gallery owner. His knowledge spans architecture, painting, sculpture, and perhaps even opera and theatre as this painting seems to imply. Through this image, Thomas Hope becomes the elite man of taste – one who both appreciates and comprehends the range of artistic production – which generally reflects how contemporaries viewed the spaces at Duchess Street and The Deepdene.
While this essay has focused on Hope’s connoisseurship as a central element of the dilettantish reputation, it has ignored the role that natural philosophy played in shaping the culture of dilettantism and the attitudes that guided design and display. Yet, if we’re looking at the construction of Hope’s reputation as a dilettante, it is necessary to spend some time considering Hope as a natural philosopher. After all, in the constructed landscape of dilettantish identity, natural philosophy had become central to the world of the dilettante. In this final section, this essay will reflect briefly upon Thomas Hope as a natural philosopher. This is necessary because Thomas Hope and his contemporaries would have seen the concern with natural philosophy as part and parcel of the dilettante’s realm of interest.
Thomas Hope, already a member of the Society of Dilettanti, became a member of the Royal Society on 12 June 1804. He was one of the many members in both societies. While many of the Royal Society's Dilettanti members were simply patrons, a few – most notably Joseph Banks – were active natural philosophers. Thomas Hope might be seen as occupying a middle space between patron and practitioner. And his single work on natural philosophy synthesized the experimental and philosophical approaches of eighteenth-century science in a dense three-volume work, An Essay on the Origins and Prospects of Man (1831).
Unfortunately, the text seems to have been hurried to press due to his failing health. And, since it was published only after he died, Hope did not get the chance to respond to his critics – most notably Thomas Carlyle. Nevertheless, the text helps us explore the interactions between aesthetics and natural philosophy and it reveals how at least one dilettante attempted to synthesize disparate ideas into a universal model, thus providing some guidance for reading his interiors.
Hope presented himself as an empiricist in the Lockean tradition, arguing that his knowledge of the world around him
are all so many different suppositions, none of which any longer amount to positive certainties, and all of which can only, strictly speaking, be considered as mere beliefs, at the very best only founded on a presumed recurrence of certain successive combinations of sensations and ideas.
He is deeply unsure of the truth of his sensations and of their relation to time and space.
However, he moves away from skepticism to analyze what seems to be the nature of the universe around him. This universe is decidedly Newtonian – his theories about the nervous system being a case in point. Following the Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave (1688-1738) and the Scottish doctor George Cheyne (1671-1743), Hope argued that the nervous system was a hydraulic system – a mechanistic impulse that sent external messages via fluid vibrations to the brain. Thus, different people had a different reaction to external sensations. Some systems were more “elastik” than others which led to finer impressions of the sense data.
We can derive from this that Hope’s understanding of the body – and sensation, in particular was standard for his period. And, his ultimate conclusions from this conception of the nervous system are similar to his contemporaries. Those with finer nervous systems were better able to respond to the sensory data that they cam across. This led to a hierarchy of people based on physiological premises. For, those with finer sensibilities – but not too fine, for this could lead to maladies such as hysteria – were best able to appreciate beautiful things. Likewise, following Edmund Burke, sensibility was the key element holding together society. For sensibility led to sympathy, which in turn led to an individual’s appreciation for the wellness of his or her fellow citizens
The ability to reflect upon these sensations – between positive and negative, pleasure and pain – i.e. reason – was Hope’s and his contemporaries’ major distinction between human and animal. But, placing so much importance on their theories of physiology in general and sensibility in particular led them to study the differences between human groups. Hope argued for polygenesis, unable to believe that some humans could have come from the same ancestors. He writes:
As of monkeys the highest sorts seem only the last and highest of brutes, produced prior to human beings, so of human beings themselves some species seem only the rude sketch of that ideal which nature has reached in others; but what may at first sight seem extraordinary is, that precisely in latitudes in which naturally arise the highest of brutes – the orang-outang, or wild man of the mountains – namely, the regions of Austral Asia – seem precisely to have been those in which the human race itself remained lowest and least perfect in body and in mind: as if in those regions nature had wasted so much of its richest elements on the brute creation, as to have but little left to expend on the still higher human race.
Like Linnaeus, Cuvier, and others, Hope argued for distinct races based on their biology – that particular combination between sensibility, physiology, and reason. He argued that different physiological traits between the races -- the ability to feel, reflect, sympathize -- had an effect on each groups' abilities to create higher forms of civilization. He wrote of Pacific Islanders that
they undergo the greatest hardships without being by their suffrings stimulated to mend their lot; they feed without repugnance on the coarsest garbage . . . They seem incapable of reflection on the past or of foresight of the future . . . Like the brute they are . . . unfeeling for themselves, they cannot be expected to sympathize with the feelings of others.
He offered similar descriptions for groups that he saw as distinct races. Writing about peoples of African descent, he framed racial difference in terms of sensibility:
Even in certain negro races . . . while there still remains, as in certain brute races, of the olfactory, optic and fifth pair of nerves, a development much greater, a power of conveying sensations of smell, sound, and sight, in certain respects much more acute than is found in higher human beings, there still remains to the monkey a nearer affinity in other organs and parts internal and external . . . They appear wholly incapable of deep abstraction. Nowhere have they, through an innate force, and unassisted by the prior examples and precepts of white races, attained any degree of advancement in science, or of refinement in art.
What Hope does in his Essay on the Origin and Prospect of Man is outline much of the common assumptions about art, race, and biology inherent in the dilettanti culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He contrasts both the external appearances and the internal physiology of peoples around the world with those native to the “regions to the south-west of the Caspian and of [the] Caucauses” – most especially the Greeks.
The Essay on the Origin and Prospect of Man correlated Thomas Hope's aesthetic and racial philosophy. In his hierarchy of art, nearly all great works were European in origin, and in particular were those of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the modern British, French, and Germans. He grounded these differences in cultural production not in terms of climate, technological development, or historical circumstance as many earlier writers had done. Rather, his discourse on aesthetic difference was based on a belief in the fundamental physiological differences between races. Art was, in effect, an indicator of racial difference, giving the language of early nineteenth-century dilettantism a role to play in creating and perpetuating scientific racism of the nineteenth century.
This analysis should encourage scholars to revisit the work of Thomas Hope and the culture of dilettantism with a different set of questions than the aesthetic ones that tend to dominate the discussion. As suggested at the beginning of this essay, Thomas Hope built up around himself what might be called a "dilettantish capriccio." Hope structured his identity much as contemporary painters constructed their landscapes – by combining actual things in an imaginary space. There are many fantasies that Thomas Hope constructed in his rooms for the display of his collection. The program for furnishing his rooms – the pieces themselves were pastiches of imagined places and times put into a new context.
Hope’s Essay on the Origin and Prospects of Man provides another way to look at them. As Hope structured his built environment around themes of the historical progression of the arts in Europe – essentially culminating in his own projects – he was articulating an oft-unspoken but nevertheless understood element to the eighteenth and nineteenth-century dilettantish aesthetic. The prioritization of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and even Byzantine art helped to structure a corollary racial discourse to those being created through philosophy and science. In the work of Thomas Hope, we see this articulated directly. The dilettantish capricci of Thomas Hope were those of aesthetics, antiquity, and taste, but they were also capricci of racism and social hierarchy that had profound implications throughout the nineteenth century.
 “Letter from Thomas Hope, 9 October 1821,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1821), p. 312.
 David Watkin, Thomas Hope(1769-1831) and the Neoclassical Idea (London: Murray, 1968), p. 50.
 Joseph Farington, "28 March 1804," Farington Diary, vol. 6, ed. James Greig (London: Hutchinson, 1926), 2284
 The Times, no. 5412 (10 May 1802): 2.
 James Elmes, Annals of the Fine Arts, vol. 5 (London, 1820), p. 148.
 See David Watkin, “The Reform of Taste in London: Hope’s House in Duchess Street,” in Thomas Hope: Regency Designer, ed. David Watkin (New Haven: Yale University Press and Bard Graduate Center, 2008), pp. 22-55.
 Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 134-5.
 Society of Dilettanti, Specimens of Antient Sculpture, Aegyptian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman, vol. 1 (London, 1809), 41.
 Anne Roullet, The Egyptians and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome (Brill, 1997), 85; Adolf Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans. C.A.M. Fennell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1882), 228.
 Hope claims that he was not himself an experimentalist in Thomas Hope Essay on the Origin and Prospects of Man, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1821), 27.
 Essay on the Origin, vol. 1, 7.
 G.J. Barker-Benfield, Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999), 7-9.
 Hope, Essay on the Origin, vol. 2, p. 389.
 Hope, Essay on the Origin, vol. 2, p. 393-4.
 Hope, Essay on the Origin, vol. 2, p. 398-9.
 Hope, Essay on the Origin, vol. 2, p. 410.