A Silly, Very Cultured Club

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Society of Dilettanti, London
George Knapton: Sir Bourchier Wrey, 1744; paintings from Bruce Redford’s Dilettanti

True to their creed, the Dilettanti pursued both kinds of delight, serious as well as ludicrous, with maniacal dedication. Redford’s often amusing, handsomely illustrated account (flanked last summer by a delectable exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, curated by Redford and Claire L. Lyons) traces the range of their activities through three generations, from the society’s founding to its ignominious performance in the debate about the Elgin Marbles that took place in the spring of 1816.

The first Dilettanti gathered together in a London tavern in the bleak December of 1734, to relive their experiences of the Grand Tour—hence the society’s Italianate name and its emphasis on the complementary pleasures of culture, especially the visual arts, and drink. Drowning the miseries of English winter in wine-soaked memories of Italian sunshine, the founding Dilettanti dressed in exotic costumes, bantered about sex, and exchanged the refined opinions about art that they had acquired during their sojourns in Rome, Florence, Naples, and Venice.

Theirs was an era in which clubs and clubmen dominated the social scene: several Dilettanti also belonged to the ultra-serious Royal Society for Promoting Natural Knowledge or the Royal Academy of the Arts. But their own gatherings usually bore a closer resemblance to those of less sober organizations, like the Kit-Cat Club (named for the mutton pies baked by Christopher “Kit” Cat, keeper of the Cat and Fiddle tavern where the Kit-Cats met) or the shadowy, notorious Hell-Fire Club. Like the Kit-Cats, the Dilettanti would maintain a close relationship with the world of publishing, but whereas the Kit-Cats mixed aristocrats with working professionals and favored Whig politics, the Dilettanti membership leaned more heavily, at least at first, toward gentlemen of leisure—these were the people who could afford a Grand Tour in the first place.

Many of the founding Dilettanti were also accomplished rakes, their skills burnished by Venetian courtesans, all part of the Grand Tour’s preparation for fathering Albion’s next generation in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense. They pursued their various delights in a London of periwigs, libertines, and Enlightenment, of new gathering places devoted to the consumption of exotic global novelties like coffee, tea, chocolate, and ice cream, of new faces from the provinces and from Ireland, including men of humble background who had been superbly educated thanks to an expanding system of grammar schools and university scholarships.

Education for women still lagged far behind, and there was as yet little place to “remember the ladies” in the clubmen’s world, except as partners in what these former Grand Tourists were wont to call “the worship of Venus.” The women who made their way in the London of the 1740s were more likely to be actresses, singers, and courtesans than women of letters. Although there were already professional writers like Aphra Behn and cultured figures like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, bluestockings …

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