The Dilettanti Society
In the 18th century for gentlemen of breeding and wealth to finish off what passed for their education at the time it was common to undertake the Grand Tour, the equivalent, I suppose, of the modern-day gap year or BOA. They traipsed around continental Europe, particularly Italy, taking in the cultural sites by day and carousing by night. Without Facebook it was natural that when they got home they would want to share their experiences with their contemporaries.
One such forum was the Dilettanti Society which was formed, probably, in 1734 but whose first recorded meeting was held on 6th March 1736 at the Bedford Head Tavern in Covent Garden. The qualifications for membership were not too onerous – to have visited Italy on the Grand Tour and to have been drunk there. Horace Walpole sniffily commented in 1743 that two of the Society’s leading lights, Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood whom we have met before, were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy.
By 1736 there were 46 members, described as young men of rank and fashion, and the Society adopted a policy of seria ludo – looking at serious matters in a light-hearted way. Prospective members had to be personally known to the proposing member and their candidacy was subject to a secret ballot, the votes cast in an elaborate ballot box. A box in the shape of the Tomb of Bacchus held the Society’s records. There were rumours that the Society’s proceedings were laced with sexual and religious overtones. While that may or may not have been the case, the President was required to wear a crimson toga and the Secretary to dress like Machiavelli.
The Society was peripatetic in its formative years – in 1747 they bought a site in Cavendish Square where they intended to build a club house but didn’t and sold the land, for a profit (natch) – but by 1757 had settled on the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, meeting on alternate Sundays. From 1800 to 1810 they were to be found at Mr Parslow’s tavern in St James’’ Street.
The Society was fairly wealthy and had some unusual ways of boosting funds. Every member had to have his portrait painted and presented to the Society, on pain of an annual fine of one guinea, known as face money. This raised considerable sums. Other fines were levied on members who were unfortunate enough to suffer an increase in income through inheritance, legacy, marriage or preferment. The fines were not inconsiderable – Lord Grosvenor being fined five guineas for marrying Miss Leveson Gower and Charles James Fox nine pounds, nineteen and sixpence upon his appointment as Lord of the Admiralty, for example.
It is gratifying to note that they used the Club’s assets wisely to influence contemporary taste and to promote the study of Roman and Greek art. They sponsored a series of Italian operas in London, promoted by the Earl of Middlesex, an expedition in the 1750s by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett to Athens – an expedition which resulted in the publication of Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated – an archaeological expedition in 1764 to Ionia which was the first such trip to Asia Minor sponsored by a British institution and a further trip to Ionia in 1812. In the 1750s the Society was heavily involved in discussions to create the Royal Academy but wanted too much influence for their dosh and negotiations broke down.
As well as those mentioned in the commentary so far, members have included Joshua Reynolds who painted groups of the membership, David Garrick, Joseph Banks and many others. The Society is still in existence today.