George Knapton, and the British Enlightenment

I don't know if it's true, but growing up my grandfather would tell us we had a "royal painter in the family."

As a child I remember looking at this painter's work thinking it was too stuffy, and I dismissed his work assuming his life was equally stuffy.

Years later on my honeymoon, visiting friends in England I mentioned his name. I was surprised my friend knew his name, and immediately fetched an Art History book from his bookshelf. He quickly found his page, and gave us directions to the nearest museum to see his work.

My husband and I at the Victoria & Albert Museum

At the museum, we found this portrait at the top of the second floor stairwell. It was interesting seeing his contribution to the world, as well as as confirming my childhood suspicions of my naïve view of his rigid life.

Portrait of George III as Prince of Wales © Victoria and Albert Museum, London circa 1751

Unfortunately, years later I learned this particular painting was not painted by George, but by another artist named Paul Petit, after a detail of one of George's larger royal portraits, meaning I still need to see his work in real-life. In the meantime the more I've learned of George, the more intrigued I've became as the story of his life began to unfold.

I began researching George more after my older brother generously gifted me an original print of George's younger brother's Charles Knapton's work. Charles was an illustrator and engraver who collaborated with George to recreate Italian masterpieces in an effort to educate the public.

George was born in 1698, and was either a son or nephew of notable London booksellers and publishers John & Paul Knapton, who published the works of Poet Alexander Pope. I learned George studied under the portrait painter Jonathan Richardson who painted a portrait of Alexander Pope.

A copy I have from the Knapton publishers of Pope's work.

Italy Years

After his studies with Richardson, George spent seven years in Italy from 1725 to 1732. While there he wrote letters to his brother Charles, later published in "Philosophical Transactions. (no. 458). He described descending into tunnels of the newly discovered Roman Herculaneum excavations. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried under ash from the Mount Vesuvius 79 AD eruption.

Buried Ancient City

There is a story how George spoke to one of the original diggers who discovered the city. In order to explore the ruins he had to find a local guide, but no mother or wife would allow their son or husband to go in. He had to find a "motherless bachelor" to help him. After climbing 82 feet into the well, he used chalk to navigate the dark tunnels to mark areas to guide his way.

He described a world of timber, marble, and elaborate adornment. Witnessing buildings emerging from a "subterranean city." One of his traveling companions Captain Emory found a unique pilaster which George recognized as a reproduction. He described it as created after an Ancient Barbarous style and decorated in a period "older than the Goths of Italy," and before the Greeks.

Upon return to England, Knapton became known as an art connoisseur, and "sound judge of the works of the Old Masters."

Society of Dilettanti

Viva la virtù (Long Live the Fine Arts) 1736-1751

In the early 1730's, George traveled again to Italy, this time with group of young aristocratic men seeking cultural enrichment. They called their journey the "Grand Tour." After returning home to London, they continued to meet at local taverns, drinking and womanizing. In a letter from "In the Know" society man Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, Walpole condemned the Society describing it's membership as "a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk."

Discussing Italian history, rituals, and wine they managed to formulate their goal, "encouraging at home, a taste for those objects which had contributed to their entertainment abroad." Besides scandals they eventually began a national conversation of new ideas. One of their nobler goals can be found in the group's toasts "viva la virtu, or "long live the Fine Arts." In this spirit contained the pursuit of Study of ancient Greek and Roman art, and the creation of new work in the style.

Art Should Benefit the Public

The Dilenttanti focus was "to restore ancient art and philosophy to the public." During his time only the wealthy held art collections which could only be seen at private parties. On January 4, 1 740, their group ordered "That every member of the Society do make a present of his Picture in Oil Colours done by Mr. Geo. Knapton, a member, to be hung up in the Room where the s d Society meets; (Sam 1 Savage, President.)"

Knapton became the society's first official portraitist, or “Limner” in 1736. The portrait tradition carried on a line of tradition with artists Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Singer Sargent, and David Hockney.

George was well respected for his pastels in the traditional British Style, yet no doubt his time in Italy influenced this more naturalistic body of work. Twenty three mock classical and religious portraits of the Society's original members. They were first exhibited at the King’s Arms Tavern for all to see, however ironically today they are displayed in the Society's private collection in London.

George painted members in fancy dress and theatrical performance symbolizing their experiences in Italy, and were arranged as a series in traditional Ensemble portraits to enforce the idea of purpose and unity. The Society's motto "sera ludo" runs through his paintings which means "serious business should be conducted playfully."

The painting of Sir Bourchier Wray (1744), shows Wray inside a tipsy ship's cabin symbolizing their travels abroad. He's holding a punch bowl (that's not punch) and ladle. The bowl's rim inscribed from Horace, IV Odes, xii, closing line "Dulce est Desipere in Loco" which means:

"It is sweet at fitting time to act foolishly"

Here is Samuel Savage in masquerade costume. "Sitter and painter collaborate in turning the viewer into a fellow masquerader, who is invited to join in the revels and revel in the secret." - Bruce Redford

It was said such public masquerades provided an opportunity for classes to mingle, and alludes to a time where such events occasionally included royalty.

Likely the most shocking and the most scandalous society member of the time was "bad boy" Sir Francis Dashwood featured in this portrait called “SAN FRANCESCO DE WYCOMBO” This painting is described as "both indecorous and profane" - accurately describing his personality. His portrait clearly reflects how Dashwood was the drunkest, most blasphemous member of the group. He is a self-proclaimed "Monk" of Medmenham Abbey aka Hellfire Club - a place of underground rituals. He is shown here adoring the Venus de Milo, and the cup's inscription translates to "Mother of Saints."

The Family of Frederick, Prince of Wales Portrait

In 1751 Knapton was commissioned to paint his largest work for the widowed Princess of Wales (seated center) and her family, which now hangs at Hampton Court. This is a posthumous family portrait of the Prince's family, and was subject of the painting study at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Sadly, the Prince was accepted by his country but despised by his parents who described him as a frog. The Prince died in a tennis accident, but to be fair, tennis balls were much harder back then.

The Family of Frederick, Prince of Wales 138 x 181in The Royal Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

According to the Royal Collection: "Knapton has executed the most original and perhaps only allegorical image of a constitutional monarchy." In reference to the Hampton Court Art Collection during this period, Ernest Law refers to this painting, as "rare in quality and historical value", and especially compared to paintings produced under the previous two Kings - when "art reached the lowest level of degradation." George retired from the Society and from painting in 1776 when requested by the King to serve as curator to the royal collection.

As for the Society that he helped shape, it is credited with taking "..on an influential role in cultural matters, organizing archaeological expeditions, forming the Royal Academy and the British Museum"

Knapton died and was buried in Kensington at the age of eighty in December 1778. He left some money to his niece Eliza Knapton- listed as heir, and whom he lived with. Somewhere there may be a portrait of him by his student painter Francis Cotes. I found it was once left to Mrs. James Samber, maiden name Maria Beata Knapton of Lymington.

Knapton Legacy:

Art Historian Bruce Redford attributes Knapton to "crossing, blurring, and recombining traditional boundaries—boundaries both generic and 'geographic—Knapton creates a hybrid portraiture that is all his own."

Overall, he helped unearth ancient Roman ruins; witnessed sword fights over ancient artifacts; painted for royalty and military; for noblemen and noblewomen (like Lady Montagu); was an antiquities and art expert (getting to hold in his hands works by such artists as Caravaggio); an accomplished engraver, pastelist, and oil painter; created several publications on classical art; keeper of the King's records, known as a founding member to the British Museum, and the Royal Academy of Art; he left his mark in British History; and his work in major museum collections worldwide. He led a full, productive, vibrant life in the midst of cultural revolution contributing to the British Enlightenment. His life was anything but stuffy.

*I contacted historian Bruce Redford to see if George had created a self-portrait, but he said none exists. I did however, find reference of one of his student's creating a portrait of him which is owned by a Knapton. If true, perhaps someday it will be unearthed.


Royal Collection, UK British Museum, UK Victoria & Albert Museum, UK National Gallery, Washington D.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Students: Francis Cotes, Arthur Pond Influence: Sir Joshua Reynolds


"Dictionary of National Biographies", Edited by Sidney Lee, Volume XXXI., Kennett - Lambart. London, 1892.

"A Historical Catalogue of the Pictures in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court." Ernest Law. 1881. The J. Paul Getty Museum. "Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti" exhibit, August 7–October 27, 2008 at the Getty Villa "Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in 18th-Century England," by Bruce Redford "The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment "