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George Knapton, and the British Enlightenment

(1698 - 1778)

Growing up my grandfather told us we had a "royal painter in the family." As a child I remember naively assuming both his art and his life were, for lack of better words, boring and stuffy. Years later on our honeymoon visiting friends in England I mentioned his name. Surprisingly, my friend quickly fetched a book from his shelf. He knew of his work and gave us directions to the nearest museum to see his work.

My husband and I - years ago, at the Victoria & Albert Museum

At the museum, we found this portrait at the top of the second-floor stairwell.

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

Later I learned this particular painting was not painted by George. It was a copy by Paul Petit after a detail of one of George's larger royal portraits.

Years passed, and my older brother gave me an original print of George's brother's Charles' work. I learned Charles was an illustrator and engraver who collaborated with George to publish illustrations of Italian masterpieces to educate the public.

As George's life began to unfold - the more I learned, the more intrigued I became.

I later received a copy of "The Works of Alexander Pope". Pope was a philosopher better known for saying "to err is human; to forgive, divine." Many of Pope's journals were published by "notable London booksellers and publishers" John & Paul Knapton, relatives of George. As a young man, George studied painting under the portrait painter Jonathan Richardson who painted a portrait of Alexander Pope. Pope was also a satirist who I believe influenced George's life.

Italy Years

After studying with Richardson George spent seven years in Italy from 1725 to 1732. He wrote letters home to his brother Charles, which were later published in "Philosophical Transactions". 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

While there he discovered in order to access the ruins, he had to find a local guide. It was so dangerous no mother or wife would allow their son or husband to go in, so he had to find a "motherless bachelor." 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.

After returning 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 to Italy again. This time bringing with group of young aristocratic men seeking cultural enrichment. They even called their journey the "Grand Tour." After returning to London, they continued meeting 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 membership as "a club, with questionable qualifications of travel to Italy, and "the real one, being drunk."

Nevertheless, in discussing Italian history, rituals, and wine they managed to formulate their noble goal, "encouraging at home, a taste for those objects which had contributed to their entertainment abroad."

Art Should Benefit the Public

Despite growing scandals, they are credited with beginning a national conversation of new ideas, reflected in the group's toasts Viva la virtù (Long Live the Fine Arts)

Public Portraits

On January 4, 1740, the Society of Dilettanti ordered "every member to have their portrait painted.

"Oil Colours done by Mr. Geo. Knapton, a member, to be hung up in the Room where the Society meets; (Sam 1 Savage, President)" making Knapton the society's first official portraitist, or “Limner” in 1736. A portrait tradition carried on still today, with a long line of artists including Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Singer Sargent, and David Hockney.

He created 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, ironically today displayed in the Society's private collection.

He painted members in fancy dress and theatrical performance symbolizing their experiences in Italy. They 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."

His 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, the Society's president 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.

His most shocking portrait titled “SAN FRANCESCO DE WYCOMBO”, of "bad boy" Sir Francis Dashwood. During this period this portrait was known to reflect Dashwood as the drunkest, most blasphemous member of the group. He was 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 painting was described as "both indecorous and profane."

The Family of Frederick, Prince of Wales Portrait

Later, in 1751 Knapton was commissioned to paint a traditional group portrait, his largest work. It portrays the widowed Princess of Wales (seated center) and her family, which now hangs at Hampton Court. It's a posthumous family portrait of the prince's family and was subject of the painting copy at the Victoria & Albert Museum by Paul Petit. I learned this prince was accepted by his country but despised by his parents who described him as a frog. Also, 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.

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, 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.


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 "

*I contacted historian Bruce Redford to see if George had created a self-portrait, but he said none existed. I did however, find reference that one of his student painter's Francis Cotes created a portrait of George which was owned by a Knapton. If true, perhaps someday it will surface. It would be interesting to see.

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