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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 trav