The Society of Dilettanti

The exact origins of the Society of Dilettanti are obscure. To begin with it was a club for gentlemen who had visited Italy, with a Dilettante interest in Italian and classical art. Horace Walpole made an often-quoted comment on the society which may not be particularly accurate:

…the nominal qualification is having been in Italy and the real one being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sobre the whole time they were in Italy.

(Quoted in: Sir Francis Dashwood, The Dashwoods of West Wycombe. Aurum Press, 1987)


In 1731, or thereabouts, a Venetian painter, Bartolomeo Nazari, was commissioned to record the foundation of the Society. He painted several copies of the picture, showing a group of gentlemen on board a ship at Genoa. The three identified figures are Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord Middlesex and Lord Boyne. The society may not have been formally established until after the travellers’ return, possibly not until 1734.

It is extremely difficult to judge what kind of person the notorious Francis Dashwood actually was. Many of the stories about him were spread by political enemies and people, like Walpole, who simply enjoyed a bit of gossip. Dashwood did have his “Monks of Medmenham”, often wrongly referred to as “The Hell Fire Club”. The original “Hell Fire Club” was a rakish group of libertines who had been active earlier in the century. Women and drink were certainly important in Dashwood’s life but there was a serious side to his character. He had travelled more extensively than most, not only in Europe but into the Ottoman Empire in 1738/9 when travelling was serious adventure. In contrast to his famous debaucheries he produced a revised Book of Common Prayer for use in the American colonies in 1772, a project connected with his close friendship and support for Benjamin Franklin.

If Thomas Anson was as sobre minded as the various obituaries claimed it is hard to know what he would have made of Dashwood. There are surprisingly detailed records of the so-called “Hell-Fire Club” and its members and Anson’s name appears nowhere. Thomas Anson was closely involved with Dashwood in two other clubs which Sir Francis led in the 1740s, the largely forgotten Egyptian Society and Divan Club. Oddly there is very little evidence of his active membership of the influential and long lasting Society of Dilettanti.

“A List of Members of the Society of Dilettanti according to the Order of Election, dating from 6th March 1736” was published as an appendix to William Richard Hamilton’s “Historical Notices of the Society of Dilettanti”, in 1855.

(In Lionel Cust & Sidney Colvin, History of the Society of Dilettanti. Macmillan, 1898)

This is, if it is as it claims, a list of members in the order in which they were elected. There are 44 members listed as having joined by 1736 of which William Degge and Thomas Anson are 18th and 19th. There is no sure way of knowing when they became members, but it would be a reasonable guess from the position on the list that it was sometime before 1736, perhaps in 1734 or 1735.

William Degge was the brother of the Simon Degge who had travelled in Italy with Thomas. There is no trace at all of any further connection between Anson and William Degge.

The 1736 membership list identifies Degge as having been born in 1698, second son of Simon Degge of Derby and a Lieutenant Colonel of Dragoons. Beyond this there are very few traces of him. There are hints that he was a friend of David Garrick in his youthful days in the army. A letter from Garrick in Lichfield to his father, Captain Peter Garrick in Gibraltar, in the Staffordshire Archives, has a note on it by William Degge, apologising for breaking the seal.

(Staffordshire Archives S.MS.511 (from on-line catalogue)

He may have been the Hon. Colonel William Degge, who, with his wife Mary, is mentioned in documents concerning a mortgage in Tipperary in 1741.

(National Library of Ireland, Collection List A 14, Trant papers. http://www.nli.ie/manuscriptlist/..%5Cpdfs%5Cmss%20lists%5CTrant.pdf)

Over the years it has been taken for granted that it was Anson’s membership of the Society of Dilettanti which led to his connection with James Stuart and the building of the series of Greek buildings based on Stuart’s “Antiquities of Athens”, which was published by the society, but the relationship of Thomas and the society is typically elusive.

The records of the early years of the Society, currently in the care of the Society of Antiquaries, include two books of attendance lists. These are strangely unhelpful to the historian as the lists of names do not give the dates of the meetings. The only clues to the dating are in the forms of the names recorded. Sir Francis Dashwood, for example, becomes Lord Le Despencer in later entries. Thomas Anson’s name appears nowhere on these lists and the conclusion has to be that though he may have been elected a member he did not attend meetings.

Of the 44 members listed in 1736 very few have any later known connection with Thomas Anson. At least twenty of them were at least ten years younger. Thomas took his “Grand Tour” when he was 29, whereas many Grand Tourists were teenagers with tutors, often clerical gentlemen, like Rev Joseph Spence who toured Italy in 1730-1733 with the young Lord Middlesex, who was 19 when they set off. A barrister of more mature years might not feel much in common with these young men. Though Walpole’s comment about the society may be exaggerated it is possible that the tone of the Society in its early days was not the kind of thing he would have had any sympathy with.

Two of the original 44 members had a later association with Thomas through the Divan Club – Sir Francis Dashwood and William Ponsonby Earl of Bessborough.

The other two Dilettanti members whose names appear later in the Anson documents are Simon, Lord Harcourt and Thomas Villiers, later Viscount Hyde (1756) and Earl of Clarendon (1776)

Simon Harcourt (born 1714) is the first name on the 1736 member list, and yet he only returned from Italy, aged 20, in 1734. This small piece of evidence may suggest that the formal organisation of the club, including the listing of members, only began in that year. Harcourt was the first President of the Society, so in this case his name may be placed first in seniority rather than according to the date he joined.

Harcourt occupied various royal and government positions. He was a Lord of the Bedchamber to George II from 1735-57. In the war against the Jacobite rebellion he became a Colonel and in 1772 was promoted to General. He acted as ambassador to Mecklenburg where he was responsible for arranging the marriage of Princess Charlotte and the Prince of Wales, later George III. He is more likely to have been involved with Lord Anson than Thomas in everyday life. Harcourt and Lord Anson escorted the Princess to London. Horace Walpole wrote that he was not well suited to the role of governor to the Prince because he could teach him no “other arts than he knew himself, hunting and drinking.” (DNB on line)

…his wisdom has already disgusted the young Prince; “Sir, pray hold up your head. Sir, for God’s sake, turn out your toes!” Such are his Mentor’s precepts!

(Horace Walpole Letters Vol. 1 – Project Gutenberg)

This, of course, may be as flippant as most of Walpole’s comments but it does imply that Harcourt was not very seriously interested in the finer points of the Arts. He was not very sensitive or liberal in his attitudes to the development of his estate. It was Harcourt who notoriously removed an entire village in order to improve his landscape, inspiring Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted village.”

Harcourt did employ Stuart at Nuneham Courtney, and this may have been due to an Anson connection. He is the only original member of the Society of Dilettanti to be on the list of recipients of mourning rings after Thomas’s death, but some of these names are of people who had been colleagues of George Anson who had died nine years earlier. Horace Walpole, in a more positive mood, thought the removal of the village was worth it, and that the church, designed by Harcourt and Stuart together was “the principal feature in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.”

(Quoted in University of Oxford Botanic Garden, Harcourt Arboretum Restoration/ Development Plan, Report April 2003. www.kimwilkie.com/images/projects/uk/harcourt/harcourt_arb_report.pdf)


Thomas Villiers, Viscount Hyde, and Earl of Clarendon (1709-1786) spent many years abroad after 1737 as envoy-extraordinary to the court of Augustus III, elector of Saxony and king of Poland. He returned to England in 1747 and was elected MP for Tamworth. On 24 December 1748 he was made a lord of the Admiralty and so, again, his later connection with Thomas might well be through George Anson and the political world, as he became a neighbouring MP in the same election which saw Thomas elected MP for Lichfield. One of Lady Anson’s letters reveals that he was at Shugborough at the end of 1749. She wrote on 29th December:

Be so good to forgive this scrawl, which is wrote in great hurry, as I expect to up Stairs to tea every minute. If that Giver of Dinners Mr Villiers is with you you will, it is hoped, present to him many compliments from two Receivers of Dinners whom he entertained the day he left London.

(Staffordshire Archives. Anson Papers. D615 P (S)/ 1/ 3)

Thomas Villiers, 1st Earl of Clarendon was related to Thomas’s fellow traveller in Italy Alan Brodrick, 2nd Earl of Midleton. He married Charlotte, daughter of Algernon Capell, Earl of Essex. Brodrick was married to the Earl’s sister. Both ladies were students of Shugborough’s first architect Thomas Wright when he stayed with Lord Midleton in Surrey in 1739.

Thomas Villiers also lays claim to have been the first person to commission a Doric Temple from James Stuart, three or four years before Lord Lyttelton at Hagley. Whether or not this lost building at his home “The Grove” was the first building by Stuart after his return from Athens is a question which will need to be asked when looking at Stuart’s work at Shugborough.

Stuart and Revett’s project to survey the buildings of Ancient Greece was first proposed in 1748. While they were in Italy they met members of the Society of Dilettanti who proposed them for membership in 1751. This turned the Society’s attention from Italy to the far less explored world of Greece, then part of the Ottoman Empire and rarely visited. Greece, of course, to the classically educated mind, would be the real source of civilisation of which Italy was only a pale reflection. It is important to emphasise how little was known in detail about authentic Greek art and how exciting the prospect of seeing these priceless treasure must have been.

The first volume of Stuart’s and Revett’s “Antiquities of Athens” appeared in 1762. By this time Stuart was already designing buildings and interiors inspired by their research

If Thomas Anson was not directly involved in the Society of Dilettanti it is strange that he very rapidly became involved with Stuart, possibly within ten months of his return to England. The series of monuments at Shugborough for which Stuart was responsible are often seen as a showcase for the Society of Dilettanti

Could it be that Anson, though invisible as far as the records of the Society are concerned, had a direct connection with the commissioning of Stuart’s and Revett’s project? Before 1750 the focus of the Society had been on Italy and a fairly frivolous interest in classical art. The Athenian project gave the Society a new sense of purpose and seriousness. It is hard to detect any serious motivation amongst the original group of collectors and Grand Tourists who launched the Society in 1732. Thomas Anson, though, was a person of a quite different character and his pioneering enthusiasm for the Greece went back to the time when the other founder members would have travelled no further than Rome, Venice or Naples.

One other aspect of the Society of Dilettanti might be significant for the story of Thomas Anson. A large proportion of the early members were supporters of Frederick, Prince Wales, who became the centre of the political machinations of those who detested King George 2nd. These included Francis Dashwood and Lord Middlesex. Did Thomas Anson, and his family circle, belong to this faction?