What is it about men and clubs? Honestly, throughout history, women have often been accused of being overly fond of gathering together under the guise of useful occupations—sewing, washing, cooking—or social etiquette when what they really want to do is to gossip over refreshments.
Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that men are, in fact, even more guilty of enjoying “a good coze.” You have only to look at the Georgian and Regency eras, and the proliferation of gentlemen’s clubs formed during those times. Now, the men will claim that that they gathered for serious political talk, or high-minded intellectual and cultural conversations, but we know better. White’s, Boodles, the Royal Society . . . I grant you that serious subjects were no doubt discussed within their walls. But over the course of my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that equally important was to act silly and get sloshed with their friends. (Just think of the Hellfire Club and the Four-In-Hand Club)
What got me to thinking of this was a recent article I read on the Society of Dilettanti, which was formed in 1734 by a group of wealthy aristocrats who had been on the Grand Tour. Their purpose was to promote the study of ancient Greek and Roman art, as well as to encourage new art in the classical style. Very noble ideals, indeed—but here is Horace Walpole’s opinion of them in 1743:
“. . . a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk . . .”Early accounts do seem to show a penchant for revelry and bawdy humor, as well as serious scholarship. From the beginning, artists figured prominently in the group—Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the early members—and their depiction of club activities show a decided sense of humor. To whit, there is a very famous painting by Reynolds showing Sir William Hamilton pointing to a Greek vase, as if lecturing to seven of his fellow Dilettanti on the nuances of art. However, according to current member Richard Dorment, if you look closely, you will see that “ . . . Hamilton isn't aware of it, but his colleagues are actually raising their glasses to a lady's garter that has been produced for general inspection by the fellow standing at the left.” Dorment also points out that in most paintings from that era, you will notice copious amounts of wine very much in evidence.”
One of the early Dilettantis, painter George Knapton, did a series of portraits depicting his fellow members in various exotic costumes—usually with wine much in evidence. So it’s clear that these august, erudite nobles and scholars definitely liked to party!
But that said, the Society did do more than drink and enjoy lewd jokes. (There is another painting showing a member looking at an classical jewel while making a suggestive gesture indicating the female sex. Again, according to Dorment, “ . . . among the ancient gems that we know circulated among the Dilettanti was at least one cameo carved with a Dionysian orgy ‘not fit for a lady’.”) It was the Dilettanti who first promoted the idea of a public academy for the arts, which resulted in the Royal Academy. They also funded travel for scholars to view ancient art as well as archeological expeditions which helped define the understanding of Greek and Roman art. Their publication, the Ionian Antiquities, which was a major influence in shaping the style of Neoclassicism in Great Britain.
The Society’s link to the arts has remained strong throughout the centuries. (Aside from the frivolities, they have been an influential patron of the arts since their inception through today.) Notable painters who were Dilettanti members included Thomas Lawrence, Frederic Leighton, John Singer Sargent. David Hockney, one of my favorite modern painters, is currently among the 60 members. And the Dilettanti are still going strong in supporting classical study. They help fund the British Schools in Rome and Athens, as well as traveling scholarships for the study of antiquities.
Dilittanti derives from the Latin word dilettare, which means “to take delight.” It seems that the Society has, right from the start, taken delight in both scholarship and fun. I have to say, I raise my glass to them! (If you want to read Richard Dorment’s delightful article on the Society, you can link to it here.)
So, do you belong to a club? If so, what sorts of things do you enjoy doing together? At my university club, I’m on the library and arts committee, and we organize a lot of very interesting lectures, among other things. Just last week, I heard one of the foremost experts on First Amendment rights lecture on privacy and the press. Then we all went down to the bar and gossiped over copious glasses of wine!