Bust of Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824)
John Bacon Junior (1777-1859)
“The Royal Academy bust is thought to have been a plaster bust, and the present example is the only plaster version known.”
Height 18 ½ inches; 47 cm
By descent in the Coltman Rodgers family at Stanage Park, Powys.
Richard Payne Knight was a leading English scholar and connoisseur of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is best known for his essays on the question of taste, and his views of ‘the picturesque.’ This bust was sculpted by John Bacon junior, and was most likely the version exhibited by him at the Royal Academy in 1812. The Royal Academy bust is thought to have been a plaster bust, and the present example is the only plaster version known. A marble bust is in the British Museum, while a larger marble and bronze example is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Knight first rose to prominence through the design of his own house at Downton Park, in Herefordshire. A wealthy man, thanks to the inheritance of a fortune from his grandfather Richard Knight, an ironmaster, Knight had embarked on a Grand Tour through in 1772 through Italy and France. He returned filled with notions of the purity of classical architecture, but his design for Downton, while including interiors based on the Parthenon in Rome, led to an exterior based on Welsh marcher castles, with turrets and castellations. The house still survives, and is an example of the whimsical creations of rich eighteenth century amateur architects.
Knight’s first literary foray came in the unlikely form of a study of the cult of Priapus, with his 1786 publication of “The Worship of Priapus”. In seeking to stress the longevity of the Pagan cult of Priapus (he claimed that the worship of the phallus stretched into Christianity and the sign of the Cross) Knight alienated many, and exceeded the bounds of even late eighteenth century decorum. He seems to have enjoyed the notoriety, however, and the publication did not prohibit his membership of, for example, the Society of the Dilettanti, and the House of Commons (he served as an MP from 1780-1806).
Further brushes with controversy followed his wholehearted and ill-timed endorsement of the French Revolution, just before the full horrors of The Terror became apparent. Knight, a radical amongst the Foxite wing of the Whigs, believed that the Revolution would mark a return to the purist forms of civilisation of fifth century Greece, where, he believed, mankind had reached a Utopia of liberty and free speech. It was as a national arbiter of taste that Knight found most success. His 1805 “An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste” was widely read. Knight dissented from, for example, the view of Richard Uvedal Price, whose 1801 book “Dialogue on the Distinct Characters of the Picturesque and the Beautiful” stressed that taste could be defined by general rules. Knight argued instead for the more random confluence of sensory and emotional responses, which could be further honed by connoisseurship. The variety of Knight’s own tastes can be found in his collection of art and antiquities, the bulk of which he bequeathed to the British Museum. He was a founder of the British Institution, and enthusiastically promoted young British artists.
This bust has until recently descended in the possession of the Coltman-Rodgers family at Stanage Park in Powys. Their possession of the bust may be considered somewhat ironic, since Stanage Park was once owned by Uvedale Price, with whom Knight had so strongly disagreed.