Walter Spencer Stanhope and the Society of Dilettanti

I have written previously about Cannon Hall, the childhood home in Cawthorne, Yorkshire, of Thomas Atkinson. Owned by the wealthy Spencer Stanhope family, Thomas’ father was head mason on the estate. We know that Thomas himself was supported by the Spencer Stanhopes during his career, particularly by Charles, a younger son of the family.

Walter Spencer Stanhope2
Early portrait of Walter Spencer Stanhope

Thomas showed his appreciation for the family during the 1820s, when following the death of family patriarch Walter Spencer Stanhope (1749-1822), he was commissioned to create a tomb for the local church in Cawthorne. Thomas completed the commission with much flair in 1829, creating a mediaeval design that reflected his growing interest in the neo-Gothic style.

Sir Walter Spencer Stanhope tomb
Atkinson’s design for Walter Spencer Stanhope’s tomb

But until now little has been written about Walter himself. New evidence suggests he was at the centre of intellectual life in the eighteenth century and possibly raises some interesting questions over Thomas’ paternity.

Walter studied at University College, Oxford and soon after, aged 26, became MP for Carlisle. He was to remain an MP for various constituences until 1812, forming close relationships with both Pitt the Younger and with the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, both of whom regularly stayed at Cannon Hall.

But what has been missed or ignored until now – and many thanks to Helen Bonney for pointing this out – is Walter’s membership of that most scandalous grouping, the Society of Dilettanti.  The Society was founded in about 1735 by a group of men who had visited Italy on the Grand Tour and wanted to continue to share and build on their experiences in a light-hearted manner. In 1743 Horace Walpole criticised the Society, saying that it was “a club, for which 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 sober the whole time they were in Italy”.

The name Dilettanti comes from the Latin ‘dilettare‘, to take delight in, and the Society adopted a policy of ‘seria ludo‘ – looking at serious subjects in a light-hearted manner.

The Society’s members, mostly “young men of rank and fashion”, had to be personally known to an existing member and were elected by secret ballot. They met regularly at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, where their discussions regularly included the arts of classical antiquity – and sometimes more erotic subjects. The Society raised money to encourage the study of Greek and Roman art and backed some of the earliest archaeological expeditions to the Mediterranean.

Members included such people as Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, later 2nd Duke of Dorset; the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood, later Lord le Despencer and proprietor of the Hellfire Club; Simon Harcourt, Viscount and later Earl Harcourt; Gustavus Hamilton, 2nd Viscount Boyne; William Ponsonby, later Viscount Duncannon and Earl of Bessborough; Richard Grenville, Earl Temple; and Sewallis Shirley, Comptroller of Queen Charlotte’s household.

It also included such notables as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles James Fox, George Selwyn, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, Sir Joseph Banks, Charles Francis Greville, Sir William Hamilton and the great actor, David Garrick.

In 1769 the great painter Sir Joshua Reynolds painted two group portraits of members of the Society of Dilettanti. Now in a private collection, the portraits are rightly famous, not least for their many visual jokes at the expense of the sitters. The first of these portraits contains likenesses of seven men:  from left to right: Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, John Taylor, Stephen Payne-Gallway, Sir William Hamilton, Richard Thompson, Walter Spencer Stanhope and John Lewin Smyth.

Members of the Society of Dilettanti by Reynolds. Walter is top right.

What is the significance of Walter’s membership of this organisation and his portrayal by Reynolds? First, it may well explain why his eldest son John took himself off to Greece in 1812 to study archaeology and to carry out some of the first scientific measurements of classical ruins. John Spencer Stanhope published several books on his interest in classical architecture.

More intriguingly, perhaps it adds weight to various claims concerning Thomas Atkinson’s paternity. Thomas’ mother was Martha Witlam, a maid at Cannon Hall. But there have always been suggestions that perhaps Thomas was an illegitimate son of Walter Spencer Stanhope. Walter had 15 children by his own long-suffering wife, but it would not have been unheard of for a senior estate worker such as Thomas’ widower father William to be asked to bring up a child fathered by someone in the ‘big house’. There is little evidence in this particular case, other than the deep interest the Spencer Stanhopes’ took in Thomas’ welfare throughout his life and the encouragement offered to him.

Now that we know that Walter was also a member of the Society of Dilettanti, where bastard children would have been a feather in the cap to its members, perhaps it strengthens this argument.


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