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Richard Payne Knight

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Richard Payne Knight (1750-1824) was a Classical scholar and connoisseur best known for his interest in ancient phallic imagery and for his theories of picturesque beauty. He was born at Wormesley Grange in Herefordshire and was educated at home, but toured Italy and the continent from 1867 for several years. He was a collector of ancient bronzes and coins, a Member of Parliament from 1780-1806, and an author of numerous book and articles on ancient sculpture, coins and other artefacts. As a member of the Society of Dilettanti, Knight was widely considered to be an arbiter of taste. He bequethed his collection of bronzes, coins, gems, marbles, and drawings to the British Museum.

Notoriously, Knight's first book, The Worship of Priapus, sought to recover the importance of ancient phallic cults. Knight's apparent preference for ancient sacred eroticism over Judeo-Christian puritanism led to many attacks on him as an infidel and as a scholarly apologist for libertinism. This ensured the persistent distrust of the religious establishment. The central claim of The Worship of Priapus was that an international religious impulse to worship ‘the generative principle’ was articulated through genital imagery, and that this imagery has persisted into the modern age. In some ways the book was the first of many later attempts to argue that Pagan ideas had persisted within Christian culture, a view that would eventually crystalise into the neo-Pagan movement over a century later.

An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, 1805, was, however, Knight's most influential work in his lifetime. This book sought to explain the experience of taste within the mind and to clarify the theorisation of the concept of the picturesque, following from the writings of William Gilpin and James Price on the subject. Knight's views on the aesthetics of the picturesque are also formed in engagement with Edmund Burke's emphasis on the importance of sensation, which Knight partly rejects in favour of a modified associationism. The philosophical basis of Knight's theories have implications for his account of the relationship between the 'beautiful' and the 'picturesque'. For Knight, aesthetic concepts cannot be formed directly from optical sensations, because these must be interpreted within the mind before they can be recognised as beautiful. Thus a Classical temple is beautiful because of the proportions of its parts, but these proportions can never be perceived directly by the senses, which will simply encounter a mass of confused impressions. 'Beauty' is thus a product of internal mental acts. It is therefore proper to speak of moral, mathematical and other non-sensuous forms of beauty, contrary to Burke, Hogarth and others who claimed such usages were metaphorical. In all cases 'the particular object [e.g. proportion] is an abstract idea.' Knight's emphasis on the roles of sensation and of emotion were constituative of later Romantic and Victorian aesthetic thinking, as was his vexed stuggle with the relation between moral feeling and sensuous pleasure.

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