Knapton, who was in fact an extremely accomplished painter, created a rogues’ gallery that includes milordi like John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich (the very one who first put meat between slices of bread to avoid wasting precious gambling time by sitting down to normal meals) in a Turkish turban, gazing lovingly, and not quite soberly, at a glass of wine (of course it is a beautifully blown Venetian glass). Sir Bourchier Wrey (the names of the Dilettanti are often as colorful as their outfits) dips into a porcelain punch bowl; the window behind him reveals that he, and implicitly we, are inside a ship’s cabin on a vigorously bounding main. The ceramic vessel’s rim bears the inscription “Dulce est Desipere in Loco”; “it is sweet to act like a fool in the appropriate place.” The whole composition rolls and heaves along with the ship and its tipsy toastmaster; the texture of paint evokes hot flesh, supple fabric, cool china, ripe fruit, the wine-dark sea, and a sea of golden wine. The Dilettanti not only acted like fools in the appropriate places; they could also be downright blasphemous, especially with regard to the Catholicism they had encountered in Italy. Knapton painted Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord LeDespencer, decked out as a Franciscan friar, tonsure and all, lofting a gilt chalice inscribed “MATRI SANCTORUM” (to the mother of the saints), but Dashwood’s wide eyes are fixed on what he might have called the “charms” of a classical Venus, whose hand, which should have been poised to shield her celestial nudity, has conveniently broken off.
more from the NYRB here.