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An Account of the Remains of the Worship of  Priapus 1786
An Account of the Remains
of the Worship of  Priapus

by Richard Payne Knight 1786
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Wombat's Family ForestRichard Payne Knight
Life and Times

The attack on Elgin was led by a certain Richard Payne Knight. It is difficult now to understand the reason for the sheer venom, the personal hatred which Payne Knight displayed towards a man who had done him no harm, either professional or personal. In his brilliant book on the collecting mania, The Taste of Angels, Francis Henry Taylor summed up Payne Knight as one who 'bore all the complexities and difficulties inherent in the true archaeologist-- jealousy, infallibility coupled with a sense of persecution and a madness for his own subject...the very essence of the archaeological character and temper'. Knight was a leading member of the Society of Dilettanti, elegant young men who possessed both taste and money all wrapped up in an arrogant self-confidence. Knight was their self-appointed arbiter of taste, their touchstone of all that was fashionable in the world of art. It may well be that Knight, as Francis Taylor suggests, was the very model of the intransigent academic, 'for not even a statesman at a peace conference is more unable to repudiate a previously held opinion than the academic potentate who passes as authority in his particular field'. But it may also be that he was simply loyal--over-loyal, perhaps--to his friends in the Dilettanti and could not bear to think that their pretty antiquities were about to be shadowed by those collected, at one swoop, by a Scottish laird-- antiquities believed by many to be from the hands of Phidias himself. Whatever the cause, Knight adopted the manners of a gutter-snipe to attack the wretched Elgin on his belated return to England. At a dinner party where a careless--or malicious--host had brought the two together, he shouted across the crowded room, 'You have lost your labour, my lord. Your marbles are over-rated. They are not Greek: they are Roman of the time of Hadrian.'

Richard Payne Knight

Originally published in Red Flame No. 2 -- Mystery of Mystery: A Primer of Thelemic Ecclesiastical Gnosticism by Tau Apiryon and Helena; Berkeley, CA 1995 e.v

English antiquarian, philologist, numismatist, free-thinking Deist philosopher, expert on Greek literature, member of the Radical (Whig) Party of Parliament and the Society of Dilletanti, friend of Lord Byron, patron of art and learning, and country gentleman.

Knight was born at Wormsley Grange in Herefordshire to a parson, Thomas Knight, and his servant girl, Ursula Nash. He later fell heir to the fortunes of his grandfather, a wealthy ironmaster. He was sickly as a child and was educated largely by tutors and by himself. His wealth enabled him to travel extensively around the world, especially in Italy, and he developed a keen interest in ancient art. He was elected to Parliament in 1780 and was elected to the Society of Dilletanti in 1781. This Society, although founded as a club for cultured travellers (by Sir Francis Dashwood in 1732), became a prominent amateur archeological organization, and financed a number of archeological expeditions. It was under the auspices of the Society of Dilletanti that Knight's Discourse on the Worship of Priapus was published in 1786.

This book, also published as Two Essays on the Worship of Priapus, is included in Section 1 of the A:. A:. reading list. By "the Worship of Priapus," Knight did not mean specifically the cult of the Greek god discussed earlier, but phallic worship in general; including fertility cults. The book demonstrates in a scholarly manner the extensive and significant role phallic worship played in many and various parts of the ancient world, East as well as West, as told in the symbolic language of ancient mythology and art.

The metaphysical system set forth in the book is one of emanation. The Supreme God is a Quintessential, Male-Female Principle, embodying the principles of creation, destruction and renovation. The process of emanation takes place through a division of this "Intellectual Being" or "Fire" into two principles: active and passive, male and female, formative and solvent: the Divine Essence, or life force; and Universal Matter. All living beings are a result of the invigoration of the Universal Matter by the Divine Essence. Sexual intercourse could, then, be viewed as a sacred reflection of the divine Mystery of Emanation. Knight theorized that such a viewpoint was, indeed, that expressed in the sexual imagery and symbolism of the ancients-- elements of which have survived and can still be seen even in the sacred art and architecture of modern times.

Knight's other works include Analytical Essay on the Greek Alphabet (1791), Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), Inquiry into the Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology (1818), two didactic poems: "The Landscape" (1794), and "The Progress of Civil Society" (1796), and "Alfred, a Romance in Rhyme" (1823). Knight's extensive collection of ancient coins, medals, stone carvings and bronzes is now in the British Museum, of which he served as Trustee.


Allibone, S. Austin; Allibone's Dictionary of English Literature and British & American Authors, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia 1871
Clarke, Michael and Nicholas Penny, eds.,; The Arrogant Connoiseur: Richard Payne Knight, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1982
Godwin, Joscelyn; The Theosophical Enlightenment, SUNY Press, Albany 1994
Knight, Richard Payne; "A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus" [1786] in Sexual Symbolism, a History of Phallic Worship, with an introduction by Ashley Montagu, Julian Press, NY 1957

Richard Payne Knight

from Wikipedia

Richard Payne Knight (15 February 1750 - 23 April 1824) was a classical scholar and connoisseur best known for his theories of picturesque beauty and for his interest in ancient phallic imagery. He was born at Wormesley Grange in Herefordshire, UK, and was educated at home, but toured Italy and the European continent from 1767 for several years. He was a collector of ancient bronzes and coins, a Member of Parliament from 1780 to 1806, and an author of numerous books 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 bequeathed 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 Uvedale 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.’

For Knight ‘picturesque’ means simply ‘after the manner of painting’, a point which is important to his further discussion of sensation, which in Knight's view is central to the understanding of painting and music which are ‘addressed to the organs of sight and hearing’, while poetry and sculpture appeal ‘entirely to the imagination and passions.’ The latter must be understood in terms of associations of ideas, while the former rely on the ‘irritation’ or friction of sensitive parts of the body. Artists should seek to reproduce primal visual sensations, not the mental interpretative processes which give rise to abstract ideas.

For Knight, colour is experienced directly as pleasurable sensation. A pure blue is not pleasurable because it reminds us of clear skies, as Price supposed, but because of the experience itself. Interpretation of impressions follows chains of association following from this primal sensory experience. However, the pleasures of sense may be ‘modified by habit’, so that the pure stimulus of colour may be experience as pleasurable when ‘under the influence of mind’ which perceives its meaningful use within a painting. Excess of pure colour is painful, like any other sensory excess. Variety and combination of colours is most pleasurable.

Knight makes much of the need to fragment an image into tonal and colouristic ‘masses’, a view has been claimed to anticipate the late work of Turner, or even Impressionism. However, it most directly justifies the practices of contemporary painters of picturesque landscapes, such as Girtin, whose stippling effects are comparable to Knight’s account of pleasing colour combinations.

Sculpture – typically colourless form – generates in the mind the idea of shape which we must conceptualise, as with ‘proportion’. The literary arts, like sculpture, deal with thoughts and emotions, though in a more complex form. Knight’s account of these arts therefore falls under the heading of ‘association of ideas’. Here Knight shows the influence of the contemporary cult of sensibility, arguing that these arts engage our sympathies, and in so doing demonstrate the inadequacy of ‘rules and systems’ in both morality and aesthetics. These teach ‘men to work by rule, instead of by feeling and observation.’ Rule-based knowledge of wrong cannot prevent wrongdoing, because it is thought not felt. Therefore, ‘it is impossible that tragedy should exhibit examples of pure and strict morality, without becoming dull and uninteresting.’

Knight’s discussion of ‘the passions’ engages with both Classical and recent theorisations of sentiments. His discussion of the sublime is directed against Burke’s emphasis on feelings of terror and powerlessness. Knight defends Longinus's original account of sublimity, which he summarises as the ‘energetic exertion of great and commanding power.’ Again he intertwines social and aesthetic reasoning, asserting that the power of a tyrant cannot be sublime if the tyrant inspires fear by mere arbitrary whim, like Nero. However, it may be sublime if his tyranny, like Napoleon's, derives from the exercise of immense personal capacities. A Nero may be feared, but would also be despised. A Napoleon may be hated, but will nevertheless inspire awe. In art, the mind experiences the sublime as it experiences the exercise of its own powers, or sympathises with the exercises of the powers of others. Fear itself can never engender the sublime.

Knight’s emphasis on the roles of sensation and of emotion were constituative of later Romantic and Victorian aesthetic thinking, as was his vexed struggle with the relation between moral feeling and sensuous pleasure. Though some contemporaries condemned the basis of his thought as an aestheticised libertinism, or devotion to physical sensation, they influenced John Ruskin’s attempts to theorise the Romantic aesthetic of Turner, and to integrate political and pictorial values.