Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knight, Richard Payne

KNIGHT, RICHARD PAYNE (1750–1824), numismatist, born in 1750, was the eldest son of the Rev. Thomas Knight (1697–1764) of Wormesley Grange, Herefordshire, rector of Bewdley and Ribbesford, Worcestershire, by his wife, Ursula Nash. Thomas Andrew Knight [q. v.], F.R.S., was his younger brother. Knight was called Payne after his grandmother, Elizabeth, daughter of Andrew Payne, and wife of Richard Knight (1659–1745), the founder of the Knight family, who acquired great wealth by the ironworks of Shropshire, and settled at Downton, Herefordshire. Richard Payne Knight being of weakly constitution as a boy was not sent to school till he was fourteen, and did not begin to learn Greek till he was seventeen. He was not at any university. About 1767 he went to Italy, and remained abroad several years.

Knight again visited Italy in 1777, and from April to June of that year was in Sicily in company with Philipp Hackert, the German painter, and Charles Gore. Knight kept a journal, which, under the title of ‘Tagebuch einer Reise nach Sicilien,’ was translated and published by Goethe in his biography of Hackert (Goethe, Werke, xxxvii. 1830, pp. 146–218, cf. pp. 320–4; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iii. 473). In 1785 he again travelled southwards, and in that year laid the foundation of his fine collection of bronzes by the purchase of an antique head (‘Diomede’) from Thomas Jenkins, the dealer at Rome (Spec. Ant. Sculpt. i. pl. 20, 21). When in Italy Knight spent much time at Naples, where his friend Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803) [q. v.] was the British envoy. About 1764 Knight had inherited the estates at Downton, Herefordshire. He ornamented the grounds, and there erected from his own designs (severely criticised by Britton, ‘Toddington,’ 1840, 4to, p. 21) a stone mansion in castellated style. A view is given in Neale's ‘Seats’ (1826, 2nd ser. vol. iii., ‘Downton Castle;’ cf. Dict. of Architecture, Architect. Publ. Soc., s.v. ‘Knight, R. P.’). Knight invited Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton to Downton Castle in 1802 (Duncumb and Cooke, Hereford, iii. 170). In London, he had a house in Soho Square (Walford, Old and New London, iv. 500), and used one of the large rooms as his museum. In 1780 he became M.P. for Leominster, and from 1784 to 1806 sat for Ludlow. In the House of Commons he acted with Fox, but took no part in debate.

Knight's first published work was ‘An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus lately existing in Isernia; to which is added a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its Connexion with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients,’ 1786, 4to. The book was severely attacked by Mathias in the ‘Pursuits of Literature’ (Dial. i.), and Knight endeavoured to buy up the copies of his offending publication (cf. Allibone, Dict. of Engl. Lit. art. ‘Knight, R. P.’). Professor Michaelis (Anc. Marbles, p. 122) says that the book is blameworthy, apart from the unpleasantness of its subject, for its adoption of the mythological fantasies of D'Hacarville, whose acquaintance Knight had made in 1784 at the house of Charles Townley. In 1791 Knight published ‘An Analytical Essay on the Greek Alphabet,’ London, 4to, with nine plates, reviewed by Porson in the ‘Monthly Review’ for 1794. Knight was the first to question in this work the genuineness of the Greek inscriptions stated to have been found by Fourmont in Laconia (Boeckh, Corpus Inscr. Gr. i. 61–104). He was the first to edit the ‘Elean Inscription’ (ib. No. 11). In 1808 he printed privately fifty copies (London, 8vo) of his ‘Carmina Homerica, Ilias et Odyssea.’ This consists of Prolegomena, the text being added in the later edition of 1820, 8vo. His object was to restore the text to its supposed original condition, and he introduced the digamma and various early forms. Knight printed privately ‘An Inquiry into the Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology’ (London, 8vo, reprinted in ‘Classical Museum,’ pp. xxiii–xxvii, and in ‘Specimens of Ant. Sculpt.,’ vol. ii.; new ed. by A. Wilder, New York, 1876). Knight also wrote for the ‘Classical Museum,’ the ‘Philological Museum,’ and in the ‘Archæologia,’ and contributed to the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (August 1810) an article on Barry, and a severe critique (July 1809) of Falconer's ‘Strabo,’ a publication of the Clarendon press. Copleston of Oriel defended the Oxford press and Oxford scholarship in a ‘Reply’ (Oxford, 1810), and a controversy ensued (see the joint article in Edinb. Rev. April 1810, pp. 158–87, by Sidney Smith, Playfair, and Knight, who wrote pp. 169–77). Knight was also the author of two didactic poems: ‘The Landscape’ (London, 1794, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1795), a protest against the gardening methods of Brown and Mason; and ‘The Progress of Civil Society’ (London, 1796, 8vo), written in a quasi-Lucretian vein, which was parodied in the ‘Anti-Jacobin.’ Knight's bad poetry and sceptical principles were attacked by Walpole (Letters, ix. 462, ‘22 March 1796’) and by Mathias (Pursuits of Lit.)

As a connoisseur and authority on ancient art Knight's reputation stood very high. A ‘Quarterly Reviewer’ described him (xiv. 533 f.) as ‘the arbiter of fashionable virtu.’ In 1808 he published two editions of ‘An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste’ (London, 8vo; 4th edit. 1808; noticed by Jeffrey, Edinb. Rev. May 1811, and censured by Professor Wilson, Essays, 1856, iv. 102). In 1781 he had joined the Dilettanti Society, and with his friend Charles Townley suggested to it the publication of ‘Specimens of Antient Sculpture selected from several Collections in Great Britain,’ vol. i. London, 1809, fol. Twenty-three specimens from Knight's own collection were included in the book, and Knight wrote the text, consisting of concise descriptions and a fairly creditable introduction on the history of ancient art. He was one of the contributors to the second volume of the ‘Specimens,’ edited by W. S. Morritt. Unlike the other dilettanti of the time, Knight cared little for ancient marbles, and his collection included only a few specimens. He chiefly appreciated bronzes, coins, and gems. He told Lord Elgin at a dinner-party that he had ‘lost his labour’ in bringing over the Parthenon marbles (Haydon, Life, i. 272), some of which Knight supposed to be Roman, ‘of the age of Adrian.’ Knight gave evidence in 1816, before a select committee of the House of Commons, against the national acquisition of these monuments, which he said he ‘had looked over.’ The contrary evidence of Haydon was dispensed with, ‘out of delicacy to Mr. Payne Knight.’ Knight's evidence was severely commented on in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (xiv. 533 f.), and Knight himself issued a supplementary ‘Explanation’ of it. He valued the Elgin collection—including coins estimated by him at 1,000l.—at 25,000l. (Ellis, Elgin Marbles, i. 8). In 1814 Knight had written to the ‘Morning Chronicle’ approving the national purchase of the Phigaleian marbles. As a collector of small antiques Knight had good taste and good luck. He used to speak of his ‘jewels in bronze,’ and his collection of bronzes far surpassed any other. Walpole sneered at the ‘Knight of the Brazen Milk-pot.’ Many of Knight's bronzes had belonged to the Duc de Chaulnes, who died at the beginning of the French revolution. Knight sent an agent as far as Russia to hunt up the bronzes from the Paramythia find, one specimen of which had reached England. His collection of Greek coins was no less remarkable, and was especially rich in the money of Sicily and Magna Græcia, beautiful series which he had the good taste to appreciate (cf. Knight's article on Syracusan coins in the Archæologia, xix. 374 f.) He also collected some good gems, though he purchased as an antique, for 250l., from Bonelli, a cameo of Flora (now in the British Museum) which had been made by Pistrucci (Quart. Rev. xix. 539). Knight was vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries, and a member of the Eumelean Club, a literary society which met at Blenheim Tavern in Bond Street, London (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 638). The Latin inscription on the monument erected in 1813 to Sir Joshua Reynolds in St. Paul's Cathedral was written by Knight (Leslie, Reynolds, ii. 637). Knight died at his house in Soho Square, London, on 23 April 1824, of ‘an apoplectic affection’ (Gent. Mag. 1824, pt. ii. p. 185). He was buried in Wormesley Church, Herefordshire, where there is a monument to him, with a Latin epitaph by Cornewall, bishop of Worcester. His Downton estate passed to his brother, Thomas Andrew Knight. He made to the British Museum, of which he had been Townley trustee since 1814, the munificent bequest of his bronzes, coins, gems, marbles, and drawings. The collection was valued at the time at sums varying from 30,000l. to 60,000l. The acquisition of the bronzes and coins immensely strengthened the national collection. The trustees of the British Museum printed and published in 1830 (London, 4to) Knight's own manuscript catalogue of the coins, with the title ‘Nummi Veteres.’ It consists of brief descriptions in Latin and of a few notes. Knight's manuscript catalogue of his gems, ‘Sigilla antiqua,’ is now in the department of Greek and Roman antiquities at the museum. The drawings—273 works by Claude—had been purchased by Knight for 16,000l. (Fagan, Handbook to Dept. of Prints, p. 133; Gent. Mag. 1824, pt. ii. p. 164). The sole condition of the bequest was the appointment of a perpetual ‘Knight family trustee.’ This was arranged by a bill passed on 17 June 1824. A portrait of Knight was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in March 1792, and is now the property of the Dilettanti Society, to which it was presented by Knight in 1805 (Account of the Portraits of the Dilettanti Soc. 1885, p. 5, No. 27). He is described (Gent. Mag.) as reserved in his manners, though he was hospitable, and ready to give information on artistic subjects. When at Downton he passed a country gentleman's life, and was a good landlord. He was an insatiable reader, reading, it is said, for ‘ten hours at a stretch.’

[Burke's Landed Gentry, s.v. ‘Knight of Wormesley;’ Penny Cyclopædia, ‘Knight, R. P.;’ Edwards's Lives of the Founders of the Brit. Mus. pp. 389, 401–12, 460; Michaelis's Ancient Marbles in Great Britain; Brit. Mus. Cat., and authorities cited in the article.]

W. W.