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Welsh History Review

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Vol. 8, nos. 1-4 1976-77

Richard Payne Knight : the twilight of virtuosity : Book review.

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an introductory study to the history of Porthmadog, he has, however,
made a valuable contribution to the maritime history of north Wales.
Local studies of this kind help to fill in many of the gaps that still exist in
Welsh regional economic and social history. Moreover, by involving the
pupils of Ysgol Eifionnydd and members of local extra-mural classes
in the task of collecting historical evidence for this book, Mr. Eames
hopes to stimulate participation in further research on the history of
Porthmadog. This is an admirable way of teaching local history.
In steering Porthmadog Ships into print, Mr. Eames has laid down
a solid foundation for further local research. The book has been
attractively produced by Gee and Son, Denbigh. It contains excellent
illustrations which give an added dimension to the narrative. The officers
of the Gwynedd Archives Service are to be congratulated on initiating
this publication and thus making a valuable contribution to the history
of the area they primarily serve. But the book will, undoubtedly, appeal
to a much wider public. It should, perhaps, be read in conjunction with
Immortal Sails (Prescot, Lancs., 1969) by Lt.-Col. Henry Hughes, brother
of the compiler of the 'Porthmadoc Ships', who shared with him the same
love and enthusiasm for the history of Porthmadog and its ships.
MOELWYN WILLIAMS
National Library of Wales,
Aberystwyth.
RICHARD PAYNE KNIGHT: THE TWILIGHT OF VIRTUOSITY. By Frank J.
Messmann. Mouton, 1974. Pp. 178. 34 Fl.
Richard Payne Knight, Herefordshire landowner and scholarly
'virtuoso', is best known today as a prominent protagonist in the late-
eighteenth-century controversy about the nature of the picturesque and
as the owner-architect of Downton Castle, one of the earliest and most
original buildings in the 'gothic' style. Less well known are the many
other activities and publications which contributed to his contemporary
reputation-and notoriety: his long political career as M.P. for
Leominster and later for Ludlow, and his rather more vocal participation
in public life as respected critic and connoisseur, pillar of the Society of
Dilettanti, founder of the British Institution and trustee of the British
Museum; the passion for collecting which enabled him to bequeath 'some
of the finest examples of ancient sculpture in bronze in existence' to the
British Museum; and the eventual collapse of his reputation following
his misjudgement of the Elgin Marbles. Among his prolific writings are
commentaries on Homer, a philological treatise on the Greek alphabet
a didactic poem, The Progress of Civil Society, and studies-considered
controversial, even scandalous, at the time-of Priapic worship among
the ancients and of the sexual symbolism of classical art.
Frank J. Messmann's brief 'critical biography' is the first book to
tackle the entire, dauntingly wide range of Payne Knight's activities and
interests. The author aims to 'supplement previous biographical sketches'
and to provide an analysis of all Payne Knight's published work.
Unfortunately, he brings little enthusiasm or critical insight to the task.
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