Connoisseur art historian; critic of the Elgin marbles debate. Knight was the grandson of a Shropshire ironmaster, Richard Knight, whose fortune he inherited. His parents were Thomas Knight, a clergyman, and his mother, his father's onetime servant girl, Ursula Nash. Knight was educated at home. He made many trips to Italy during his youth, collecting coins and antique bronzes. In 1774 he inherited the Downton Castle property, on which he built a "castle" beginning in 1772, transforming the grounds into an important example of British landscape architecture of the time. Knight became a Member of Parliament from 1780 (through 1806). He joined the famous group of scholars of classical studies, the Society of Dilettanti, in 1781. In 1786, he published a study on Priapus, arguing for a prominence of the erotic god in the classical world. This shocking treatise was typical of Knight's brand of partisan writing and from then on set the religious community against his work. In 1791 he attacked Abbé Fourmont's inscriptions from Lakonia as a forgery. During this period textual criticism occupied most of his efforts. He published a discussion of Homer in 1808, republishing it in 1820 with the full-text of Homer, incorporating the many drastic and incorrect changes. In 1809 he published his suspicion that many admired Roman sculptures were in fact copies of Greek bronze originals. His knowledge of bronze work, developed from his personal collections, became the basis for this astute (and ultimately correct) art criticism. Published by the Society of Dilettanti, the work discussed such widely admired examples as the Belvedere Apollo, the Niobe group, and the Borghese Gladiator. He did not suspect the Laocoon. Knight's reputation was profoundly and permanently damaged through the Elgin marble incident. When Lord Elgin offered the pedimental sculpture to the government, Knight berated them in his typical outspoken manner. He characterized them as Roman copies and inferior quality. His 1816 testimony before a select committee of the House of Commons attempted to dissuade the government from buying the sculptures. The marbles were purchased, but only after Knight's criticism had reduced Elgin's finances and his own reputation. As an art historian and aethete, Knight is important as one of the leaders convincing British taste that Roman art was inferior to the Greek examples. He argued for the modern sensibility of Greek art as the more authentic and original of the two classical cultures. His book on phallic worship, The Worship of Priapus, not only proposed that a religious cult existed venerating the phallus, but that this veneration manifested itself in other modes through the present time. Knight was among the first to argue Pagan ideas persisted though modern Christian culture. As a landscape theorist, he was a proponent of picturesque and against the gentle and natural layouts of Capability Brown.
Knight, Richard Payne
An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus. London: 1786; An Analytical Essay on the Greek Alphabet. London: 1791; An Inquiry into the Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology. London: 1818.
Kopff, E. C. Knight, Richard Payne. Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 641-642; Penny, Nicholas, and Clarke, M. The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight, 1751-1824. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1982.