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Reference group
Society of the Virtuosi of St Luke (act. c.1689–1743), also known as St Luke's Club or Vandyke's Club, was a small and exclusive social gathering of artists and gentlemen who met in various London taverns to discuss matters of taste and judgement, and who congregated annually on 18 October to celebrate the festival of St Luke, the patron saint of painters. The society has good claim to be the first organized artists' society in Britain and its members were actively involved in the earliest efforts to establish an academic system for the arts in London, helping to consolidate a new sense of artistic identity closely connected to the rise of metropolitan polite society. The Virtuosi had intimate links with the Stuart and Hanoverian monarchy and with some of the most important collectors and taste-formers of the day, including Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and Edward Harley, second earl of Oxford. According to George Vertue, the society's de facto archivist, the Society of the Virtuosi of St Luke was—along with the Rose and Crown Club—one of ‘the Tip top Clubbs of all, for men of the highest Character in Arts & Gentlemen Lovers of Art’ (Vertue, Note books, 3.120).

The primary source of information on the society is a set of papers compiled and partly copied out by Vertue (BL, Add. MS 39167, fols. 73–86). These papers cover the years from 1689 to 1743 and were based on materials kept by the banker, collector, and early member of the society James Seymour (1658–1739), the father of the sporting artist James Seymour. Vertue's notes allude to further documents held by the art dealer and Virtuoso James Graham (d. 1741), which may have covered the group's foundation and early years. Vertue's notes were considered for publication by the Art Union, which purchased them in 1875 but in 1914 passed them unpublished to the British Museum. They were not included in the printed version of Vertue's manuscript notes on art issued by the Walpole Society (1929–55) but were used by William T. Whitley in the first modern account of the Virtuosi (Whitley, 1.74–7 and 2.241–4). The papers remain unpublished in their original form, although Vertue's material on the society's membership is now in print with a full commentary (Bignamini, ‘George Vertue’, 21–44).

Vertue's presentation of the society's papers serves to construct a retrospective institutional history that links the Virtuosi to an interrupted, but implicitly recoverable, Stuart heritage. His manuscript title page announces that the club was ‘First Established by Sr Ant. Vandyke and in imitation continued to the year 1738/8 1739/1743’. The summary account that follows claims the society's origins were in Sir Anthony Van Dyck's practice of inviting ‘the Virtuosi of London in the several Branches of Painting. Sculpture. &c. & Lovers of Art to meet at his house. he entertaining them in Generous manner & chiefly at the festival yearly of St. Luke’. Van Dyck's death in 1641, followed by the civil wars, meant that this sociable tradition was ‘interrupted many years’ until Sir Peter Lely started up similar gatherings at his own house, ‘in immitation of Vandyke’ until his own death (1680). The ‘factious times following made another chasme’ until in 1689 ‘Several of the most considerable Virtuosi met at a public Tavern’ under the active encouragement of John Riley, the principal painter to William III (BL, Add. MS 39167, fols. 73–74v). The society's documentary record begins only at this point, which means that the institutional genealogy incorporating Van Dyck and Lely should be considered as at least speculative, and quite possibly wholly fabricated in order to suit the tory and Roman Catholic bias of Vertue and a number of his fellow Virtuosi.

The society that met from 1689 was fundamentally a social club, which gathered regularly at various public taverns for conversation and debate. It may have congregated more frequently in earlier years, but a more leisurely rhythm of weekly gatherings during the winter, and monthly meetings during the summer, was settled early in the eighteenth century (matching thereby the social cycle of the London ‘season’). A steward was chosen each year from among the members to plan and partly pay for the annual feast. The first steward was Riley, who fell ill before the dinner, putting John Closterman in his place. From that point the new steward was nominated each year by the incumbent. The feast was always held at an inn, with the sole exception of the dinner of 1718, which was held at the well-appointed house of the serving steward, Sir James Thornhill; his drawing for the invitation card for this event survives (Tate collection). Potential newcomers were proposed by a member who had served as steward, with candidates subjected to a vote by the existing Virtuosi. Membership costs were prohibitively expensive, including five guineas for the annual subscription, with an extra charge of a crown for the annual feast, and a voluntary additional subscription of four or five guineas for the raffle of a work of art. A note from 9 December 1713 rather sternly warns that only bread, butter, and cheese could be paid for out of the kitty.

In a comment on the Virtuosi from his general notes on the history of art Vertue appears to claim that Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Godfrey Kneller, and the Italian decorative painter Antonio Verrio were among the original members of the revived society in 1689 (Vertue, Note books, 3.120). However, there is no further evidence to this effect and the professional antagonism between the leading Virtuosi Closterman and Riley, and Kneller, would suggest that Kneller at least was unlikely to have been affiliated to the group. A note in the society's records indicates that the ten or twelve foundation members were Riley; Closterman; Giles Green (fl. 1690); Grinling Gibbons; a collector and alderman, Charles Chamberlain (fl. 1692–1704); the miniature painter Wolfgang William Clarett (d. 1706); the connoisseurs Robert Huckle (d. 1732) and Robert Bruce; the painter Henry Cook; the author Richard Graham; possibly the jeweller Michael Rosse (fl. 1670–1723); and the prominent portrait painter Michael Dahl. These last two certainly joined the society at an early date, even if they were not present at its foundation. The membership appears to have remained small, with no more than twenty active members at one time. New members in the first decade of the society included the architects William Talman and Christopher Wren the younger [see under Wren, Sir Christopher], the surgeon and anatomist William Cowper, the painter Hugh Howard, and the wealthy banker Robert Child of Osterley (1674–1721). The full rota of stewards had, however, been exhausted by 1707, with Closterman and Gibbons having to serve for a second time in 1708 and 1709 respectively. The portrait painter John Linton (fl. 1680–1710) and the civil servant Thomas Walker (fl. 1711–1739) joined in the meantime, followed by James Graham, the antiquary John Chickeley (1670–c.1727), and the printseller Edward Cooper.

In 1716 a group of new members is recorded, including the leading architect James Gibbs, the painters James Thornhill and John Wootton, and the mathematician John Rowley. A note by Rowley dated to 1720 records that the membership at that point numbered twenty (including Rowley himself). Later members included Vertue, the architect Charles Bridgeman, the enamellist Christian Friedrich Zincke (all elected in 1726), and the sculptor John Michael Rysbrack (1734). The total documented membership between 1698 and 1743 includes fifty-seven individuals. However, it can be assumed that rather more than this took some part in the society's activities, with additional invited guests and casual members: the official order of toasts concluded with glasses raised to ‘noblemen & Gentlemen lovers of art in the round’ and ‘Ladies &c’. Based on the list of annual stewards it has been calculated that the society was dominated by artists (38 per cent), followed by gentlemen and esquires (26 per cent), a slightly smaller number of professional men (20 per cent, including architects, booksellers, doctors), and a minority of merchants and bankers (7 per cent).

While the society's primary function was convivial, from 1697 additional subscriptions were raised for the purchase of pictures. These were raffled among the subscribing members, and paintings by Van Dyck and Salvator Rosa are recorded as having been acquired in this way, though it is not clear how often these raffles occurred. The group appears to have had a further, informal role as an art advisory service, at least in relation to its many members who were collectors rather than practising artists. More lastingly the Virtuosi made a significant contribution to the history of taste through their association with the first publication in English of Charles Du Fresnoy's De arte graphica, a poetic exposition of academic art theory which remained a standard reference work for the next century. The poem was translated by John Dryden, who added an important prefatory essay, and was published in 1695. Dryden referred to De arte graphica as ‘a little French Book of Painting which he hath engag'd to perform to some Gentlemen Vertuoso's and Painters’ (Works, 337), which seems to suggest it was an active commission from the society, and perhaps specifically under the direction of Closterman, who painted Dryden's portrait and took a role in raising subscriptions for the poet's forthcoming translation of Virgil. The book's frontispiece was designed by the artist Henry Cooke (steward in 1696), and an appended collection of artists' lives was written by Richard Graham and concluded, perhaps pointedly, with John Riley. It would appear that either the Virtuosi as a group, or John Closterman independently, also agitated for a formal art academy about 1698, leading to practical plans that were considered by William III. Closterman's connections with Anthony Ashley Cooper (third earl of Shaftesbury from November 1699) and thus with the lord chancellor, John Somers, would have made this a propitious moment for such an endeavour, and would have helped the painters affiliated with the Virtuosi in their professional rivalry with Kneller (Bignamini, ‘Academy of Art’, 440–41). In the event plans for an academy came to nothing, and the initiative was eventually taken by Kneller with the establishment of his academy in Great Queen Street in 1711, which was largely eschewed by the Virtuosi.

The death of Closterman in May 1711, followed shortly afterwards by the departure for Italy of his influential patron Shaftesbury, significantly diminished the Virtuosi's efforts to influence the wider cultural sphere. From this date the society settled down to become an exclusive social club primarily for artists. More practising painters and sculptors than connoisseurs or collectors joined as new members, and the club's activities may in fact have become limited to the annual feasts. Rysbrack is recorded as the last steward, in 1735, and no dinner was held after that date. Some meetings must still have been organized, as a new member, the surgeon Charles Peters, is recorded in 1741, and two more in 1743—the prominent painter and architect William Kent and the rather less distinguished artist Thomas Bryan (fl. 1711–1743). The society's records end at this point and it can be assumed that the club became inactive.

In their emphasis on conviviality, their urban and urbane qualities, and the club's mix of professional and genteel members, the Virtuosi can be considered as the exemplary cultural association of the era. Although Gawen Hamilton's portrait A Conversation of Virtuosi (1734–5; NPG) cannot be identified precisely with the Society of the Virtuosi of St Luke, despite the fact that the majority of the sitters present were members (Kerslake, 340–42; Bignamini, ‘George Vertue’, 29–30) , it manifests the ethos of the society and of the ideals of connoisseurship more generally. The idea of the ‘virtuosi’ served an important role in raising artistic status in the period—defining the terms on which gentlemen and practising artists could meet socially as ostensible equals, and serving arguments about ‘the civilizing power of the fine arts’ (Solkin, 98–9). The Virtuosi included successful craftsmen, engravers, and architects as well as painters and sculptors, bankers and tradesmen, and propertied gentlemen. Their decline in the 1740s reflected a growing division within the metropolitan cultural scene, as new scholarly societies (notably the Society of Antiquaries, the Roman Club, and the Society of Dilettanti) drew members from the genteel and professional classes, and as the private academies and other artists' societies were put on a more formal footing. By the mid-eighteenth century the dual identity encompassed under the rubric of ‘virtuosi’ was increasingly tested, and gave way to the more fractious and antagonistic institutional relations that ultimately led to the formation of the Royal Academy of Arts in the late 1760s.

Martin Myrone

Sources  

G. Vertue, ed., papers of the Virtuosi of St Luke, BL, Add. MS 39167, fols. 73–85 [[incl. acquisition note, fol. 86]] · Vertue, Note books · I. Bignamini, ‘George Vertue, art historian, and art institutions in London, 1689–1768’, Walpole Society, 54 (1988), 1–148 · Vertue, Note books · I. Bignamini, ‘The “Academy of Art” in Britain before the foundation of the Royal Academy’, Academies of art between Renaissance and Romanticism, ed. A. W. A. Bochloo and others (1989), 434–47 · W. T. Whitley, Artists and their friends in England, 1700–1799, 2 vols. (1928) · The works of John Dryden, ed. A. E. Wallace Maurer, 20: De arte graphica and shorter works (1989) · D. H. Solkin, Painting for money: the visual arts and the public sphere in eighteenth-century England (1992) · P. Clark, British clubs and societies, 1580–1800: the origins of an associational world (2000) · J. Kerslake, National Portrait Gallery: early Georgian portraits, 2 vols. (1977)