I've been involved in the restoration of a remarkable book by The Society of Dilettanti: Specimens of Antient Sculpture, Aegyptian, Etruscan, Greek and roman. London: 1809
Founded in 1734 in London for British gentlemen who had made the Grand Tour, The Dilettanti included among its members the leading British connoisseurs of classical art. The group's name derives from the Italian dilettare, "to delight”’. The Society sponsored archaeological expeditions throughout the mid-1700s, accumulating antiquities collections, and raised the profile of classical art and architecture as models of refined taste and style.
Their aim was to produce empirical drawings of the most famous, but little understood, monuments of antiquity with the utmost precision to be published. These books set the standards for the depiction of architectural drawings.
In 1799, Richard Payne Knight commissioned artist John Samuel Agar to create a series of highly finished drawings of classical statuary in British collections. Agar's illustrations are among the finest ever made of sculpture. They served as the basis for the engravings in Knight's publication Specimens of Antient Sculpture. The illustrations pay tribute to the best classical sculptures in England, and to the stature of their Dilettanti owners as tastemakers.
Sadly most of these books have now been torn and transformed into framed prints and only a very few survive. One of them, part of George III’s collection and bearing the Royal Crest is held at the British Library and can be viewd upon request. This and the copy held at the Royal Academy of Arts have been pivotal in gathering the necessary information for the restoration of this very special book.
The book, a Large folio (560 x 380 mm) is 1 of 60 published in 1809 for the Society Members and still uncut is a publisher's edition and bears the coats of arms of North North Thurland Castle, Lincolnshire.
The spine was very brittle and the covers separated and in bad condition. In order to avoid damage to the interior and preserve the book for posterity, specialist restorer Wyvern Bindery advised to replace both using sensitive materials: brown calf spine, thick raised bands and scarlet calf label with hand gilt embossed letters and a decorative item.
Unlike the covers and spine, the interior of the book is in a remarkably good condition and contains 75 magnificently engraved plates & 3 engraved head- and tailpieces. A new lease of life a hopefully preservation for posterity for this stunningly beautiful work of art.