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Breath of rarefied air at the Getty

An exhibition gives commoners a glimpse of the elite Society of Dilettanti's holdings.

October 16, 2008|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Sir Humphry Wakefield, 72, on the phone from Chillingham Castle in England, was eager to talk about his role as a proud member of the Society of Dilettanti, an exclusive men's club founded in 1734. But first he needed to check on one of the horses, which he thought might have sustained an injury earlier in the day.

"We have several. They come and they go," Wakefield said, unable to remember the exact horse count at his castle upon calling back to report that this one had turned out to be fine. "They chase after foxes and they jump over jumps and they play horse games. They have a lot of fun."

And so, in fact, does Wakefield, one of several club members who have traveled to Los Angeles to visit the exhibition “Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti,” a display of pictures, sculpture and objects on view at the Getty Villa through Oct. 27. According to those members, despite their distinguished professions and titles, fun remains the name of the game for the elite 274-year-old society, which got its name from the Italian dilettare, to take delight.

One of its favorite toasts is "seria ludo," translated from the Latin as "serious matters in a playful vein."

The Society of Dilettanti was founded as a private dining club by a group of young British gentlemen who were alumni of the Grand Tour in Italy, an educational rite of passage for the upper classes. The club was known for its enjoyment of good food and wine, battles of bawdy wit and a taste for erotic artifacts, many of which are displayed in their own naughty little gallery within the Getty exhibition.

But on the serious side, its early members are also credited with advancing the study of classical antiquity by funding scholarly expeditions, collecting art and publishing books on ancient architecture and sculpture.

Today, the society is strictly limited to 60 members; no one new gets in until someone retires or dies. They meet five times a year at the private club Brooks's in London, founded in 1764, which also houses the Dilettanti's extensive art collection, some of which is on loan to the Getty.

"It's an interesting occasion on which to, I suppose in modern parlance, to network," said Dilettanti member Nicholas Baring, a retired merchant banker and former chairman of the charitable Baring Foundation, after going through the Getty Villa galleries on his way back from a trip to Peru as part of an organization trying to bring back into use neglected agricultural terraces in the Andes.

Every few years, the dinner proceedings feature an introductory ceremony for inductees, including a procession involving the newbies as well as club members portraying the characters of the Imp, who leads the procession bearing silver candlesticks with lighted candles, and the Arch Master, who is dressed in lavish red robes.

"We all lift our glasses and say 'William,' or whatever the man's name is," said Charles Sebag-Montefiore, 58, who has served as the society's joint secretary since 1997. "And he is expected to make a pretty speech of thanks. Some people get it just right. Some go on too long."

These days, although the membership probably skews a bit older than it did in the 18th century, the distinguished list includes the wealthy, the titled and the scholarly. The society won't reveal its membership roster, citing privacy issues, but the list includes Richard Dorment, art critic of the Daily Telegraph, who has reviewed the exhibition from an insider’s perspective, and . Prince Charles is an honorary member.

And, following in the long tradition of such artist-members as George Knapton, Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent, British artist David Hockney, a longtime Los Angeles resident, now serves as the club's official portraitist -- although, according to other members, Hockney has yet to paint a society portrait (the artist could not be reached for comment).

On the matter of selecting members, they must be nominated and seconded by two club members, but "there aren't requirements in the sense that nowhere is it written down," said Sebag-Montefiore while in town to give a lecture on the society at the Getty. "We have quite a relaxed attitude toward rules. It is more characteristics that are looked at.

"I think it's essentially to have an interest in fine or applied arts, that's the raison d'etre. But you could have a very scholarly man, who knows all there is to know about the world of fine arts, but that would not be sufficient," he continued. "He would need to be a pleasant character and somebody people like to spend an evening sitting next to. Congeniality and wit -- wit is much applauded. People aren't expected to wear their scholarship on their sleeves, it's discreet.

"On the whole, the right people seem to get elected."



"Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Ends Oct. 27. Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades. Free, but parking is $10. (310) 440-7300 or

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