Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was a diplomatist and archaeologist, born in Scotland on 13 Dec. 1730, was the fourth son of Lord Archibald Hamilton (son of William Douglas, third duke of Hamilton [q. v.]) of Riccarton and Pardovan, Linlithgowshire, governor of Greenwich Hospital and governor of Jamaica, by his wife Lady Jane Hamilton, daughter of James, sixth earl of Abercorn. From 1747 to 1758 William Hamilton was an officer in the 3rd regiment of the foot-guards, and for five years of this period acted as equerry to his foster-brother, the Prince of Wales (George III).
As ensign he served in Holland under the Duke of Cumberland. In January 1758 he married Miss Barlow, daughter and heiress of Hugh Barlow of Lawrenny Hall, Pembrokeshire, through whom he obtained an estate near Swansea worth nearly 5,000l. a year. They lived together happily till her death in 1782. Their only child, a daughter, died in 1775. In January 1761 Hamilton was M.P. for Midhurst. In 1764 he was appointed the British envoy extraordinary and plenipotentiary at the court of Naples. He secured the neutrality of the king of Naples in the American war, and settled the family misunderstanding between Spain and Naples (1784-6), but had no important diplomatic duties till 1793-1800.
At Naples he was hospitable and influential in society, being 'the best dancer at the Neapolitan court,' and a creditable musician and artist. He was a man 'of spare figure and of great muscular power and energy,' a good rider and a keen sportsman. His leisure was chiefly occupied in the study of volcanic phenomena, and in the formation of his remarkable collections of antiquities. Within four years he had ascended Vesuvius twenty-two times, more than once at great risk, making himself or causing Fabris, an artist trained to the work by him, to make numberless sketches at all stages of the eruptions. He witnessed and described the eruptions of 1776 and 1777; and about 1791 employed Resina, a Dominican friar, to compile for him a daily calendar of the volcanic phenomena. Hamilton formed, and in 1767 presented to the British Museum, a collection of volcanic earths and minerals. After studying Vesuvius he visited Etna.
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In February 1783 he journeyed in Calabria to observe the effects of the recent earthquakes. Hamilton, who was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1766, published his observations on volcanoes in the 'Philosophical Transactions,' 1766-80. His chief work on the volcanoes of the Two Sicilies was 'Campi Phlegraei' (text in English and French), with fifty-four plates, 2 vols. Naples, 1776, fol.; also a Supplement (English and French), Naples, 1779, fol. He also published 'Observations on Mount Vesuvius,' &c. (letters to the Royal Society, with additional notes), London, 1772, 8vo; other editions, 1773, 8vo, 1774; and 'An Account of the Earthquakes in Calabria, Sicily,' &c., Colchester , 8vo; an Italian translation, Florence, 1783, 4to.
Hamilton was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and became a member of the Society of Dilettanti in 1777. He was a patron (about 1769) of Morghen the engraver, and at Naples was intimate with Charles Townley and R. Payne Knight. In 1799 he gave valuable advice to Lord Elgin. He tried to interest the Neapolitan court in the Pompeian discoveries, of which he published an 'Account' in vol. iv. of the 'Archaeologia' of the Society of Antiquaries (reprinted London, 1777, 4to). He gave Father Antonio Piaggi, a monk engaged in unrolling the Herculaneum papyri, about 100l. a year (till 1798), to supply him with weekly reports, and procured him the same sum as a pension from the Prince of Wales. Piaggi left Hamilton all his manuscripts and papers. Hamilton purchased at Naples, in 1766, a collection of Greek vases belonging to the Porcinari family, and gradually formed a museum which at the beginning of 1772 included 730 vases, 175 terracottas, about 300 specimens of ancient glass, 627 bronzes (about half, arms and armour), 150 ivories, about 150 gems, 143 gold ornaments, more than 6,000 coins, including specimens from Magna Graecia, miscellaneous objects, and a few marbles.
This collection he sold in 1772 to the trustees of the British Museum; it was purchased with a parliamentary grant of 8,400l. It formed the groundwork of the present department of Greek and Roman antiquities. In the library of that department is a manuscript inventory (a transcript from the original by Dr. Noehden) of the contents of the XIIth or 'Hamilton' Room in the British Museum as it was in 1824, also a manuscript inventory of the Hamilton gems (cp. 'An Abstract of Sir W. Hamilton's Collection of Antiquities' [London, 1772 (?)], fol., Brit. Mus. Cat.). The Hamilton Collection has now been incorporated with the other antiquities in the Museum. In 1766 and 1767 'D'Hancarville' (P. F. Hugues) had written and published an account of Hamilton's collection at that period, 'Antiquites etrusques, grecques et romaines' (text in French and English), 4 vols. Naples, 1766-7, fol.; 2nd edit. 4 vols. Florence, 1801-8. The cost of printing and illustrating the first edition, 6,000l., was borne by Hamilton, who was a patron of D'Hancarville and a believer in his fanciful theories.
Hamilton liberally circulated proof-plates of the work, and those representing vases exercised much influence on Josiah Wedgwood, who said that in two years he had himself brought into England, by the sale of Wedgwood imitations of the Hamilton vases, three times as much as the 8,400l. paid for the antiquities by parliament. Hamilton was one of the first Englishmen who collected and appreciated Greek vases. He valued them chiefly as good models for modern artists, and is said to have ridiculed antiquarians by training (1780) his monkey to hold a coin-collector's magnifying glass.
Hamilton renounced collecting after 1772, but the passion revived, and in 1787 Goethe (Italienische Reise, 27 May 1787) found his private art-vaults at Naples full of busts, torsos, vases, and bronzes. Tischbein once saw Hamilton at Naples in full court dress helping a ragged lazarone to carry a basketful of vases. Hamilton now formed a collection of Greek vases finer than the first, the specimens being chiefly discovered, in 1789 and 1790, in tombs in the Two Sicilies, especially the neighbourhood of Naples. This collection he tried to sell (3 May 1796) for 7,000l. to the king of Prussia, through the Countess of Lichtenau (Edwards, Founders of British Museum, p. 357). In 1798 he sent it for sale to England in the Colossus, which was wrecked off the Scilly Isles. Eight cases of the vases were lost, but sixteen cases were rescued and were purchased for 4,500 guineas in 1801 by Thomas Hope, of whose collection at Deepdene they formed an important section.
W. Tischbein had published the whole of Hamilton's second vase collection in his 'Collection of Engravings from Greek Vases ... in the possession of Sir W. Hamilton' (text, in English and French, by Hamilton and others), Naples, 1791, &c. Only vols. i-iii. are generally to be found, but a copy in the library of the department of antiquities in the British Museum has the additional volumes iv. and v. (supplement), consisting of illustrations without text. A second edition appeared as 'Pitture de' Vasi antiche' (Italian and French text), 240 plates, 4 vols. fol., Florence 1800-3; another edit., fol., Paris, 1803-10. The 'Outlines from the Figures .. upon the Greek Vases of the late Sir W. H., with Borders drawn and engraved by Thomas Kirk,' London, 1804, 4to, is a selection from D'Hancarville's 'Antiquites etrusques' and Tischbein's 'Collection of Engravings,' &c.
From 1772 to 1784 Hamilton presented to the British Museum various Greek and Roman antiquities (Brit. Mus. Guide to the Exhibition Galleries), including a colossal head of Herakles, found in the lava at the foot of Vesuvius (Ellis, Townley Gallery, i. 331). Hamilton purchased from its finder, Gavin Hamilton, the huge marble krater known as the 'Warwick Vase' (now in a greenhouse at Warwick Castle), and presented it in 1774 to George, earl of Warwick (Michaelis, Ancient Marbles, pp. 112, 664). He also purchased the famous 'Portland Vase,' originally in the Barberini Palace at Rome, from Byres the architect, and sold it in 1785 to Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Portland, for eighteen hundred guineas (cp. A. H. Smith, Cat. of Engraved Gems in British Museum, 1888, p. 228). Some of the gems collected by Hamilton were sold by him to Sir Richard Worsley.
Hamilton left Naples to visit England in 1772, when he was made knight of the Bath (3 Jan.), and disposed of his collection to the British Museum. He again came to England in 1784, and in London, at the house of his favourite nephew, the Hon. Charles Greville, made acquaintance with Amy Lyon, who was then living with Greville under the name of Emma Hart [see Hamilton, Emma]. At the end of 1784 Hamilton returned to his embassy, and invited Emma to visit him at Naples. She arrived there with her mother, 'Mrs. Cadogan,' on 26 April 1786, and lived with him as his mistress from the end of the year. In 1791 Hamilton came to England and married Emma Hart on 6 Sept. at Marylebone Church. He was at all times kind and indulgent to her. In the same year the Hamiltons stayed with William Beckford at Fonthill Abbey. They afterwards paid Beckford a memorable visit, in company with Nelson, in December 1800 (Britton, Illustrations of Fonthill Abbey, p. 28).
In 1791, also, Hamilton was made a privy councillor. Hamilton, who had returned to Naples in 1791, suffered from bilious fever in November 1792, and had frequent later attacks. In September 1793 Nelson arrived at Naples with despatches to Hamilton from Lord Hood, and was introduced to Lady Hamilton. Nelson is said to have called Hamilton 'a man after his own heart.' In 1798, after the battle of the Nile, Hamilton entertained Nelson at a ball and supper which cost two thousand ducats. When the king and queen fled from the French from Naples to Palermo, in December 1798, Hamilton accompanied them, and sent off his vase collection in the Colossus to England. On 24 June 1799 Hamilton came back to Naples. The French government there was now overthrown, but Hamilton's health and energies had been for several years enfeebled.
He was now superseded as British envoy, and presented his letters of recall on 22 April 1800. The Hamiltons, after a tour on the continent with Nelson, arrived in England on 6 Nov. 1800. Hamilton now tried to get compensation from the treasury to the amount of 20,000l. for his losses of works of art, &c., and expenses at the time of the flight to Palermo. At the suggestion of his kinsman, Beckford, he offered to take instead a peerage, which, on Hamilton's death without male issue, was to devolve on Beckford and his heirs, Beckford privately undertaking to allow Hamilton (and to his widow) an annuity. Nothing came of this curious scheme, but Hamilton obtained an annual pension of 1,200l. on the Irish establishment. This pension ceased at his death.
In 1802 Hamilton was made D.C.L. of Oxford. From October 1801 to 1803 the Hamiltons partly lived at Merton in Nelson's house, called Merton Place (Walford, Greater London, ii. 520), and had also a London house, 23 Piccadilly. In 1802 Hamilton complained that his wife gave up her whole time to Nelson, and that visitors made his London house seem 'like an inn.' He even hinted at a separation. These differences seem to have been adjusted, and Hamilton died quietly at his Piccadilly house at 10.10 a.m. on 6 April 1803. His wife was at his bedside, and Nelson held his hand. He was buried at Milford Haven. In character Hamilton is described (Southey, Life of Nelson) as being a mild and amiable man. From studying antiquities he had learnt (he said) 'the perpetual fluctuation of everything,' and that the present hour was the sweetest in life. 'Do all the good you can upon earth, and take the chance of eternity without dismay.'
Hamilton had no child by his second wife. To his nephew Charles Greville, his sole executor, he left more than 7,000l. and his Swansea estate. Before his death he had assigned (4 Feb. 1801) to a trustee for Lady Hamilton's benefit all the furniture, goods, &c., in his London house. He also left her an annuity of 800l. for life charged on the Swansea estate, and a legacy of 800l. He left 100l. as a legacy to 'Mrs. Cadogan,' and a portrait in enamel of Lady Hamilton, and two guns, to Lord Nelson, in token 'of the great regard I have for ... the most virtuous, loyal, and truly brave character I ever met with.' Hamilton had sold his pictures in 1801. His books, antiquities, &c., appear to have been sold in 1809 ('Catalogue of Hamilton's Books,' &c., 1809, 8vo, mentioned in South Kensington Univ. Cat. of Books on Art, vol. i.). A full-length portrait of Hamilton in the robes of the Bath was painted in 1775 by David Allan Allan, David [q. v.], who presented it to the British Museum, from which it was transferred in 1879 to the National Portrait Gallery, where there is also a portrait of him by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Scharf, Cat. Nat. Portrait Gallery, 1881, p. 151). A Wedgwood medallion of Hamilton was presented to the British Museum by Joseph Mayer.
[J. C. Jeaffreson's Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson; Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Irving's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Chambers's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Gent. Mag. 1803, vol. lxxiii. pt. i. p. 390; Michaelis's Ancient Marbles in Great Britain; Edwards's Lives of the Founders of the British Museum, pp. 347-60, 382.]
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 24. 224-227.