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A Passion for the Antique: The Prints of Sir William Hamilton

Following a short tenure as a Member of Parliament, William Hamilton (1730-1803) was sent to Naples with the title Envoy Extraordinary to the Kingdom of Two Sicilies where he  served as a British diplomat and ambassador to the court of King Ferdinand from 1764-1800. Hamilton’s official ambassadorial duties were not overbearing, leaving him plenty of time to pursue his personal interests in archaeology, vulcanology, music and antiquities. Intellectually curious, Hamilton was obsessed with Mount Vesuvius which he studied in depth, observing it from his villa at Portici where he could note eruptions, and collecting rock specimens. His observations were published in 1776, accompanied by fifty-four gouache drawings by Pietro  Fabris (active 1740-1792). Hamilton is best-known, however, as an avid collector of antiquities. His collection of Greek vases and other antiquities began when he arrived in Naples, sourced from dealers and other collectors. Rumors at the time also suggested that Hamilton had removed things directly from tombs and sites himself; these allegations are discussed in Estelle Lazer’s book, Resurrecting Pompei, 2009.

In 1766-67, Hamilton commissioned an engraved four-volume folio set illustrating his own collection of classical antiquities. Antiquités Etrusques, Greques et Romain Tirée du Cabinet de M. Hamilton was published in Naples, with text by Baron d’Hancarviile (Pierre-Francois Hugues) who attempted to create a stylistic chronology of ancient vase painting. Following the folio’s publication, Hamilton sold the collection to the British Museum. He soon began to collect again, ammassing a second collection that was catalogued by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829) in the Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases Mostly of Pure Greek Workmanship Discovered in Sepulchres in the Kingdon of Two Sicilies but Chiefly in the Neighbourhood of Naples During the Course of the Years MDCCLXXXIX and MDCCLXXXX. The engravings made for this publication were in black only, with no hand-coloring,  and are valuable due in part to the fact that the ship carrying these vases, the HMS Colossus, sunk in 1798, leaving the engravings as the only record of Hamilton’s second collection.

Both portfolios were created as large folio editions for aristocratic libraries and wealthy collectors. Smaller engraved editions were published for sale to the public and were important academic references for scholars and artisans. Hamilton sent engravings to Josiah Wedgewood to be used as designs in the Wedgewood workshop, the most famous being the Portland Vasein black basalt with white relief decoration.  The Hamilton portfolios introduced images of classical antiquity on the Continent to the English public, influencing the decorative arts and exemplifying the neo-classical aesthetic that veils the collection of renowned dealer Niall Smith. Many examples of Sir William Hamilton’s engravings are included in our May 6 sale, The Neoclassicist: Niall Smith, in various sizes, offering the opportunity to own an image of one of Hamilton’s prized antiquities.

Time & Location

The Neoclassicist: Niall Smith
May 6 at 11am ONLINE

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