William Hamilton (diplomat) bigraphy, stories - Diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist

William Hamilton (diplomat) : biography

12 January 1731 - 6 April 1803

Sir William Hamilton KB, PC, FRS (12 January 1731 – 6 April 1803) was a Scottish diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist. After a short period as a Member of Parliament, he served as British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples from 1764 to 1800. He studied Mounts Vesuvius and Etna, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and recipient of the Copley Medal.



Hamilton arrived in Naples in 1764 with the official title of Envoy Extraordinary to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and would remain as ambassador to the court of Ferdinand and Maria Carolina until 1800, although from November 1798 he was based in Palermo, the court having moved there when Naples was threatened by the French Army. As ambassador, Hamilton was expected to send reports back to the Secretary of State every ten days or say, to promote Britain's commercial interests in Naples, and to keep open house for English travellers to Naples.Constantine 2001: 22-26 These official duties left him plenty of time to pursue his interests in art, antiquities, and music, as well as developing new interests in volcanoes and earthquakes. Catherine, who had never enjoyed good health, began to recover in the mild climate of Naples. Their main residence was the Palazzo Sessa, where they hosted official functions and where Hamilton housed his growing collection of paintings and antiquities; they also had a small villa on the seashore at Posillipo (later it would be called Villa Emma), a house at Portici, Villa Angelica, from where he could study Mount Vesuvius, and a house at Caserta near the Royal Palace.


Hamilton began collecting Greek vases and other antiquities as soon as he arrived in Naples, obtaining them from dealers or other collectors, or even opening tombs himself.Constantine 2001: 32When Goethe visited Hamilton and saw his collection of antiquities in June 1787, he commented on a pair of candelabra and suggested that they had been smuggled from Pompei (E Lazer 2009 Resurrecting Pompeii. Routledge: p. 7) In 1766–67 he published a volume of engravings of his collection entitled Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Honble. Wm. Hamilton, His Britannick Maiesty's envoy extraordinary at the Court of Naples. The text was written by d'Hancarville with contributions by Johann Winckelmann. A further three volumes were produced in 1769–76.Constantine 2001: 39-44 During the his first leave in 1771 Hamilton arranged the sale of his collection to the British Museum for £8,400. Josiah Wedgwood the potter drew inspiration from the reproductions in Hamilton's volumes.Constantine 2001: 39-44 During this first leave, in January 1772, Hamilton became a Knight of the Order of the Bath and the following month was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.Constantine 2001: 63-66 In 1777, during his second leave to England, he became a member of the Society of Dilettanti.

When Hamilton returned to England for a third period of leave, in 1783–84, he brought with him a Roman glass vase, which had once belonged to the Barberini family and which later became known as the Portland Vase. Hamilton had bought it from a dealer and sold it to the Duchess of Portland. The cameo work on the vase again served as inspiration to Josiah Wedgwood, this time for his jasperware. The vase was eventually bought by the British Museum.Constantine 2001: 126

In 1798, as Hamilton was about was leave Naples, he packed up his art collection and a second vase collection and sent them back to England. A small part of the second vase collection went down with HMS Colossus off the Scilly Isles. The surviving part of the second collection was catalogued for sale at auction at Christie's when at the eleventh hour Thomas Hope stepped in and purchased the collection of mostly South Italian vases.


Soon after Hamilton arrived in Naples, Mount Vesuvius began to show signs of activity and in the summer of 1766 he sent an account of an eruption, together with drawings and samples of salts and sulphurs, to the Royal Society in London. On the strength of this paper he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the autumn of 1767 there was an even greater eruption and again Hamilton sent a report to the Royal Society. The two papers were published as an article in the Society's journal Philosophical Transactions.Constantine 2001: 35-39W Hamilton 1768 An account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in 1767. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 58: 1-14.

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