William Hamilton

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by


William Hamilton (NPG D35272‘A cognoscenti contemplating ye beauties of ye antique’ by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey hand-coloured etching, published 11 February 1801          

 Charles Burney’s visit (October 1770) to William Hamilton in Naples is one  which I would have loved to tagged along on:

 ‘After dinner, we had music and chat till supper. As soon as it was dark, our musical entertainment was mixed with the sight at observations of Mount Vesuvius, then very busy. My H. has glasses of ever sort and every convenience for these observations….Mr H. … is of the opinion that it [Vesuvius] is on eve of some great event or considerable eruption. The sound was more deep than that of thunder.

 The evening then continued with more music, ‘a long dish of musical talk’, a discussion of matters of archaeology. Burney assessed his hosts’ musical aptitudes very approvingly. 

‘Mrs H. has a very neat finger and plays the harpsichord with great delicacy, expression and taste. Mr H. is likewise a pretty good performer on the violin; but are both so tired of he music of the Neapolitans as to be glad to return to that  Corelli, Handel, Vivaldi etc for the sake of harmony and variety-indeed the general run of Neapolitan music is noisy and monotonous, but while such composers as Jomelli, Piccini, Merula, Manna, Paisello etc are in it one would think no complaint need be made of a scarcity of good music-the Mountain was very turbulent all night.’

The storm clouds were beginning to gather over Europe.  Burney was visiting whilst Mt.  Vesuvius was in spectacular eruption: I can only think that his fabulous piece of understatement has something of the air of Nero’s fiddling, whilst Rome burnt.

 The following month, Charles Burney and the Hamiltons, and others, attended a ‘sumptuous musical feast; arranged by Lord Fortrose at which the castrato Caffarelli and the violinist Emanuele Barbella entertained. Burney noted the talents of Lord Fortrose, another enthusiastic amateur:

“He both draws and paints very well,  understands perspective, rides, fences, dances, swims and plays the harpsichord.”

In May 1770 of the same year, Catherine Hamilton had organised a concert where Leopold Mozart and his son Wolfgang Amadeus played to an assembly of Scots in Naples. Leopold Mozart noted that Lady Hamilton was:

“an agreeable person, who performs on the Clavier with unusual skill.”In November that year, Charles Burney, along with the Hamiltons, and others, attended a ‘sumptuous musical feast; arranged by Lord Fortrose at which the castrato Caffarelli and the violinist Emanuele Barbella entertained. Burney noted the talents of Lord Fortrose. “He both draws and paints very well, understands perspective, rides, fences, dances, swims and plays the harpsichord.”

We can be sure that one of the topics of conversation during Burney’s visit would have been Mozart. Indeed, in August of the same year, Burney had been in Bologna:

‘After seeing a church or two in my way I went to S. Giovanni in Monti to her the Philharmonic performances. There was a great deal of company there….among the rest who should I spy there but the celebrated little German Mozart who 3 or 4 years ago surprised everybody in London so much by his premature talents. I had a great deal of talk with his father. … The little man is grown a good deal but still a little man. He is engaged to compose an opera for Milan. His father has been ill here these 5 or 6 weeks. The Pope has knighted the little wonder.’

Music was a constant in the Hamilton household. Earlier the same year, another visitor, Patrick Brydone, William Beckford’s tutor, and a keen scientist, noted:

 ‘After breakfast we have an English Breakfast at his lordship’s, and after breakfast a delightful little concert, which lasts for an hour and a half.’

 In 1778 Joseph Banks, permamently frustrated it seems, by not being able to travel, wrote Hamilton of how much he envied Hamilton’s ‘situation’:

 ‘That I envy you your situation within two miles of an erupting Volcano, you will easily guess. I read your letters with that kind of Fidgetty Anxiety which continually upbraids for not being in a similar situation. I envy you. I pity myself, I blame myself & then begin to tumble over my Dried Plants in hopes to put such wishes out of my head. Which now I am tied by the leg to an Arm Chair, I must with diligence suppress.’

 But Hamilton regarded himself less of an adventurer, than a philosopher, informed by the wonders ancient and modern which were given him to study, and the constant reminder ‘carpe diem’, which they seemed to proffer:

 ‘My study of antiquities has kept me in constant thought of the perpetual fluctuations of everything. The whole art is, really, to live all the days of our life; and not, with anxious care, disturb the sweetest hour that life affords – which is the present! Admire the Creator and all his works, to us incomprehensible; and to all the good you can on earth; and take the chance of eternity without dismay.’

 Many artists arriving in Naples since have felt Hamilton and Beckford’s ghosts; none more so than Hans Werner Henze, who upon arriving in Naples for the first time, seized upon  other reasons that the creative spirit would need to be there:

 ‘Pompeian red and Spanish baroque mixed with the sound of trumpets and the cries of street vendors, while beneath us lay an overgrown orange grove, in which nightingales would cease their carolling at dawn, indignant at being disturbed by the earthly aubades of concupiscent cats.

 Hamilton had taken the position as ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies in 1768, a post which he held for almost 3o years. Twenty one years after Burney’s visit, he married Emma. ‘To him this stunningly beautiful girl was a maiden from classical antiquity returned to earth, a living art object parallel to items in his fabled collection.’  His liason with Emma garnered him as much ridicule as her fame. Gillray published a print mocking his ‘collecting’. In it, the aged dignitary examines his collection of cracked and broken chamber-pots and classical sculptures, clearly in the manner of Emma’s ‘attitudes’. He is peering particularly closely at a defaced bust of Emma. In the original sketch, Gillray labelled this ‘Medusa’, but in the final, published version, it became a celebrated Greek prostitute, ‘Lais’.

 Of course, Hamilton was many other things, not least of which was  an ‘Arbiter of taste’ . It was his enthusiasm for classical sculpture and red figured vases which would lead to the distinctive ‘cameo-style’ blue and white Wedgewood china, which rapidly became an almost inescapable element of the British visual vernacular.

However much he might have been a target of ridicule for his wife, and her behaviout, Hamilton took his work as ambassador seriously. In 1798, he provided vital information which enable Nelson to catch the Napoleon’s fleet and destroy them at the battle of the Nile. Two days before the Grande Armée 1798 left Valletta, Nelson’s squadron, 14 ships of the line, dropped  anchor in the shadow of Vesuvius. Hamilton suggested that the French were at Malta, and Nelson correctly guessed their destination, and headed off for Egypt.

(Burney,Music, men and Manners in france and Italy 1770)

 Ibid. P.98

 Vases and Volcanoes, Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, British Museum, London, 1996, P.15

 Quoted in: The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes, Vintage, New York, 2008, P.55

Nelson and the Hamiltons, Jack Russell, BCA, London, 1969, P.8

 Bohemian Fifths, Hans Werner Henze, Faber and Faber, London, 1998, P.143

 The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson, Pp.392-3

 Vases and Volcanoes, Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, British Museum, London, 1996,P.300

 Design and the Decorative Arts, Britain 1500-1900, V and A. P 238

The Age of Napoleon, J.Christopher Herold, American Heritage Publishing Co., New York, 1983, P.52