Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803)

Hamilton was British Ambassador the court of Naples from 1764–1800, and at the centre of the social scene in southern Italy during his long stay. His posting allowed him to indulge his passion for archaeology and he amassed a large collection of Greek and Italian vases. Many came from the current excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. In 1772 he sold them to the British Museum and their display there contributed greatly to the public interest in and desire for copies of these antique marvels.

 The illustrated catalogue of his vase collection, published by Baron d’Hancarville in 1766–7, inspired manufacturers, notably Wedgwood, to satisfy the public’s passion for neo-classical objects. Josiah’s classical enamelled basalt wares were derived directly from the plates in these volumes, the painted figures often appearing as precise replicas. Wedgwood’s debt to Hamilton as a source of designs, for vase shapes and decoration, for bas reliefs and tableware patterns, is scarcely calculable. He considered him a ‘legislator of taste’ and described him as… ‘Our good, & very polite friend' who showed 'repeated favours'.

 In late 1769 Wedgwood announced that encaustic painted vases were to be, ‘the principal articles for the ensuing season’. Josiah’s customers, smitten with neo-classical vases, were clamouring for the most recent products. Access to the plates from the catalogue of Hamilton’s collection prior to publication gave Wedgwood a significant advantage; he was able to market good copies of classical works before anyone else.

 Hamilton was also responsible for bringing the Barberini Vase, also known as the Portland Vase, to Britain in 1783. He eventually sold it to the Duchess of Portland from whose estate sale it was acquired and loaned to Wedgwood to copy. The jasper version became Wedgwood’s greatest achievment and remains the company icon today. Hamilton was amongst the first to congratulate Josiah on his achievement in copying the form of the vase in his new and revolutionary jasper body.

 The majority of a second collection of classical antiquities Hamilton made was lost at sea en route to Britain from Italy, when his posting was nearing its end. However, some pieces which did arrive in Britain were purchased by another of the great neo-classical collectors, Thomas Hope.


 

Images

Sir William Hamilton, Portrait medallion by Wedgwood, c. 1779. Pale blue jasper with dark blue dip, original model attributed to Joachim Smith, 1772, © Wedgwood Museum

Sir William Hamilton, Portrait medallion by Wedgwood, c. 1779. Pale blue jasper with dark blue dip, original model attributed to Joachim Smith, 1772
© Wedgwood Museum