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Significant Scots
Sir William Hamilton

HAMILTON, (THE RIGHT HONOURABLE SIR) WILLIAM, British ambassador at the court of Naples, and celebrated for his patronage of the fine arts, and his investigations on the subject of volcanoes, was born in 1730. Neither biographers nor contemporary periodical writers have furnished any account of his education or early habits; all that is commemorated regarding him previous to the commencement of his public life, is, that his family, a branch of the noble house of Hamilton, was in very reduced circumstances. He was in the most difficult of all situations—poor, highborn, and a Scotsman. "I was condemned," to use his own words, "to make my way in the world, with an illustrious name and a thousand pounds." Like many of his countrymen so situated, he had a choice betwixt semi-starvation in the army, and an affluent marriage—he prudently preferred the latter; and in 1755 he found himself most happily settled in life, with a young lady of beauty, connexions, amiable qualifications, and £5000 a-year. It is very probable that Mr Hamilton spent his hours in philosophical ease, until his acquisition of that situation in which he afterwards distinguished himself. In 1764, he was appointed ambassador to the court of Naples, where he continued till the year 1800. If his appointment as a resident ambassador for so long a period, is to be considered as but a method of expressing in more consequential terms the employment of an agent for advancing the study of the arts, the person was well chosen for the purpose, and the interests of the public were well attended to; but if Mr Hamilton’s claims to national respect are to be judged by his merely diplomatic duties, the debt, in addition to the salary he received, will be very small. The reason why a permanent representative of the British government should have been found requisite in Sicily, is in reality one of those circumstances which a diplomatist only could explain. The fame acquired in other departments by the subject of our memoir, has prompted his biographers to drag to light his diplomatic exertions, yet, although nothing has been discovered which can throw a blot on his good name, the amount of service performed in thirty-six years is truly ludicrous. He entered into explanations with the marquis Tanucci, first minister of Sicily, regarding some improper expressions used by a gentleman of the press of the name of Torcia, in his "Political Sketch of Europe." He managed to keep his Sicilian majesty neuter during the American war. He acted with prudence during the family misunderstandings between Spain and Naples in 1784; and finally, he exerted himself in preventing any mischief from being perpetrated by "an eccentric character among our nobility," who had made attempts to give much trouble to prudent people, by his conduct at Naples. But the kingdom of the two Sicilies was but the shadow of a European power, and was only regarded as it followed one or other of the great nations whose contests shook the world. It afforded in its active existence no arena for the statesman or the soldier. It was in the dust of buried ages that was hid beneath its soil that the active mind found employment in that feeble kingdom, and these were the only objects worthy to absorb the attention of the distinguished person whom we are commemorating.

On his arrival at the interesting country of his mission, Mr Hamilton repeatedly visited Vesuvius and Etna, and from a minute examination of the whole surrounding country, collected numerous important geological observations, which were from time to time, between the years 1766 and 1779, transmitted to the Royal Society, and afterwards made their appearance in the transactions of that body, and in the Annual Register. It was the design of Sir William Hamilton, to point out in these observations such evidence as might lead geologists to a better comprehension of the influence of subterraneous fires on the structure of the earth, and to display the first links of a chain of reasoning, which it was his hope future industry might make complete. It was his opinion that the land for many miles round Naples, was not, as it was generally supposed, a district of fruitful land, subject to the ravages of flame; but a part of the surface of the globe which owed its very existence to the internal conflagrations by which it was shaken. In illustration of this he considered Etna to have been formed by a series of eruptions, at protracted periods, as the smaller eminence of Monte Nuovo, near Puzzuoli, had been formed by one eruption of 48 hours’ continuance. Among other minute circumstances, he discovered that the streets of Pompeii were paved with the lava of a former age, and that there was a deep stratum of lava and burnt matter under the foundations of the town, showing that the earliest eruption of history was not the first of nature, and that the labours of man might have been more than once buried beneath such coverings. As illustrations of these valuable remarks, the author collected a magnificent assortment of the various descriptions of lava, which he lodged in our national museum, that naturalists might be able to trace a connexion betwixt these immediate productions of the volcano, and other portions of the crust of the globe. These remarks were afterwards digested and systematized, and produced, first "Observations on mount Vesuvius, mount Etna, and other volcanoes of the two Sicilies," published in London in 1772. The next, a more aspiring work, was published at Naples in 1776, in two folio volumes, and called "Campi Phlegraei, Observations on the Volcanoes of the two Sicilies, as they have been communicated to the Royal Society of London, by Sir William Hamilton." The numerous plates in this magnificent work of art, from views taken on the spot by Mr Valris, a British artist, are faintly engraved in little more then outline, and coloured with so much depth and truth, that they assume the appearance of original water-colour drawings of a very superior order. They are illustrative of his favourite theory, and represent those geological aspects of the country which he considered peculiarly applicable as illustrations. It is to be remarked, that neither in his communications to the Royal Society, nor in his larger works, does this author trace any complete exclusive system. He merely points out the facts on which others may work, acknowledging that he is disposed to pay more respect to the share which fire has had in the formation of the crust of the earth, than Buffon and others are disposed to admit. "By the help of drawings," he says, "in this new edition of my communications to the society, which so clearly point out the volcanic origin of this country, it is to be hoped that farther discoveries of the same nature may be made, and that subterraneous fires will be allowed to have had a greater share in the formation of mountains, islands, and even tracts of land, than has hitherto been suspected." Many men of eminence at that time visited Sir William Hami1ton, and marked the progress of his discoveries, and among the rest Monsieur Saussure, professor of natural history at Geneva, who accompanied him in his investigations, and acceded to the arguments he derived from them. During the course of his communications to the Royal Society, it was the fortune of the author to have an opportunity of witnessing Vesuvius in eruption.

In October, 1767, occurred the eruption which is considered to have been the twenty-seventh from that which in the days of Titus destroyed Herculaneum and Pompei. The mountain was visited by Hamilton and a party of his friends during this interesting scene, which has afforded material for one of the most graphic of his communications. But a grander scene of devastation attracted his attention in October, 1779, when the unfortunate inhabitants of Ottaiano had reason to dread the fate described by Pliny. Of this memorable eruption our author transmitted an account to Sir Joseph Banks, which he afterwards published as a supplement to his "Campi Phlegraei."

Previously to the period of the last event we have mentioned, the subject of our memoir was connected with the preparation of another great work, for which the world has incurred to him a debt of gratitude. He had made a vast collection of Etruscan antiquities—vases, statues, and fresco paintings, partly dug from the earth, and partly purchased from the museums of the decayed nobility, among which was that great collection now deposited in the British museum, which had belonged to the senatorial house of Porcinari. Of the most precious of these remains of antiquity, Hamilton allowed the adventurer D’Hancerville, to publish illustrated plates, liberally allowing the artist to appropriate the whole profits of the work. "Long since," he says "Mr Hamilton had taken pleasure in collecting those precious monuments, and had afterwards trusted them to him for publication, requiring only some elegance in the execution, and the condition, that the work should appear under the auspices of his Britannic majesty." The work accordingly was published at Naples, under the title of "Antiquites Etrusques, Greques, et Romaines." The abbe Winckelman mentions, that two volumes of this work were published in 1765, and two others the year following. Along with the author of a notice of Sir William Hamilton’s Life, which appeared in Baldwin’s Literary Journal, we have been unable to discover a copy of the two former volumes of this work, or to find any reference to them on which we can repose trust, nor do we perceive that the two latter volumes bear the marks of being a continuation, and neither of the after editions of Paris, 1787, and Florence, 1801 and 1808, which might have informed us on this subject, are at present accessible to us. The two volumes we have mentioned as having seen, contain general remarks on the subjects of the plates, in English and French, which both the imaginative matter, and the language, show to have been translated from the latter language into the former. The plates, by far the most valuable part of the work, introduced a new spirit into the depiction of the useful remains of antiquity, which enabled the artist who wished to imitate them, to have as correct an idea of the labours of the ancients, as if the originals were before him. The terra-cotta vases predominate; some of these are votive offerings.....others have been adapted for use. A general view of the form of each is given, with a measurement, along with which there is a distinct facsimile of the paintings which so frequently occur on these beautiful pieces of pottery; the engraving is bold and accurate, and the colouring true to the original. This work has been the means of adding the bold genius of classic taste to modern accuracy and skill in workmanship. From the painter and statuary, to the fabricator of the most grotesque drinking cup, it has afforded models to artists, and is confidently asserted to have gone far in altering and improving the general taste of the age. During the exertions we have been commemorating, Hamilton was in the year 1772, created a knight of the Bath, a circumstance which will account for our sometimes varying his designation, as the events mentioned happened previously to, or after his elevation. The retired philosophical habits of Sir William Hamilton prevented him in the earliest years of his mission from forming intimacies with persons similarly situated, and he lived a life of domestic privacy, study, and observation of nature. But fame soon forced friends on his retirement, and all the eminent persons who visited his interesting neighbourhood became his guests. One of his friends, the French ambassador at the court of Naples, has told us that he protected the arts because the arts protected him, and enriched him. The motives of the characteristic may be doubted. A love of art fascinates even mercenary men into generosity, and the whole of Sir William Hamilton’s conduct shows a love of art, and a carelessness of personal profit by his knowledge, not often exhibited. Duclos, secretary of the French academy, on visiting Naples, has drawn an enthusiastic picture of the felicity then enjoyed by Sir William Hamilton—his lady and himself in the prime of life, his daughter just opening to womanhood, beauty, and accomplishments; the public respect paid to his merits, and the internal peace of his amiable family; but this state of things was doomed to be sadly reversed. In 1775, Sir William lost his only daughter, and in 1782, he had to deplore the death of a wife who had brought him competence and domestic peace. After an absence of twenty years, he revisited Britain in 1784. The purpose of this visit is whispered to have been that he might interfere with an intended marriage of his nephew, Mr Greville, to Miss Emma Hart. If such was his view, it was fulfilled in a rather unexpected manner. It is at all times painful to make written reference to those private vices, generally suspected and seldom proved, the allusion to which usually receives the name of "scandal;" but in the case of the second lady Hamilton, they have been so unhesitatingly and amply detailed by those who have chosen to record such events, and so complacently received by the lady herself and her friends, that they must be considered matters of history, which no man will be found chivalrous enough to contradict. This second Theodosia passed the earlier part of her life in obscurity and great indigence, but soon showed that she had various ways in which she might make an independent livelihood. Some one who has written her memoirs, has given testimony to the rather doubtful circumstance, that her first act of infamy was the consequence of charitable feeling, which prompted her to give her virtue in exchange for the release of a friend who had been impressed. Be this as it may, she afterwards discovered more profitable means of using her charms. At one time she was a comic actress—at another, under the protection of some generous man of fashion; but her chief source of fame and emolument seems to have been her connexion with Romney and the other great artists of the day, to whom she seems to have furnished the models of more goddesses than classic poets ever invented. Mr Greville, a man of accurate taste, had chosen her as his companion, and the same principles of correct judgment which regulated his choice probably suggested a transference of his charge to the care of Sir William Hamilton. His own good opinion of her merits, and the character she had received from his friend, prompted Sir William soon after to marry this woman, and she took the title of lady Hamilton in 1791. At that time both returned to Britain, where Sir William attempted in vain to procure for his fair but frail bride, an introduction to the British court, which might authorize, according to royal etiquette, her presentation at the court of Naples. But this latter was found not so difficult a barrier as that which it was considered necessary to surmount before attempting it. The beauty and, perhaps, the engaging talents of lady Hamilton procured for her notoriety, and notoriety brings friends. She contrived to be essentially useful, and very agreeable, to the king and queen of the Sicilies; and procured for herself their friendship, and for her husband additional honours. Her connection with lord Nelson, and the manner in which she did the state service, are too well known; but justice, on passing speedily over the unwelcome subject, cannot help acknowledging that she seems here to have felt something like real attachment. The latter days of this woman restored her to the gloom and obscurity of her origin. She made ineffectual attempts after the death of her husband to procure a pension from government. Probably urged by necessity, she insulted the ashes of the great departed, by publishing her correspondence with lord Nelson, followed by a denial of her accession to the act, which did not deceive the public. She died at Calais in February, 1815, in miserable obscurity and debt, without a friend to follow her to the grave, and those who took an interest in the youthful daughter of Nelson, with difficulty prevented her from being seized, according to a barbarous law, for the debts of her mother.

But we return with pleasure to the more legitimate object of our details. There was one subject of importance on which some prejudices on the part of the Sicilian government, prevented Sir William Hamilton from acquiring that knowledge which he thought might be interesting and useful to his country. A chamber in the royal museum of Portici had been set aside for containing the manuscripts, of which a small collection had been found in an edifice in Pompeii; and on the discovery that these calcined masses were genuine manuscripts of the days of Pliny, the greatest curiosity was manifested to acquire a knowledge of their contents. The government was assailed by strangers for the watchfulness with which these were kept from their view, and the little exertion which had been bestowed in divulging their contents: the latter accusation was perhaps scarcely just; some venerable adherents of the church of Rome did not hesitate to spend months of their own labour, in exposing to the world the sentences which an ancient Roman had taken a few minutes to compose. The public were soon made sufficiently acquainted with the subject to be disappointed at the exposure of a few sentences of the vilest of scholastic stuff; and the narrow-mindedness of which Sir William Hamilton had to complain, has been since discontinued, and England has had an opportunity of showing her skill in the art of unrolling papyrus. To acquire the information, for which he found the usual means unavailing, Sir William Hamilton entered into an agreement with father Anthony Piaggi, a Piarist monk, the most diligent of the decypherers, by which, in consideration of a salary of £100, the latter was to furnish the former with a weekly sheet of original information, which, to avoid ministerial detection, was to be written in cipher. The contract seems to have been executed to the satisfaction of both parties, and Sir William procured for father Anthony an addition to his salary, equal to the sum at which it was originally fixed; and on the death of the father in 1798, he bequeathed all his manuscripts and papers to his patron. Sir William Hamilton, on his visit to Britain in 1791, was created a privy councillor. The circumstances which in 1798 compelled him to accompany the Sicilian court to Palermo, are matter of history, and need not be here repeated. In the year 1800, he left Sicily, and soon afterwards, accompanied by captain Leake, and lieutenant Hayes, undertook a journey through Egypt, visiting and describing with great minuteness the city of Thebes, and the other well-known parts of that interesting country. The notes collected by him on this occasion were published after his death in the year 1809, under the title "AEgyptiaca, or Some Account of the Ancient and Modern State of Egypt, as obtained in the years 1801 and 1802, by William Hamilton, F.A.S." – "This work," says the Edinburgh Review, "will be found an excellent supplement to the more elaborate and costly work of Denon. His style is in general simple and unaffected: and therefore, loses nothing, in our opinion, when compared with that of some of the travellers who have gone before him." Sir William Hamilton died in April, 1803,.in the 73rd year of his age. His death deprived the world of two great works which he hoped to have lived to prepare, on the subject of the museum of Portici.

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