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Significant Scots
Gavin Hamilton

Oath of BrutusHAMILTON, GAVIN, a distinguished painter, was descended from the ancient family of the Hamiltons of Murdieston, originally of Fife, but latterly of Lanarkshire; and he was born in the town of Lanark. From a very early period of his life, he entertained a strong love for historic painting. It cannot be traced with any degree of certainty under what master he first studied in his native country, as there was no fixed school of painting established in Britain at the time, but being sent to Rome while yet very young, he became a scholar of the celebrated Augustine Mossuchi. On his return to Scotland after many years’ absence, his friends wished him to apply himself to portrait-painting, but having imbibed in Italy higher ideas of the art, after a few successful attempts, he abandoned that line and attached himself entirely to historic composition. Few of his portraits are to be found in Britain, and of these two full lengths of the duke and duchess of Hamilton are considered the best. The figure of the duchess with a greyhound leaping upon her is well known by the mezzotinto prints taken from it, to be found in almost every good collector’s hands. There is said to be another unfinished portrait of the same duchess by him, in which the then duke of Hamilton thought the likeness so very striking, that he took it from the painter, and would never allow it to be finished, lest the resemblance should be lost. He remained but a few months in his native country, and returned to Rome, where he resided for the principal part of his life. From the advantages of a liberal education, being perfectly familiar with the works of the great masters of Grecian and Roman literature, he displayed a highly classic taste in the choice of his subjects; and the style at which he always and successfully aimed, made him at least equal to his most celebrated contemporaries. The most capital collection of Mr Hamilton’s paintings that can be seen in any one place, was, and if we mistake not is at present, in a saloon in the villa Borghese, which was wholly painted by him, and represents in different compartments the story of Paris. These were painted on the ceiling, and other scenes form a series of pictures round the alcove on a smaller scale. This work, though its position be not what an artist would choose as the most advantageous for exhibiting his finest efforts, has long been accounted a performance of very high excellence. The prince Borghese, as if with a view to do honour to Scottish artists, had the adjoining apartment painted by Jacob More, who excelled as much in landscape as Hamilton in historical painting. He had another saloon in the same palace painted by Mengs, the most celebrated German artist, and these three apartments were conceived to exhibit the finest specimens of modern painting then to be found in Italy.

In his historical pictures, some of which have come to Britain, Mr Hamilton plainly discovers that he studied the chaste models of antiquity with more attention than the living figures around him; which has given his paintings of ancient histories that propriety with regard to costume, which distinguished them, at the time from most modern compositions.

One of his greatest works was his Homer, consisting of a series of pictures, representing scenes taken from the Iliad; these have been dispersed into various parts of Europe, and can now only be seen in one continued series in the excellent engravings made of them by Cunego, under the eye of Mr Hamilton himself. Several of these paintings came to Britain, but only three reached Scotland. One of these, the parting of Hector and Andromache, was in the possession of the duke of Hamilton. Another represents the death of Lucretia, in the collection of the earl of Hopetoun, and was deemed by all judges as a capital performance. The third was in the house of Mrs Scott, in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. It represents Achilles dragging the body of Hector round the walls of Troy,—a sublime picture, which if not the chef d’oeuvre of Mr Hamilton, would alone have been sufficient to have transmitted his name to posterity as one of the greatest artists, was painted for the duke of Bedford, and had been in his possession some time before the unfortunate accident which deprived him of his son the marquis of Tavistock, whose disastrous fate had some resemblance to the story of the picture being thrown from his horse and dragged to death, his foot having stuck in the stirrup; none of the family could bear to look on the picture, and it was ordered to be put away. General Scott became the purchaser of it at a very moderate price. The figure of Achilles in this picture is painted with surprising characteristic justness, spirit, and fire, and might stand the test of the severest criticism. It was in the grand and terrible Mr Hamilton chiefly excelled. His female characters had more of the dignity of Juno, or the coldness of Diana, than the soft inviting playfulness of the goddess of love.

He published at Rome in 1773 a folio volume, entitled "Schola Picturae Italiae," or the "Italian School of Painting," composed of a number of line engravings by Cunego, making part of the collection of Piraneisi; he there traces the different styles from Leonardi da Vinci, to the Carraccis; all the drawings were made by Mr Hamilton himself, and this admirable collection now forms one of the principal treasures in the first libraries in Europe. All his best pictures were likewise engraved under his own eye by artists of the first ability, so that the world at large has been enabled to form a judgment of the style and merit of his works. In reference to the original pictures from whence the engravings were taken, many contradictory opinions have been expressed; some have considered his figures as wanting in the characteristic purity and correctness of form so strictly observed in the antique-others have said he was no colourist, though that was a point of his art after which he was most solicitous. But setting all contending opinions apart, had Mr Hamilton never painted a picture, the service he otherwise rendered to the fine arts would be sufficient to exalt his name in the eyes of posterity. From being profoundly acquainted with the history of the ancient state of Italy, he was enabled to bring to light many of the long buried treasures of antiquity, and to this noble object he devoted almost the whole of the latter part of his life. He was permitted by the government of the Roman states to open scavos in various places; at Centumcellae, Velletri, Ostia, and above all at Tivoli, among the ruins of Adrian’s villa; and it must be owned, that the success which crowned his researches made ample amends for the loss which painting may have suffered by the intermission of his practice and example. Many of the first collections in Germany and Russia are enriched by statues, busts, and bas relievos of his discovery.

In the collection of the Museo Clementino, next to the treasures of Belvidere, the contributions of Hamilton were by far the most important. The Apollo, with six of the nine muses, were all of his finding. At the ruins of ancient Gabii (celebrated by Virgil in his sixth book of the AEneid, and by Horace, epistle xi. b. 1.) he was also very fortunate, particularly in the discovery of a Diana, a Germanicus, a Pan, and several rich columns of verd antique, and marmo fiortio. The paintings in fresco, preserved also by his great care and research, are admitted to surpass all others found in Italy.

He visited Scotland several times in the decline of his life, and had serious thoughts of settling altogether in Lanark, where he at one time gave orders for a painting-room to be built for him; but finding the climate unsuitable to his constitution, he abandoned the idea and returned to Rome, where he died, according to Bryan’s account in his History of Painting, about 1775 or 1776.

All accounts of this artist agree in stating, that however exalted his genius might be, it was far surpassed by the benevolence and liberality of his character.

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