About William Hamilton
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.
Early life and marriages
Hamilton was born, according to the baptismal register cited by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, on 12 January 1731 in either London or at Park Place, Berkshire, the fourth son of Lord Archibald Hamilton, governor of Jamaica, and Lady Jane Hamilton, daughter of James Hamilton, 6th Earl of Abercorn. His mother was almost certainly a mistress of the Prince of Wales and William grew up with his son George III, who would call him his "foster brother". After attending Westminster School, he was commissioned into the 3rd Foot Guards in 1747 and was promoted Lieutenant in 1753. He left the Army after his marriage to Catherine Barlow, daughter of politician Hugh Barlow, on 25 January 1758. Catherine died on 25 August 1782. The couple had no children.
In 1786, a stunning young lady was sent to Sir William by his nephew, Charles Greville, in exchange for him settling Greville's debts. Like most of the men who wandered into her orbit, Sir William was smitten with Emma Lyon, who performed dances inspired by classical elements for himself and his guests, including Goethe, while wearing no undergarments. However, he made no advances until she was ready to accept him. They married on 6 September 1791 at St Marylebone Church, London. He was 60; she was 26. She later became the lover of Horatio Nelson, a man Sir William admired greatly, and whose liaison he reportedly encouraged. After Hamilton returned to England, he lived together with his wife Emma and her lover, Lord Nelson, between Merton Place and London. Nelson inherited a portrait of Emma by Élisabeth Vigée le Brun when Hamilton died.
After serving as Member of Parliament for Midhurst from 1761, he left his seat to become Britain's ambassador to the court of Naples from 1764 to 1800. During this time he studied local volcanic activity and earthquakes, and wrote a book on the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. He collected Greek vases and other antiquities, selling part of his collection to the British Museum in 1772. A small part of his second collection went down with HMS Colossus while being transported to Britain in 1798. 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 remains of Hamilton's second collection of mostly South Italian vases. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a member of the Society of Dilettanti. His other books include Antiquités étrusques, grecques et romaines (1766–67) and Observations on Mount Vesuvius (1772).
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1766 and published his paper "Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies" in the same year. He made more than 65 ascents of Mount Vesuvius and made a number of drawings before its eruption in 1767. The Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal in 1770 for his paper, "An Account of a Journey to Mount Etna".
During their tour of Italy in 1770, the young Mozart and his father were introduced to Hamilton and Catherine.
Wolfgang Goethe makes visits Hamilton on 3 June 1787, and visits his collection of antiquities. Goethe describes the collection in his Italian Journey as disordered and crammed in the understairs of Hamilton's house. Goethe finds among Hamilton's antiquities a pair of chandeliers most likely smuggled from Pompei. He shows his finding to Jacob Philipp Hackert, who invites Goethe not to investigate further about the provenance of those antiquities.
Hamilton became a Knight of the Order of the Bath in 1772 and was sworn of the Privy Council in 1791. He died in London in 1803 and was buried alongside his first wife at Slebech.
Hamilton's life was fictionalised by Susan Sontag in her novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance.
In the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm in Germany there is an island in a lake atop which is a model of Mount Vesuvius. The Duke would stage fireworks that seemed to issue from an erupting volcano to entertain his guests. At the foot of the mountain on the island is a building intended to suggest Hamilton's home "Villa Emma" in Naples (Posillipo). It is a highly unusual tribute to a great scholar.
Walton Ford's watercolor painting Jack on his Deathbed portrays the death of Hamilton's pet monkey in 1780.
Sir William Hamilton's Timeline
December 13, 1730
September 6, 1791
St Georges, Hanover Square, London, England
April 6, 1803