"An elderly Sir William Hamilton inspecting his antiquities"

12 January 1731, the diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist Sir William Hamilton was born in London.

“The knight Hamilton … has found after so much passion for art and study of nature the peak of all nature and art in a pretty girl. He has her with him, an English girl of perhaps twenty ... He has had a Greek gown made for her, which suits her finely, and she looses her hair, takes a pair of shawls, and makes such an alternation of stance, gesture, and countenance that one finally thinks one is dreaming. One sees what so many thousands of artists would gladly have made, here fully formed in movement and surprising alternation. Standing, kneeling, sitting, reclining, serious, sad, coy, debauched, repentant, alluring, threatening, fearful, etc., one follows after the other and out of the other. For each expression she knows how to choose – to change – the folds of the veil, and makes herself a hundred kinds of headgear out of the same rags. The old knight holds the light and has abandoned his whole soul to this thing. He finds in her all antiques, all beautiful profiles from Sicilian coins, even the Belvedere Apollo itself” (Goethe, “Italian Journey”)

Sir Joshua Reynolds: “Sir William Hamilton“ (around 1792)

It’s a bit peculiar to be remembered chiefly as the husband of somebody else’s mistress, even if the somebody is a national hero. In fact, Sir William would largely be forgotten outside of specialised circles, volcanologists and admirers of antiquities, if his nephew would not have more or less sold his companion Emma to him, the well-known muse of the painter George Romney, while he was looking to marry rich, a situation were a liaison with a well-known beauty of dubious morals would have not exactly been advantageous. Being a bit lonely himself, widowed since four years and posted in Naples, a political backwater in 1786, second largest city in Europe or not, lovely, lively Emma must have made quite an impression on the ageing art connoisseur and he became a sort of an inverse Pygmalion, turning the muse into a work of art. They married in 1791, she was 26, he had celebrated his 60th birthday that year.

George Romney: “Emma as Circe” (1782)

With Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius and Rome itself at his doorstep for more than twenty years and not really being occupied very much as His Britannic Majesty’s envoy extraordinaire to the Kingdom of Naples, Sir William turned his interests to exploring and speculating about the volcano, corresponding with the Royal Society about it, hosted soirees for visiting artists, Mozart among them and later Goethe, and had his hands full with collecting antiquities, from art dealers and, allegedly, from tombs he opened himself, corresponding with Winckelmann and being among the first to set up the tradition of plundering the countryside of ancient artefacts and bequeathing them to the British Museum. He did so twice, publishing a catalogue of his findings as well and inspiring Josiah Wedgewood, first and foremost, to create some of his best pieces, and shaping Goethe’s understanding of Italy considerably with his archaeological knowledge.

J.M.W. Turner: “Sir William Hamilton's Villa“ (1795)

The situation in Italy changed considerably when the French tried to invade Piedmont in 1793 and the former backwater became a hotspot of interest of the warring powers during the War of the First and Second Coalition over the following years. Nelson arrived in the same year in Naples, back then still captain of HM ship-of-the-line “Agamemnon”, with dispatches for the ambassador in 1793 and met Emma for the first time. Five years later, Admiral Nelson returned to Naples, a celebrity already after his victory at the Nile in August, and the two fell in love, obviously with the fiat of Sir William and the ensuing ménage à trois became a cause for national gossip, a topic to be talked about almost as much as Nelson’s naval victories. Opinions of busybodies and quidnuncs were quite ignored by the three and it speaks volumes about Sir William’s character that Emma never even contemplated a divorce and all three lived in his residence in Piccadilly, with Emma’s mother on top of it, after he had retired from his post in Naples in 1800 until his death in 1803.

James Gillray: "A Cognocenti contemplating ye Beauties of ye Antique“

Depicted above is a caricature by James Gillray, called “A Cognocenti contemplating ye Beauties of ye Antique“ –  "An elderly Sir William Hamilton inspecting his antiquities, all of which refer to his wife, Lady Emma Hamilton and her lover, Lord Horatio Nelson. In the background hang four pictures on the wall: "Cleopatra", a picture of Lady Hamilton with her breasts exposed, holding a gin bottle; "Mark Anthony", Lord Nelson with a sea battle in background: an erupting volcano; and a portrait of Hamilton, facing away from the other paintings.“ (Wikipedia)

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