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Hamilton, Gavin (1730-1797) (DNB00)


HAMILTON, GAVIN (1730–1797), painter, excavator, and dealer in antiquities, was born in the town of Lanark in 1730, and was descended from the Hamiltons of Murdiston, an old Scottish family. When young he went to Rome, and studied under Agostino Masucci. In 1748 he is mentioned as living there in intimacy with James Stuart, Nicholas Revett, and Matthew Brettingham the elder [q. v.] About 1752 he was for a short time resident in London, and in 1755 was a member of the artists' committee for forming a royal academy. In or before 1769 he re- turned to Rome, where he henceforth chiefly resided. He visited Scotland more than once at the end of his life, and in 1783 came to take possession of a considerable estate inherited from his elder brother. On returning to Rome in March 1786, he escorted 'Emma Hart,' the future Lady Hamilton [q. v.], and her mother, who were on their way to Naples. He died at Rome in the summer of 1797, his death being occasioned, it is said, 'by anxiety on the entry of the French.'

In painting Hamilton had a predilection for classical, and especially Homeric, subjects (Nagler, Künstler-Lexikon). His ‘Achilles dragging the body of Hector at his chariot wheels’ was painted for the Duke of Bedford, who afterwards sold it to General Scott. Hamilton also painted ‘Hector and Andromache’ (formerly in the possession of the Duke of Hamilton); and an Apollo, ‘well and solidly painted, but heavy in colour,’ presented to the city of London by Alderman Boydell, and exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862. While living at Rome Hamilton sent classical subjects to London for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1770–72–76, and for the last time in 1778. About 1794 he painted a room in the Villa Borghese at Rome in compartments representing the story of Paris. His paintings from Homer were engraved by Cunego and others. In 1773 he published at his own expense ‘Schola Italica picturæ,’ Rome, folio (with plates forming pl. 972–1011 and vol. xxii. of the collected works of G. B. and F. Piranesi). The plates, engraved from Hamilton's own drawings, illustrate Italian painting from L. Da Vinci to the Caracci. He painted a few portraits, apparently in the early part of his career. These included full-length figures of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, the latter with a greyhound (painted in Scotland); the Countess of Coventry; and ‘Dawkins and Wood discovering Palmyra in 1751’ (engraved by Hall), and now at Over Norton House, Oxfordshire, the seat of Lieutenant-colonel Dawkins (Notes and Queries, 1887, 7th ser. iii. 345). Hamilton's artistic taste was ‘pure and founded on classic study, his drawing good but timid, his colour and light and shade weak’ (Redgrave, Dict. of Artists).

Hamilton is now chiefly remembered for his remarkable excavations in Italy (1769–92), which furnished statues, busts, and reliefs for the Museo Pio-Clementino, and which contributed to several important private collections of statuary in England. Hamilton had a good instinct and, as a rule, good luck in making discoveries. He began in 1769 with his well-known excavation of Hadrian's villa below Tivoli. He found sixty marbles (chiefly busts), ‘some of the first rank.’ In 1771 he found many statues while excavating on the Via Appia in the ‘tenuta del Colombaro.’ He also excavated at Prima Porta and in the country round the Alban mountains. Some fine antiquities were discovered by him at Monte Cagnuolo, the villa of Antoninus Pius, near the ancient Lanuvium (cp. Ancient Marbles in Brit. Mus. pl. 45, x. frontisp. and pl. 25, 26). In 1775 he found some good marbles (including the Cupid drawing a bow in the Townley Coll.; ib. ii. pl. 33) at Castel di Guido. He often broke ground in many parts of the circuit of Ostia, but was compelled to desist by the malaria of the marshes. In 1792 he made a good finish to his labours by an excavation, in conjunction with Prince Marco Antonio Borghese, on the territory of the ancient Gabii (marbles found there by him are now in the Louvre). The excavations at Hadrian's villa were undertaken by Hamilton with James Byres and Thomas Jenkins. With the last named Hamilton often acted in partnership. Hamilton sold the antiquities which he discovered or bought up, but did not adopt the lax trading principles of the Roman art-dealers of his day. Visconti speaks of him in high terms (Michaelis, Ancient Marbles, p. 74, n.), and Fuseli says he was ‘liberal and humane.’ Hamilton occasionally, however, indulged in ‘restoration,’ transforming, for instance, a torso of a Discobolos (sold to Lord Lansdowne) into a ‘Diomede carrying off the Palladium.’ He was the regular agent for Charles Townley, then forming his important collection of marbles, now in the British Museum (Ellis, Townley Gallery, index, and Brit. Mus. Guide to the Græco-Roman sculptures, where details as to the finding of the sculptures are recorded). Townley contributed to the excavation expenses of Hamilton and Jenkins. Extracts from Hamilton's letters to Townley are given in Dallaway's ‘Anecdotes,’ pp. 364–81. William, second earl of Shelburne, afterwards first Marquis of Lansdowne, when forming his fine collection at Lansdowne (originally Shelburne) House, purchased largely from Hamilton's excavations made in 1770–80. Hamilton (letter, 18 Jan. 1772) said that he meant to make the Shelburne House collection famous throughout the world. His letters to Lord Lansdowne, written 1771–9, and published from the manuscripts at Lansdowne House by Lord E. Fitzmaurice (Academy, 1878, 10, 17, 24, 31 Aug., 7 Sept.; reprinted, Devizes, 1879, 8vo), give an account of their transactions. Among other antiquities he sold Lord Lansdowne for 200l. a statue of Paris found in Hadrian's villa, and then sent him for 150l. a ‘sweet pretty statue representing a Narcissus (Apollo Sauroktonos), of the exact size of the Paris, and, I imagine, will suit it for a companion, without waiting for a Venus.’ He also sold him a Hermes (and a bust of Antinous) for 500l (see Michaelis, Ancient Marbles, p. 464). Hamilton further sold ancient sculptures to James Smith-Barry of Marbury Hall, Cheshire, to Thomas Mansel-Talbot, and to Lyde Brown. He had some share in forming the sculpture collection of the second Lord Egremont at Petworth.

[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists of English School; Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, ii. 205, 206; Nagler's Künstler-Lexikon; Michaelis's Ancient Marbles in Great Britain; Hamilton's Letters to Lord Lansdowne; Ellis's Townley Gallery.]

W. W.