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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Distinctive 18th-Century Illustrations of Antiquities by Sir William Hamilton


William Hamilton
A selection from Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities
from the Cabinet of the Honorable William Hamilton…
Aquatint engravings in black and terra-cotta ink
Naples, 1766-1767 


 Retail price $5,500
Retail price $2,000

 Retail price $2,400
Retail price $3,500

                Sir William Hamilton was sent to Naples in 1764 as chief British envoy to the Bourbon King Ferdinand IV.  Inspired by the cultural heritage of Italy, Hamilton developed a great passion for archaeology and the study of antiquities, and soon embarked on a project to publish illustrations of the objects that so fascinated him.  Ferdinand IV, as official guardian of the treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum, encouraged the wealthy gentlemen of his kingdom to form private "cabinets" of antiquities.  Some of these gentlemen hired their own workmen, while others bought from scavengers and displayed  -- or resold -- a rich harvest of pottery, sculpture, jewelry, metalwork and other artifacts.  Hamilton assembled just such a collection, and then chose the finest examples of excavated pottery art for his publication.  Other objects came from the Royal Collection, lent generously by the Ferdinand IV.

                Hamilton was driven in his project by one particular ambition: he wanted to change completely and indelibly the taste of Europe, to ''...annihilate those Gothic forms which habit alone renders supportable."  His Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities had two kinds of illustrations.  The most famous are the narrative and pictorial plates, each one with decorative motifs taken from a vase, cup or plate.  They exhibit the classical black and terra-cotta color scheme, with touches of accent coloring on some of the plates.  The subject matter ranges, as it did on the original ceramic pieces, from activities of the mythical gods and creatures, to feasting and the daily life of ancient peoples.  Each image is beautifully detailed and has rich border decorations.  Hamilton also provided black and white perspective drawings of the pieces so that artists and craftsmen could follow the ancient forms "with as much truth and precision as if he had the Originals themselves in his possession."  In the end, Hamilton's acumen and persistence were rewarded. His book became a virtual dictionary of Classical form throughout the l8th and l9th centuries, while his collection became a cornerstone of the British Museum's Department of Classical Antiquities.

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