A terrible tragedy during the Napoleonic Wars
Sir William Hamilton and the wreck of the HMS Colossus
Ian Jenkins, curator, British Museumhttp://blog.britishmuseum.org/2013/12/
Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), if remembered at all, is primarily
known as the person who shared his second wife Emma with Admiral Lord
Nelson in the late eighteenth century. Their ménage a trois was a
notorious target for British satirists of the time. It ended with the
death of Sir William in 1803, and two years later in 1805 the tragic
death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.
ware portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton, by Josiah Wedgwood I and
Thomas Bentley, Etruria factory, Staffordshire, England, AD 1779
Hamilton is celebrated in the British Museum for his collection of
Greek and Roman artefacts, which acquired by the Museum in 1772, changed
its course from its origins as a rather old-fashioned cabinet of
curiosities to starting it on the way to becoming the great collection
of world cultures it is today. The founding collection of Sir Hans
Sloane had very few ancient objects of merit, but Sir William’s vision
for the Museum would change that and for this reason he has his own
showcase in the Enlightenment Gallery
The story of the wreck of the HMS Colossus and the loss of its cargo
occurred in the dramatic last years of Sir William’s life. He had been
British Ambassador to the court of the king of Naples and Sicily for 34
years. However, when Napoleon’s army occupied Rome in 1796, Sir William
was forced to evacuate Naples and return home with Emma to Britain.
One of his last acts was to oversee the packing of his vase
collection. But back in England, Sir William not only had to suffer the
wrench of his sudden departure from his beloved Italy, but also had the
appalling news that his vase collection was lost at sea. It had been
packed in an unfit vessel, which grounded off the Scilly Isles where it
broke up, and the packing cases washed overboard.
Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BC
But fortune smiled on the old knight as by accident his finest vases
were not on the HMS Colossus. When another vessel arrived laden with Sir
William’s property, he discovered the collection he thought he’d lost,
and he delighted in preparing them for sale.
Sir William died in 1803 with Emma and Nelson at his bedside.
Admiral Nelson, the most outstanding naval commander in the history of the British Empire, survived Sir William Hamilton by two years before he was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar, which ended Napoleon's hopes for a military conquest of Britain supported by successful unison of the French and Spanish navies.
Hamilton was one of the greatest antiquities collectors in recorded history. The love affair between Lady Hamilton and Admiral Nelson was one of the most intriguing and interesting affairs of the times, extending its effects even to royal disapproval.
Sir William Hamilton's Greek vase collection originated in the first excavations of Pompeii, and while loss of the HMS Colossus cargo remains tragic, the survival of his finest specimens did much to enrich our knowledge of Greek ceramic art.