Sir William Hamilton
: networks and knowledge

  • Geoffrey Stone

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis focuses on Sir William Hamilton’s Neapolitan years, exploring his interests in natural philosophy, antiquarianism and collecting alongside his diplomatic work. These are assessed within the eighteenth-century milieu from which they arose. The thesis demonstrates how he approached knowledge in a holistic manner, typical of an eighteenth-century amateur constantly networking through his extensive contacts. Hamilton’s undertakings are explored in three ways. Firstly, his significant discoveries within the field of natural philosophy are analysed. Secondly, the nature and publication of his two vase collections are examined. Thirdly, the manner in which he was perceived by the general public is explored.

    Hamilton knew a great deal about Naples long before the Envoy’s post was vacant, and the thesis exposes his desire to live in Italy. Much has been written about his two vase collections, but the thesis demonstrates that although Hamilton is remembered for them, others were largely responsible for their publication. However, he collaborated with Josiah Wedgwood by giving him early access to the glorious coloured plates of the first publication which Wedgwood used to drive forward the Neoclassical movement. Hamilton’s work in natural philosophy is analysed in detail, demonstrating that he significantly advanced understanding of the Neapolitan caldera.

    Hamilton’s decline in esteem began after Emma Hamilton (née Hart) was transferred from his nephew, Charles Greville, to live in Naples with the Envoy. Public disapprobation was based on Hamilton’s relationship with Emma and his inept handling of British affairs in Naples during the Napoleonic era. Concurrently, the pair were viciously attacked by contemporary satirists. Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton are considered here as a single unit, inseparable from the world of antiquities and especially ancient vases, Neoclassicism and Romanticism. As Hamilton’s health declined after 1795, it is shown that Emma played an important diplomatic role. The thesis demonstrates that she is a person of importance in her own right.

    Overall, it is asserted that Hamilton’s work in natural philosophy was outstanding and that his collections of antiquities and their subsequent publication were seminal in developing Neoclassicism in Britain.
    Date of Award14 Sept 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Roehampton
    SupervisorMichael Brown (Director of Studies), Marta Garcia Morcillo (Co-Supervisor) & Rosemary Barrow (Co-Supervisor)


    • Sir William Hamilton (Diplomat)
    • Charles Greville
    • Vesuvius
    • Lady Emma Hamilton

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