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November 23, 2010
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William Hamilton and his passion for fire.

 

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was an antiquarian, a great collector and vulcanologist. In 1761 he entered parliament as MP for Midhurst, Sussex and in August 1764 he was appointed envoy-extraordinary to the court of Ferdinand IV, in Naples. In between his formal duties Hamilton used his energies in and around Naples, collecting art, for which he had an insatiable love of.

 

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Shortly after his arrival Hamilton developed a great interest in volcanoes, 'earning a contemporary European reputation as the modern Pliny and the professor of earthquakes'. (DNB) At the time, volcanic activity and atmospheric electricity were thought to be connected and Hamilton owned electrical equipment as pioneered by Franklin. Mount Vesuvius erupted several times whilst he was in Italy, particularly in 1767, 1779 and 1794, and on each occasion he made careful observations. He collected rock and soil samples, sending back numerous specimens to London, a number of which survive in the collections here in the Natural History Museum. He used equipment such as a telescope and thermometer to make careful scientific field notes and would disseminate his findings to the scientific community. His work was among the earliest attempts to record systematically the changing shape of the summit of a volcano about to erupt.

 

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Campei Phlegræi is Hamilton's best known work and includes more than fifty spectacular hand-coloured illustrations. Pietro Fabris, an artist living in Naples was commissioned and trained by Hamilton to sketch the volcanoes of Southern Italy, eruptions, lightning and other natural phenomena. The two of them ascended Vesuvius twenty-two times in four years, often at great risk. As a result of its publication volcanoes became a popular subject in art and poetry and to warrant a visit as part of the grand tour. He would give tours round the volcanoes and at least one image depicts one such visit with royalty.

 

Sir William Hamilton's private life is best remembered for his second wife's (Lady Emma Hamilton) infamous affair with Lord Horatio Nelson.  Hamilton died in London on 6th April 1803, with Emma and Nelson at his side.

 

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