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  • Two Kinds of Collections:Sir William Hamilton's Vases, Real and Represented
  • Thora Brylowe

THOU still unravish'd bride of quietness,
   Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
   A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

—John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (ll. 1–4)

On 17 November 1764, Sir William Hamilton arrived in Naples bearing the title His British Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Upon arrival, he leased a spacious villa that would serve as a home, a salon for the polite gatherings he and his wife Catherine hosted, and as a display space for his collections. His presence in Naples and the securing of a second villa located roughly between the excavation sites of the ancient cities Pompeii and Herculaneum soon afforded Hamilton the opportunity to acquire an extensive collection of ancient artifacts including medallions, coins, jewelry, bronze sculptures, and, most highly praised, a great number of ancient painted pottery vases.1 Over the course of Hamilton's life he consistently seems to have had a compulsion to report his findings, [End Page 23] to make his observations and thoughts useful to others. He diligently reported his discoveries regarding Mount Vesuvius to the Royal Society and was equally responsible in his reports to the Society of Antiquaries and the Society of Dilettanti regarding the excavations he witnessed and the collections he assembled. Perhaps spurred on by what he saw as a capricious use of print by the Bourbon family of Naples, Hamilton embarked on his own publishing project. While the royal family, which tightly guarded access to the ruins, also limited the circulation of Le Antichità di Ercolano to gift volumes bestowed on important visiting dignitaries and aristocrats, Hamilton envisioned a far different circulation pattern for his own publication. Two years after his arrival in Naples, he wrote to one of the underage king's regents that "his Sicilian Majesty would do more to service the arts by allowing the books of Herculaneum to be sold than by giving the few copies in the manner they were given," and he goes on to speculate that the sale of the books might be used to finance continuing excavations.2 Unmistakably, Hamilton played a key role in both collecting and publishing, and it is their distinction and interrelation that helped separate the fine arts from antiquarianism. It is widely agreed upon that Hamilton's collection greatly influenced eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century neoclassical art and design. Indeed, the pots, many of which are housed in the British Museum, continue to interest classical scholars and historians of design, yet scholarship often addresses "the collection" ambiguously. Is it the physical collection itself that so influenced the aesthetics of the period, or depictions of the collection? My aim is to distinguish between two kinds of collections—the physical, or "real," collection of pottery artifacts versus engravings bound into books—to argue that it was the idea of the collection as represented in print, and not the collection of things, that was so important to the English imagination in the Romantic period.

Hamilton made two "real" collections over the course of the last four decades of the eighteenth century. His vases became famous not necessarily in their own right, but because he produced books that disseminated their idealized images to a wide British and continental audience. These books are evidence of the irreconcilable problem of neoclassicism in the Romantic period, because each plate embodies the tension between the principles of classical beauty and very old things, which rarely turn up in an ideal state. Furthermore, significant changes in the way vases were engraved over a span of thirty or forty years demonstrate how a supposedly immutable collection of objects is subject to radical shifts in representation, partially [End Page 24] in response to the social and political climate. While the figures on the Grecian urn might be frozen mid movement, this "foster-child of silence," which since Keats's poem has suggested a certain kind of fixed aesthetic truth, hardly existed in anything like "slow time." In fact, the engravings discussed below demonstrate that the Grecian urn was redefined in...


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