Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples from 1764, and his first wife, Catherine Barlow, are informally seated in the balcony room of their summer villa in Posillipo, called Casino, later Villa Emma, one of their four Neapolitan residences. With the increasing popularity of sea bathing and the desire to escape from the heat and noise of the city, Posillipo, along the northern coast of the bay of Naples soon became a retreat for the very wealthy; this, as well as other summer villas, were built by the shore of the sea in the first half of the eighteenth century.
David Allan portrays Sir Hamilton listening to his wife play the harpsichord. Catherine was an accomplished pianist and had musical instruments in each of their houses. The Hamiltons shared an interest in music and opera, and Sir William himself was a player as suggested by the violin resting on the table on the left. They often used to entertain their guests, making their musical parties very famous and popular at the time. Catherine is beautifully dressed in white and wears diamond earrings, indicating her social status. Two of her favourite dogs are at her side, one lying under Sir William's chair and the other, Milk, lovingly gazing at her. Catherine was an heiress and married Sir William at the age of 20. She suffered from asthma all her life but after arriving in Naples her health improved dramatically. This, however, was not enough, and she died prematurely when she was 40, in 1782. They never had children, and in 1791 Sir William took as his second wife Emma Hamilton.
The Hamiltons are surrounded by many of Sir William’s favourite objects and artworks.
In the left foreground corner, a document on the floor states his title as Knight of the Bath. On the table are his official seal, a candle for melting the wax, papers tied with red ribbon (indicating ambassadorial affairs), and a Greek ewer, suggesting his passion for Greek vases and antiquities. Hamilton’s diplomatic connections enabled him to acquire and export antiquities to Britain, even though this was illegal and against the instructions of the King of Naples. Illuminated by a beam of light coming from the left is a marble altar from the villa of Tiberius in Capri, and on the top a classical marble bust of Zeus Serapis – both today at the British Museum. On the wall behind is a small-scale copy of Sir William’s favourite painting, Correggio’s Venus Disarming Cupid, which has recently been attributed to Luca Cambiaso (school of Correggio). On the wall above Hamilton’s head is a barometer, referring to his interests in volcanology.
On the balcony behind Catherine a court official is carrying papers tied with red ribbon, which suggests that he has just delivered those already on the table and is now returning with a new set. In the background we can see Vesuvius, which was one of the great attractions of the Grand Tour. Sir William climbed to the crater at least eighty times during his 37 years in Naples, and he frequently accompanied tourists to witness the eruptions up the slopes. Hamilton became famous all over Europe for his interest and writings in volcanology to the extent that he was also called le Pline modern (‘the modern Pliny’). In 1776 he published the Campi Phlegraei (‘flaming fields’), a prestigious book about Vesuvius, featuring 54 hand-coloured plates by Pietro Fabris.
David Allan was a Scottish painter probably introduced during one of his trips to Naples to Sir Hamilton, who soon became his patron. Mostly famous for his landscapes, Allan produced relatively few portraits during his stay in Italy. He was aspiring to be a history painter, and only began to focus seriously on portraiture when he returned to Scotland.
This painting was probably acquired by the Earl of Morton, who came to Naples with his family in 1774. Hamilton mentioned in his correspondence that the Mortons were to go on a tour of Sicily where the Earl subsequently died, which suggest that the two men knew each other. Moreover, the Earl of Morton married Katherine Hamilton, granddaughter of the 6th Earl of Haddington. It is likely that this portrait was given to the Earl of Morton by Sir William himself as a gift. Two further autograph versions of the composition by Allan are known, one at Blair Atholl, in Scotland, and the other in the collection of Lord Cathcart. Signed and inscribed on the reverse: ‘Sir William and/Lady Hamilton/David Allan pinxt/at Naples 1770’.
David Allen Sir William and the first Lady Hamilton in their villa in Naples 1770 © Compton Verney