Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)

Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)

Circle of Gavin Hamilton (Lanarkshire 1723 – 1798 Rome)

Portrait of William Hamilton of Bangour (1704–1754)

Watercolour, traces of graphite, 247 x 193 mm (9.7 x 7.6 inch)

- Sir Bruce Ingram (1877–1963), London
- Private collection, England, c. 2003-2013


The painter, art dealer, archaeologist and antiquary Gavin Hamilton was born in Lanarkshire and educated at Glasgow University.1 He travelled to Rome in 1748 to study painting under Agostino Masucci (1690–1768). He returned to London in 1751 but decided to settle permanently in Italy in 1756, where he remained for the rest of his life. Hamilton’s huge Neoclassical paintings, with their subject matter taken from Homer and their style influenced by both Poussin and Antiquity, were of fundamental importance to the development of European art. His knowledge of the Classical past made him a friend and guide to many visiting artists and patrons.

In addition to his mythological and historic paintings, Hamilton occassionally painted portraits of friends and relations. Our watercolour is closely related to his portrait of the poet William Hamilton of Bangour (1704–1754), Gavin’s cousin, preserved in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (see fig.).2 The poet, celebrated for his translation of Homer, is shown as he might appear on a classical coin or medal. Painted in profile and dressed in antique fashion, William is framed within a painted oval, decorated with laurel leaves. He is shown again, as the seated figure accompanied by a Cupid holding a lyre, in the frieze below, designed to resemble a sculpture carved in relief. It illustrates an episode from his poem, ‘Contemplation or the Triumph of Love’. The oil portrait was probably painted in 1748 in France where William, a Jacobite supporter, was in exile. It has been observed that the portrait displays Hamilton’s Neoclassical tendencies for the first time, showing the sitter in antique dress.3

The portrait was engraved by Sir Robert Strange (1721–1792), and accompanied Hamilton’s Poems on Several Occasions, published after the author’s death in 1760 (see fig.). The engraving is inscribed ‘Engraved by Sir Robert Strange from a drawing by Gavin Hamilton’. It is interesting that Strange noted that his engraving is based on a drawing rather than a painting. The early whereabouts of the oil portrait are not known, and it may not have been available to the engraver. Gavin Hamilton is hardly known as a draftsman: some rough sketches of antiquities are attributed to him (some preserved in the British Museum, London), and two washed drawings of Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus and Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector, both of around 1760-63, are preserved in the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (see fig.), although their authorship is not undisputed.4

Strange’s reference adds a drawn version of the portrait of William Hamilton of Bangour to this minuscule oeuvre. The high quality of our watercolour and its apparently early date of execution5 make it a possibility that our watercolour is the ‘drawing’ that Strange engraved – watercolours were generally called ‘drawings’ in the eighteenth century.


1. For the artist, see B. Cassidy, The life & letters of Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798), artist & art dealer in eighteenth-century Rome, London 2011.

2. Oil on canvas, 91.6 x 71.2 cm; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, inv. no. PG 310. The painting was bequeathed to the Galleries by W.F. Watson in 1886. An apparently autograph version of the portrait in oils has been in a landed collection in Midlothian since the 18th century. I am grateful to Stephen Lloyd for this information.

3. Julia Lloyd Williams, Gavin Hamilton 1723–1798, Edinburgh 1994, p. 7.

4. Both pen and brown ink, with grey and brown wash, 175 x 229 mm; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, inv. nos B1975.4.884 and B1975.B.885. These drawings also relate to large-scale oil paintings, and were engraved by Dominic Cunego.

5. The thickish paper was used throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, for instance to print engravings; it was however also used during the 19th century. The heavy weight was especially suitable for watercolours. Opinions of scholars as to the dating of the present watercolour have varied: Nicola Kalinsky, Director of the Barber Institute, is of the opinion it could be 18th century (email correspondence 22 October 2013), whereas Prof. Brendan Cassidy of the University of St Andrews thought it 19th century (email correspondence 8 November 2013). Dr Stephen Lloyd, Senior Curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, pointed out the high quality of the present watercolour (email correspondence 4 November 2013). All scholars note the rarity of works by Hamilton in this medium, which makes an exact identification of this watercolour as an original or an early copy extremely difficult.

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Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)
Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)
Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)
Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)
Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)
Circle of Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798)
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