William Hamilton - Calypso receiving Telemachus and Mentor in the Grotto
Calypso receiving Telemachus and Mentor in the Grotto
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William Hamilton (London 1751 - London 1801)

Hamilton was an English painter and illustrator. The son of one of Robert Adam’s assistants, Hamilton was sent to Rome to be trained as an architectural draughtsman. He studied under Antonio Zucchi (who was later Adam’s chief decorative painter), possibly in Rome from 1766 and in London from 1768. At the Royal Academy Schools from 1769, Hamilton developed into a figure painter and exhibited portraits and subject pictures at the Royal Academy from 1774 to 1801. He became ARA in 1784 and RA in 1789.

Hamilton’s most interesting work pertains to the theatre, particularly Shakespearean. His most distinguished large pictures are the 23 he painted for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, including A Scene from ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (Act 4, scene i; London, Drury Lane Theat.). Also in the 1790s he contributed illustrations to Bowyer’s History of England and Thomas Macklin’s Bible and British Poets. Nevertheless, his pleasantly plump and youthful figures were better suited to the less pretentious format of book illustration than that of history painting. His attractive romantic scenes appear in many editions of 18th-century poets as well as in John Bell’s second editions of Shakespeare (1786–8) and The British Theatre (1791–7).

Hamilton was capable of being an accomplished draughtsman in a variety of styles; his album of drawings (London, Victoria & Albert Museum) includes work reminiscent of Henry Fuseli and Angelica Kauffman as well as more distinctive compositions nervously constructed with repeated, scratchy strokes of the pen. His portraits are mostly theatrical and include many of Sarah Siddons; they are curiously stilted, although the John Philip Kemble as Richard III (exhibited at the Royal Academy 1788; private collection, see G. Ashton: ‘Paintings in the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection’, Apollo, cxiv (1981), p. 88) is a fine dramatic pastiche of Hogarth’s portrait of David Garrick in the same role (1745; Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery).

Hamilton’s work is represented in the following collections: National Portrait Gallery, London; Tate Gallery, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; Royal Academy of Arts Collection, London; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Manchester City Art Gallery; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, amongst others.