Thankfully the ship rests in the shallows. He has not used this apparatus before and will not venture any deeper than he must. Twenty feet below the surface. No danger there, he tells himself. And he knows exactly where to look. Under careful instruction the object he seeks was safely hidden within the starboard bow, away from the other shipments tightly packed in the hold, but the ship broke apart in the storm; he hopes his luck stays true, that the crate has not strayed too far along the seabed, that no one else has managed to retrieve it ...
In the winter of 1798, the Royal Navy ship HMS Colossus met its watery end off the coast of the Scilly Isles in the grips of a treacherous storm. On board that mighty warship – stored away in the hull – was the British diplomat William Hamilton’s treasured collection of Greek antiquities. He had decided, with an invasion of Naples by Napoleon's forces imminent, to ship this collection back to England for safety. Ironic, then, that these precious pieces ended up lost at the bottom of the sea.
William Hamilton loved his Greek vases, having collected many of them during his 35 years living in Naples. During his time serving as British Ambassador to King Ferdinand between 1764-1799, his official duties allowed his intellectual passions for art and culture to blossom. In particular he ardently pursued his interest in antiquities, purchasing Greek vases from collectors, funding archaeological digs and opening ancient tombs. This interest soon became an obsession - by 1766 he had amassed a collection of over two hundred individual pieces. For his own scholarly satisfaction (it can be presumed), in 1766–67 he published a four-volume set of engravings of his collection entitled Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Honble. Wm. Hamilton, His Britannick Maiesty's envoy extraordinary at the Court of Naples:
Hamilton's first collection of antiquities was sold to the British Museum in 1772 for £8,410, where the pieces can still be viewed today - in particular, a red-figure volute crater is known as the 'Hamilton Vase'. However, no sooner had Hamilton sold this collection (immediate seller's regret, perhaps!) he began to collect once more, later publishing a second catalogued vase collection. This catalogue was titled Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases Mostly of Pure Greek Workmanship Discovered in Sepulchres in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies but Chiefly in the Neighbourhood of Naples During the Course of the Years MDCCLXXXIX and MDCCLXXXX, and what makes this set of engravings so valuable is the fact it was this particular collection of vases that were lost on board the HMS Colossus:
He was, understandably, devastated. In a letter he wrote to his nephew Charles Greville in 1799, he said of his vases
“they had better be in Paris than at the bottom of the sea; have you no good news of them? they were excellently packed up, & the cases will not easily go to pieces, & the sea water will not hurt the vases. All the cream of my collection were in those eight cases on board the Colossus, & I can't bear to look at some remaining cases here in which I know there are only black vases without figures.”
Unfortunately, very few items from the collection were recovered in his lifetime. They were eventually brought to the surface by a recovery crew in 1974, and the damaged pieces are now housed in The British Museum. The legacy of William Hamilton's collections, however, live on - artists such as Josiah Wedgwood referred to the published volumes and used them to influence their own work. One of the most famous of Wedgwood's pieces is his copy of the 'Portland Vase', below ...
My debut novel Pandora opens with the recovery of an ancient vase from the shipwreck of HMS Colossus, and features William Hamilton quite prominently as a key character. To read all about it you can order by clicking the image below:
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