Sir William Hamilton, British diplomat, collector of antiquities, and student of volcanoes, was born Dec. 13, 1730. Hamilton was an envoy to Naples for many years, where he observed several eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius, which was especially active between 1760 and 1767, and he studied the effect these eruptions had on the landscape. Hamilton was one of the first vulcanists to conclude that volcanoes may have played a major role in shaping the earth in the past.

He published some of the results of his volcanic studies in several articles in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Our first illustration, a very dramatic mezzotint of an erupting Vesuvius, seems very pleasing when you see it by itself, and we displayed it in a former exhibition, Vulcan’s Forge and Fingal’s Cave. But Hamilton had hired a Neapolitan artist, Pietro Fabris, to paint scenes in gouache of the eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius, and of the seismically active area around Naples known as the Phlegrean fields. He collected some 59 such paintings, had them engraved and then hand colored, and published them in a large two-volume folio called Campi Phlegraei in 1776-79. It is the most glorious book on volcanoes ever printed, and we wish we had a copy in our Library, but we do not. So the three colored images above are taken from the copy at the University of Glasgow, which featured the Campi Phlegraei as a book of the month some years ago, with even more illustrations to amaze you.

There are several portraits of Hamilton; we like this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds, showing Hamilton the antiquary, with his book on his lap, a few items from his collections at his elbow, and Vesuvius smoking quietly outside the window and across the bay (fifth image).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to