The fate of a 'Missing Masterpiece' Gavin Hamilton's Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector.

Author:Cassidy, Brendan
Position:Critical essay


In the Spring 2003 issue of the British Art Journal Gert-Rudolf Flick discussed what he called two 'Missing Masterpieces': Pompeo Batoni's Hector's Farewell to Andromache and Gavin Hamilton's Andromache Bewailing the Death of Hector. (1) Both works, commissioned in 1758 and precociously early examples of Neoclassical painting, have been lost to sight since their arrival in London, probably in 1761. (2) It is the purpose of this note to recount the later history of one of the pair, the large canvas by Hamilton.

Both paintings were commissioned in 1758 by Charles Compton, 7th Earl of Northampton (1737-62), during his sojourn in Rome. (3) Writing to Lord Charlemont on 5 April 1758 the artist John Parker remarked that Compton had, 'ordered a large history piece to Mr Hamilton'. (4) As a pendant to Hamilton's picture Compton commissioned from Pompeo Batoni Hector's Farewell to Andromache, in addition to his magnificent full-length portrait now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Pl 3). (5) Neither Batoni's nor Hamilton's Iliad scenes appear to have survived. Batoni's is known only from a chalk drawing (squared for transfer) in the Musee des Beaux-Arts et Archeologie, Besancon (inv. D1028). (6) The appearance of the Hamilton, roughly based on Poussin's composition for the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland), is preserved in a preparatory oil sketch and in a print by Domenico Cunego dated 1764 (P1 1). (7)

The early history of both works is well documented. In August 1759 Hamilton in a letter to Sir Nathaniel Curzon remarked that he was 'about a picture at present for the Earl of Northampton' and that Batoni 'paints the companion'. (8) The Jesuit priest, Peter Grant, long resident in Rome and an indefatigable advisor to British travellers, writing to his kinsman James Grant on 22 October 1760 noted that Hamilton,

... has finished his lamentation over the body of Hector long ago and has made many alterations in it to infinite advantage since you saw it. It is without doubt the best piece of modern painting I have ever seen, and yet he hopes to do still something better for you. (9) But it was another nine months before he could report to Grant that, 'Hamilton's Hector is gone for England, he is now at work making studys for your Patroclus'. (10) Before being shipped both the Hamilton and Batoni had been appraised by Winckelmann. In a letter of 3 January 1761 to Wilhelm Muzell-Stosch he remarked of Hamilton's canvas, 'the composition is good, the figures are intelligently thought out and conceived with taste. The heads are almost Grecian in their form and in their treatment is that calm which the ancients sought'. Only the colouring was exceptionable, it was 'harsh, unattractive, coarse and somehow lacking in power'. Despite Winckelmann's reservations, however, Hamilton's painting was judged superior to Batoni's which to Winckelmann's eye was 'only good in its colours', for while the drawing was faultless the figures lacked the Homeric spirit and their actions were exaggerated. (11)


When Hamilton's Andromache Lamenting arrived in London in 1762 it was exhibited at the Society of Artists' Spring exhibition but met with only moderate success, Horace Walpole dismissing it as 'middling'. (12) As for the owner, Lord Compton, he could have enjoyed his new paintings only briefly. Appointed ambassador to Venice in May 1761 he arrived there with his wife, Lady Anne Somerset, daughter of the 4th Duke of Beaufort, in October 1762 to take up his post. Neither husband nor wife, however, was in good health. Shortly after reaching...

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