In 1772, Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803) entered the annals of art history by selling much of his collection of Greek vases to the British Museum, founded in 1753. They formed the core of its collections, which had mainly comprised books until then. This purchase is what really launched the study of antiquities, one of Hamilton’s most fervent desires. That is why in 1767 he asked Pierre-François Hugues d'Hancarville (1719-1805) to publish a work featuring his entire collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities.
The son of a governor of Jamaica, Hamilton followed in his father’s footsteps and became a British diplomat. Appointed ambassador to the court of Naples in 1764, he stayed there 36 years, during which he took a passionate interest not only in the volcanic activity of Vesuvius but also in Pompeii, which had been excavated by Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre in 1748 before being identified by Karl Weber in 1763. The ruins became a mandatory stop on the Grand Tour just around the time Hamilton arrived in Naples. He threw himself into the enterprise heart and soul, funding the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. He also started collecting Greek vases and other objects found in nearby Roman villas as well as in tombs in southern Italy and Sicily. In this work illustrated with 520 plates based on drawings by Beaulieu, Tierce and Bracci, the art dealer and historian Hugues d'Hancarville showed off Hamilton’s collection, unique at the time, to its best advantage. In 1767 and 1769, 500 copies of the first two of four volumes were printed. For financial reasons, the last two were not published until 1776, and even then only 100 copies of each were printed. This bilingual French-English edition was the first of its kind. It disseminated heretofore-unknown images and served as an iconographic basis for artists, advocates of neoclassicism – fashionable in the late 18th century – scientists and historians across Europe. Today it gives a complete view of the collection, some of which is still in the British Museum. The rest went down with the Colossus when it sank off the coast of the Scilly Islands on 10 December 1798 as it was sailing back to England, the greatest tragedy in Hamilton’s life.