The stupendous collection of the Dukes of Hamilton at Hamilton Palace, ten miles south-east of Glasgow, was the equivalent of the British royal collection in Scotland, and it was a national tragedy that the finest paintings, furniture and other items were largely dispersed in two series of huge sales in 1882-84 and 1919 and the palace itself demolished in the 1920s. Because of its importance, National Museums Scotland has always been interested in acquiring works from Scotland’s largest and greatest powerhouse and treasure house. The Royal Museum (one of the two main institutions that were amalgamated to form National Museums Scotland in 1985) received over two dozen pieces from the famous 1882 Hamilton Palace sale. Unfortunately, like its superior, the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), the Royal Museum gained quantity rather than quality.  

Since then many Hamilton items have entered the national collection in Edinburgh, and the flow has steadily increased over the last forty years, driven by a clear policy of targeting and acquiring items of very high standard and obvious historical significance. The aim has been to illustrate key aspects of the premier peers of Scotland and also ensure that the selected objects represent leading makers and developments in the main artistic styles.

The prime 20th-century acquisitions are unquestionably the second half of the magnificent silver-gilt ‘tea service’ supplied to the Emperor Napoleon in connection with his marriage to the Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810 and the amazing travelling service of Napoleon’s favourite sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, which is associated with her marriage to the Italian Prince Camillo Borghese in 1803. They reflect the obsession of Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton, Scotland’s pre-eminent collector, with Napoleon and his relationship with Princess Pauline in Rome between about 1817 and 1822. Princess Pauline bequeathed her nécessaire de voyage to the 10th Duke in 1825, and he went on to buy Napoleon’s ‘tea service’ from King Charles X of France in 1830. 

These two outstanding services by Napoleon’s official goldsmith, Martin-Guillaume Biennais, were bought in 1976 and 1986. Thirty-three excellent examples of the silver-gilt commissioned by William Beckford, the 10th Duke’s father-in-law, which entered the Hamilton collection after Beckford’s death in 1844, were secured during the intervening years. They were followed, in the 1990s, by a huge travelling Service of Princess Pauline Borghese silver-gilt tray by John Scofield, engraved with the arms of the Dukes of Hamilton; Jean Preud’homme’s portrait of the 8th Duke of Hamilton on his grand tour in 1774; and the oak Drawing Room from the Old State Rooms on the first floor of the west wing of the old baroque palace.

Kindly transferred by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1990-91, the Drawing Room was one of the five State Rooms in the west wing completed for Duchess Anne (the daughter of the 1st Duke of Hamilton and widow of the 3rd Duke) around 1700, and – like the rest of the suite – incorporates carvings by William Morgan, a contemporary of Grinling Gibbons. It was restored and ‘improved’ by the 10th Duke, who added a very impressive, large black marble chimneypiece and placed his arms as a Knight of the Garter in the centre of Morgan’s carving directly above it.

A number of other significant Hamilton items were acquired between 2000 and 2010. These include a coloured wax medallion of the Venetian painter Titian holding a small portrait of his son Orazio, from the 1882 Hamilton Palace sale, and a large watercolour of the Bath architect H.E. Goodridge’s proposal, in the early 1840s, for alterations to the recently constructed North Front of Hamilton Palace and an alternative to David Hamilton’s design for the new Hamilton Mausoleum. However, the most interesting acquisition of this period is undoubtedly one of the two silver tureens by Paul Storr, of 1806, from the ambassadorial service of the Marquis of Douglas and future 10th Duke of Hamilton, which came up for sale at Christie’s New York on 22 May 2009.

In the early 19th century, British ambassadors generally received a standard quantity of 5,893 or 5,895 ounces of white silver and 1,066 ounces of silver-gilt, which they were normally allowed to keep as (partial) recompense for all the expenditure incurred during their service on behalf of the Crown and Government. The price of these ambassadorial services varied. The official 1803 Madrid service cost the Government £3,137 16s 9d, while the Marquis of Douglas’s official 1806 St Petersburg service came to £3,575 9s 1d.

Needless to say, the Marquis of Douglas supplemented his official service with additional pieces. Writing to Lord Archibald Hamilton about his brother’s debts in January 1808, Alexander Young (one of the Hamiltons’ Edinburgh lawyers) refers to the ‘large sum’ for a ‘Service of Plate’ as being ‘almost the only proper and legitimate article of that ruinous Expence’ ‘connected with ‘that Embassy’. In a later letter to Douglas, sent in December 1808, Young notes ‘a Balance of rather more than £5000’ due to the royal goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge and Rundell. Thus, Douglas could conceivably have doubled the size of the official service with his supplementary order.

A close study of the bill for the official service, in the National Archives at Kew, reveals that Douglas definitely added stands to the pair of tureens to make them more imposing. Among other items privately ordered in 1806 were the cruet service of two large and two small frames now in the Gans Collection, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; the two entrée dishes now in the Huntington Collection, San Marino, California; and the pair of triangular covered dishes sold at Christie’s New York on 16 December 2005.

Further items were added a few weeks after Douglas’s return from Russia and in the run-up to his marriage to William Beckford’s daughter, Susan Euphemia, in April 1810. Rundell’s bills in the Hamilton archive record the purchase of twelve triangular, octagonal and oblong saltcellars costing over £120 in November 1808, and of three pairs of candlesticks, weighing 1,138 ounces and amounting to £998 10s 4d, in December 1809.

Even for the Marquis of Douglas, as Commissioner of the ‘retired’ 9th Duke of Hamilton’s Scottish estates and the next premier peer of Scotland, all this extra expenditure was dangerous, especially when large sums were also being spent on very expensive jewellery from Rundell’s and on other improvements to Hamilton Palace and the Hamilton estates. Despite gaining money from Susan and from Beckford as part of the marriage settlement, Douglas was obliged to return a later order of a fourth pair of candelabra and some other items, and begin to retrench. Four payments totalling £3,500 were sent to Rundell’s between September 1812 and Junes 1815, and there is a fascinating exchange of letters in the Hamilton archive between Rundell’s and Douglas’s representatives, leading to a series of seven more payments amounting to over £5,720 between March 1818 and March 1821, which would have finally cleared the 1808-10 account.

As he got into his stride as a triple Duke and premier peer of Scotland, the 10th Duke continued to add to the ambassadorial service. An early 1830s inventory of the silver in Hamilton Palace records additions of white silver in 1832 and 1833, including pieces from Birmingham and Glasgow. The silver-gilt, dessert side of the service was neatly augmented by buying Napoleon’s spectacular 1810 ‘tea service’ in 1830, for less than half the 40,000 francs it had cost the Emperor. The end result was the largest dinner service in Scotland.

Although the tureen and stand provide a remarkable insight into the 10th Duke of Hamilton, they pale into insignificance beside the Hamilton-Rothschild Tazza, which is a truly astonishing and astronomically expensive piece. The Hamilton-Rothschild Tazza was assembled by Douglas before he became the 10th Duke. While he was British ambassador in Russia in 1807-8, Douglas purchased an exceptionally large Byzantine sardonyx bowl, in the belief that it was the holy water stoup of the Emperor Charlemagne. Priced at 9,000 roubles, it was his most valuable Russian purchase. In 1812 he bought an enamelled, solid gold foot, weighing almost 39 ounces, from Rundell, Bridge and Rundell for the princely sum of £241 18s 6d. It had formed part of a large gold monstrance that had been sold at auction in London the previous year as loot from the Spanish royal monastery of the Escorial, near Madrid. Recent research has revealed that the monstrance was, indeed, given to the monastery by the Emperor Philip II of Spain in the mid 16th century.

The ‘Bénetier de Charlemagne’ was used for the baptisms of both the 10th Duke’s children, William, the future 11th Duke of Hamilton, and Susan, in 1811 and 1814. The use of a bowl associated with the founder of the Holy Roman Empire reflected the 10th Duke’s deeply held belief in the high status of the House of Hamilton, as premier peers of Scotland, the holders of three dukedoms and the true successors to the Stuart kings of Scotland.
Valued at £1,500, this extraordinary creation was the most highly insured item in Hamilton Palace during the first half of the 19th century.

The Hamilton-Rothschild Tazza was one of six major items purchased privately from the 12th Duke of Hamilton by Alfred de Rothschild, a member of the great banking family, shortly before the 1882 Hamilton Palace sale. It passed down in the Rothschild family and was inherited by the late Mr Edmund de Rothschild, a former chairman of N.M. Rothschild and Sons. Following two years’ patient perseverance, the Hamilton-Rothschild Tazza was accepted by Her Majesty’s Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and Ministers allocated it to National Museums Scotland in July 2012.

The Hamilton-Rothschild Tazza is the most expensive item ever acquired by National Museums Scotland, and one might end, on a high note, with it. But it is important not to see these Hamilton acquisitions in ‘splendid isolation’. National Museums Scotland is keen to carry out and encourage research, and my own doctoral research on Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton, as a patron and collector has led me to join with others in setting up the Virtual Hamilton Palace Trust, which aims to make the Hamilton collections much better known. This has resulted in a number of pilot projects (see or and in awards of over £110,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for two Collaborative Award PhD students to conduct archival research on the Hamilton collection. Bet McLeod, who has worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is an expert on the insatiable collector William Beckford, is investigating the Western ceramics formerly in the Hamilton collection, while Christopher Maxwell, who was at the British Royal Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum, is studying the dispersal of the Hamilton collection and particularly the Hamilton Palace sales of 1882 and 1919. They are both being supervised by Liz Hancock, of Glasgow University, and myself and are now in the final stages of completing their theses.

The Virtual Hamilton Palace Trust is currently assisting Professor Nick Pearce, the Head of the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow, to raise funds for a major database on items in the Hamilton collection. The plan is that this will focus on the 1876 Hamilton Palace inventory, which records the collection at its zenith, and that it will involve at least four researchers and include virtual reconstructions of seven of the principal rooms in the palace. As part of the initial ground-breaking preparation, Cynthia Williams, the Director of the MA course in the History of Decorative Arts at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, has embarked on a PhD on the glass and rock crystal in and formerly in the Hamilton collection. Her early research has already led to some unexpected discoveries at Lennoxlove and Brodick Castle.

Closer to home, the Trustees of National Museums Scotland have agreed to mount a large-scale exhibition on the Dukes of Hamilton and Hamilton Palace. This is a highly ambitious undertaking, which will take many years to develop, and – not surprisingly – the opening date has still to be decided.

It is also worth noting that the chimneypiece wall of the Drawing Room from Hamilton Palace will be incorporated in one of NMS’s four new art and design galleries, scheduled toopen in 2016. Charles Stable and other conservators have started to re-erect and conserve the wall at theNational Museums Collection Centre at Granton,in north Edinburgh, so that it will be all ready for quick and easy installation when the time comes.

If you have any items or information that might help with the realization of the proposed Hamilton exhibition orany of our other projects, I would bemost grateful if you could contact me either by e-mail, at, or bypost, at National Museums Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF.

Dr Godfrey Evans, Principal Curatorof European Decorative Arts, National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh