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30 Sep 2020

Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767–1852)

Written by Sarah Beattie, Regional Curator, Ayrshire & Arran/Dumfries & Galloway
A portrait oil painting of an older man seated on a wooden chair, with his legs crossed. He wears a formal military-style uniform with a dark jacket with a very high collar, and a blue sash across his body. He also wears a black and red cape over his shoulders, which falls behind him.
Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton, by Willes Maddox (1813–53), 1852, oil on canvas, Brodick Collection
Despite various political roles and high-ranking positions, Alexander’s legacy included his vast collection of precious items and the extension of Hamilton Palace.

Alexander was born in 1767 at the family’s London residence in the fashionable St James’s Square. He was the eldest son of Archibald Hamilton, 9th Duke of Hamilton (1740–1819) and Lady Harriet Stewart (d1788), a daughter of the 6th Earl of Galloway. The couple had five children: Anne (1766–1846), Alexander, Archibald (1769–1827), Charlotte (1772–1827) and Susan (1774–1846). The children spent much of their early years at Ashton Hall, near Lancaster, and in London. As a boy, Alexander attended Harrow School where he learned to appreciate Classical writers like Ovid and Virgil and visited his older, more worldly cousin William Beckford (1760–1844). Alexander idolised Beckford, and this relationship probably contributed to his passion for the arts and collecting.

In 1786, Alexander enrolled at Christ Church college, Oxford, and received his degree 3 years later. Like many young men of wealth and status in this period, Alexander embarked on a period of travel in Europe after completing his formal education. It was during these years abroad, and particularly during his time in Italy, that he began to build his collection in earnest, acquiring a large collection of paintings, objets d’art, furniture, books and manuscripts. He was especially interested in items relating to important historical figures and his collection included works of art related to Roman and Russian emperors, Marie Antoinette (1755–93) and Napoleon (1769–1821).

Alexander returned to Britain in 1801, and in 1802 he took up his first political role as the Whig MP for Lancaster. He also became Lord Lieutenant of Lanarkshire, a role he retained until his death in 1852. After four years in the House of Commons, Alexander was appointed to the Privy Council, before becoming the British Ambassador to the Russian court in St Petersburg in 1807. Alexander’s appointment as ambassador was very brief and he spent most of his time in Russia acquiring further works for his collection and attempting to woo Countess Zofia Potocka (1760–1822) into marriage. The countess was the widow of Stanislaw Szczęsny Potocki (1751–1805), a rich Polish aristocrat, but had been a courtesan in her youth. Alexander was attracted to the glamorous widow because of her vast wealth and scandalous past. However, his attempts were unsuccessful and he left St Petersburg alone in 1808.

After another stay in Italy, Alexander married Susan Euphemia Beckford (1786–1859), a distant cousin and the youngest daughter of his good friend (and collecting rival!) William Beckford, in April 1810. Alexander was 20 years older than his young bride and the marriage was undoubtedly arranged for financial gain. At the age of ten, Beckford had inherited vast sugar plantations in Jamaica and thousands of enslaved African workers – he was one of the richest men in Britain at this time. As well as a substantial dowry, Beckford agreed to pay Alexander and Susan an allowance every year after their marriage. The couple had two children together: William (later the 11th Duke of Hamilton) was born in 1811 and their daughter, Susan, was born in 1814.

The Hamilton family derived much of its wealth in this period from coalfields in Lanarkshire. However, the majority of this wealth and the family’s assets were controlled by Alexander’s father, Archibald, 9th Duke of Hamilton; Alexander himself had a relatively modest income. The additional money from his marriage to a wealthy heiress allowed him to continue collecting rare and valuable objects.

Throughout the 1810s, through his agents and friends on the Continent, he purchased rare manuscripts, early printed books, art and artefacts. Alexander was a supporter of the Emperor Napoleon, and in 1812 he commissioned the painting The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by the French artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). This painting, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, has become an iconic image of Napoleon, and helps to highlight the quality and continuing importance of Alexander’s collection even today.

An etching of a very grand, stone, Classical-style building, surrounded by a pale mount. The front of the building has many tall columns with two stone staircases leading down to the gravel drive area.
Alexander P Thomson, Hamilton Palace, early 20th century, etching, Brodick Collection

The 9th Duke of Hamilton died in February 1819 and, as the eldest son, Alexander inherited his titles and estates. From 1819, Alexander redeveloped the family’s principal residence, Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire, to create an opulent setting for his ever-increasing collection of art. Like the 3rd Duchess before him, he wanted a grand and monumental building that would represent the wealth, power and influence of the Dukes of Hamilton. Plans to expand Hamilton Palace had been drawn up in the 1730s by the leading Scottish architect of the period, William Adam (1689–1748), for James, 5th Duke of Hamilton (1703–43) but the work had never been completed. Within just a few months of inheriting his title, Alexander had commissioned the Neapolitan architect Francesco Saponieri (dates unknown) to produce several new designs for the north front of the Palace, most likely based on Adam’s original drawings. Saponieri’s drawings are dated from Rome and it’s likely that Alexander met the architect during his residence in Italy some years before.

The final design for the building was completed by the Glasgow architect David Hamilton (1768–1843) in collaboration with Alexander. The magnificent, classically inspired north front of the Palace took almost 20 years to complete: it was over 80m long and decorated with a spectacular Corinthian portico supported by 7.6m-high columns. Central to the new Palace was an impressive entrance hall and grand staircase, where the 10th Duke could display some of his finest works of art. The imposing black marble staircase was carved by the sculptor Patric Park (1811–55), who had worked on the Palace portico while still a teenager. The Duke used black marble throughout the new interiors at Hamilton, from doorways to chimneypieces, and he may have been responsible for the similarly fine black marble fireplace in the Old Library at Brodick Castle, which was probably installed during the extension of the castle in the mid-1840s.

An ornately carved fireplace, made from black marble, stands against a wall with a large mirror hanging above. A tiled section runs down the left of the fireplace featuring a coat of arms and the motto Through & Through. Mini bronze statues, a large carriage clock and two candlesticks stand on the mantelpiece.
View of the Old Library at Brodick Castle

Alexander died at the family’s London residence in Portman Square on 18 August 1852. The 10th Duke of Hamilton was remembered for his family pride and elevated sense of self-importance, and his burial provided a bizarre ending to the life of a man described in one obituary as ‘the proudest man in England’. Throughout his life he had been an avid collector of Ancient Egyptian artefacts and he was fascinated by the process of mummification. He requested that, upon his death, his body should be mummified and interred in a sarcophagus.

His directions were duly followed, and his body was prepared by the surgeon and antiquarian Thomas Pettigrew (1791–1865) and entombed in a sarcophagus from the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC). Alexander had purchased this sarcophagus in Paris in 1836 for the British Museum, where he had been a Trustee since 1834. He believed the sarcophagus belonged to an Egyptian prince; however, it was reported that the sarcophagus was in fact designed for a woman, and the Duke’s legs had to be broken in order to fit.

A stone mausoleum building with a domed roof stands behind iron railings on a sunny day. Trees frame the picture.
View of the Hamilton Mausoleum, Hamilton

The sarcophagus was interred in the Hamilton Mausoleum in the grounds of the Palace from its completion in 1858 until 1921, when subsidence across the estate lead to the demolition of Hamilton Palace. The family remains were moved to the nearby Bent Cemetery.

In the next article in this series, we’ll take a look at Alexander’s father-in-law and friend, William Beckford, and explore how the huge profits from his Jamaican sugar plantations (worked by enslaved Africans) facilitated the purchase of his remarkable collection.

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