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The Warwick Vase: Hamilton’s Dig for Treasure

Archibald Skirving, Portrait of Gavin Hamilton (1723 – 1798), Pastel on paper, circa. 1788. Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland. (pictured above)


 In 1771, Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton made a fascinating discovery at the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, near Tivoli. Fancying himself as an antiquarian come art dealer based in Rome he carried out numerous archaeological digs. He discovered fragments of an ancient Roman marble vase with Bacchic ornament. The vase now stands, restored, in the Burrell Collection near Glasgow, Scotland.




Hamilton sold the fragments to Sir William Hamilton, who was British envoy to the court of Naples.  The vase was restored by Sir William Hamilton and it later passed into the collection of Hamilton’s nephew George Greville, 2nd Earl of Warwick. Sir William Hamilton tried to persuade the British Museum, which had purchased his collection of Etruscan vases, to purchase the vase but to no avail. He stated “ Keep it I cannot, as I shall never have a house big enough for it”.


The Warwick Vase, housed in the Burrell Collection



The first record of the vase standing in the courtyard of Warwick Castle was in 1778. In 1784, local mason William Eborall designed and built for the Earl a greenhouse at Warwick Castle. The Earl later wrote ‘I built a noble green house, and filled it with beautiful plants, I placed in it a vase, considered as the finest remains of Grecian art extant, for its size and beauty’, despite the fragments believed to be Roman. 


The vase remained at Warwick Castle until 1969 when the ownership of the Castle and its contents passed to the 7th earl David Lord Brooke. Brooke organised a sale of the works of art held in the castle. The Vase was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art but export was luckily denied. Matching funds were raised and not considered important enough for the British Museum the vase was sent to the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. 


The Warwick Vase became iconic and greatly influencial in early 19th century design. Two bronze models were made of The Warwick Vase by Rundell. One was sold by Rundell’s to George IV who had it placed at Windsor. The other was bought by Duke of Northumberland who had just been appointed Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, to present it to the university. It is now displayed in the middle of the lawn before Gibbs’ Senate House. Porcelain versions were being made by Rockingham and Worcester. A stunning example of which is held in theRoyal Collection. This classical design became a part of the British visual repertory, even becoming the model for the silver-gilt tennis trophy, the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup won at the Australian Open. 


The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup click here to watch the cup being made  



 The form was also manipulated for tea services and saltcellars.


John Edward Terrey, A George IV Four-Piece Tea And Coffee Service. For sale at Koopman Rare Art



This tea service was modeled in the style of the Warwick Vase. The large looping handles and cylindrical form create a grand and impressive tea service. Available at Koopman it is a silver George IV tea and coffee service, engraved with the coat-of arms for Maynard impaling another.  The pots are decorated with fruit finials and ivory insulators in the handles, the spouts formed as tritons sounding conch-shell horns, the whole set richly decorated with acanthus leaf ornament. 


Paul Storr (Westminster 1771 – Tooting 1844), An Impressive Regency Warwick Vase on Silver Stand. For sale at Koopman Rare Art.



Here is a a majestic and beautiful example of a Warwick vase by Paul Storr. The Cowper Warwick Vase was presented to Captain William Cowper (1774-1825) who was a military engineer. He succeeded in building two dry docks in the port of Bombay despite numerous difficulties, including a lack of skilled workmen and problems with hard rock and tides. 

Another exceptional Warwick Vase available at Koopman Rare Art is this silver-gilt vase by Paul Storr.


Paul Storr (Westminster 1771 – Tooting 1844) An Exceptional Warwick Vase on Stand with Caribbean Interest. For sale at Koopman Rare Art.


The Warwick Vase was presented to James Anthill, Chief Justice of Antigua by the legislature of the island. The vase is mentioned in his will of 1822: 


‘….my books, and the silver-gilt vase given me by the Legislature of the Island, and if he die before me I give the 1786 May 25 Samuel Harman to Mary Athill, sp^ L. 1788 Sept. 25 ‘


The vase bears the crest of Anthill and the base is inscribed with his coat of arms and the presentation inscription, describing Anthill as ‘Honorable’. The vase was given ‘to commemorate their exalted Sense of the Ardour of his Patriotism, The Splendour of his Talents and The Integrety of his Life.’ 


Some of these works are available to view in our gallery located at Koopman Rare Art, The London Silver Vaults, 53/64 Chancery Lane, London, WC2A 1QS.


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