Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Pen and brown ink over black pencil lines, bistre wash
  • 8 ½ × 15 ½ inches · 215 × 395 mm
  • Engraved: William Hamilton, Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies, As They have been communicated to the Royal Society of London, by Sir William Hamilton, Naples, 1776, Plate XXXVIII.

‘The original drawing for this plate was taken that night on the spot’

Sir William Hamilton, Campi Phlegraei, Naples, 1776, References to Plate XXXVIII

This previously unpublished drawing was made by Pietro Fabris in preparation for one of the most beautiful and impressive Grand Tour publications of the eighteenth century, Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei which was published in 1776. Executed in pen and ink over a pencil outline, this drawing appears to be preparatory for the finished plate depicting Hamilton showing a ‘current of lava from Vesuvius’ to King Ferdinand and Queen Carolina of Naples in May 1771. This drawing contains a number of differences from the finished print, as such it can be identified as an exceptionally rare process drawing by Fabris, offering insight into the production of the book itself. William Hamilton explained in the introduction to the publication that he had commissioned Fabris ‘a most ingenious and able artist… to take Drawings of every interesting spot, described in my letters’ as such, the project was a remarkable collaboration between Hamilton and Fabris, who in turn included portraits of Hamilton and a self-portrait in almost every composition.[1] Here, Fabris shows himself seated in the foreground, drawing Hamilton, arm outstretched, hat in hand, showing the lava flown to King Ferdinand. The lavishly printed and beautifully illustrated book was at the intersection between cutting edge scientific knowledge and innovative topographical design.

The text of Campi Plegraei was based on Hamilton’s letters to the Royal Society, which detailed the volcanic activities he had witnessed around the Bay of Naples and on Sicily and its islands (Stromboli and the Lipari Islands). Hamilton had concluded that the entire region owed its very existence to volcanic eruptions. Although his findings had already been published in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions he decided that his words needed to be accompanied by sufficiently accurate illustrations.[2] Hamilton explains in the introductory text that he ‘employed Mr Peter Fabris, a most ingenious and able artist, a native of Great Britain, to take drawings of every interesting spot, described in my letters, in which each stratum is represented in its proper colours… likewise the different specimens of Volcanick matters, such as lava’s, Tufa’s, pumice stones.’ Hamilton makes clear in the introductory text that each of the original drawings were made under his close instruction with ‘utmost fidelity’ and were for Hamilton’s personal use. The surviving finished drawings are spectacular. A group of forty are in the British Library, they seem to have been sold by Hamilton to a ‘Mr White’ probably towards the end of his life, a further 16 are in a private collection in Italy.[3] The labour and expense involved in producing these highly finished gouache images probably induced Hamilton to have them engraved in an attempt to defray the cost. Hamilton’s professed motivation is phrased somewhat differently in the introduction of the volume, he expressed his hope:

‘that the ingenious artist himself, might at the same time reap a moderate and constant benefit from his labours, particularly as he is unfortunately in a declining state of health; in a word I encouraged, and enabled Mr Fabris to undertake the Publication of an edition of my letters… accompanying the same with Plates, imitating the original drawings.’

As with all his undertakings, the cost weighed heavily with Hamilton. In 1776 he wrote that he had already laid out over £1200 on the project ‘but the plates which are the material will I am sure surpass any thing of the kind.’ The work was originally planned to have forty plates, but Fabris had produced sixty images by January 1776, not all of which were used. One hundred and fifty copies of the book were nearly ready in March before Hamilton left for a visit to England.

Despite the celebrity of the publication and its seductive images of volcanic activity much mystery surrounds the artist. Hamilton states that Fabris was British and yet there is no evidence of his origins and his links with the resident British Grand Tour community are relatively limited. Fabris did work with Archibald Robertson to produce a series of views around Naples which were published in Aquatint by Paul Sandby and a pair of interior scenes of the rooms occupied by Lord Fontrose in Naples, now in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Fabris’s obscurity meant that his authorship of the plates was doubted; Goethe in his biography of Philipp Hackert claimed that it was Hackert who was responsible for the original drawings of the Campi Phlegraei, an erroneous idea which persisted in print into the twentieth century.

The discovery of this drawing adds greatly to our understanding of the production of the Campi Phlegraei. Whilst the two groups of finished gouache’s were clearly the images used to produce the plates, the gouache’s themselves must have been the result of a considerable number of preparatory drawings. The present sheet is the first such preparatory drawing to appear and sheds valuable light on Fabris’s method. The sheet has first been worked in pencil, Fabris blocking in the principal landscape elements rapidly in a confident line: these rapid marks are most evident in the clouds of smoke and lava flow at the centre of the image. Fabris has then worked over the composition in pen and ink, capturing the groups of figures, sedan chair and horses with remarkable fluency. The image is one of the most historically significant in the finished publication, because it commemorates Sir William Hamilton showing ‘a part of Vesuvius where the lava fell down a perpendicular drop before flowing toward the town of Resina’ to the King and Queen of Naples on the night of 11th May 1771. In Campi Phlegraei Hamilton specifically records that ‘the original drawing for this plate was taken that night on the spot’ raising the prospect that our drawing was made by Fabris on the spot.

The fluency and schematic approach to the smoke, lava and disposition of the landscape does suggest the immediacy of someone on the spot. The pencil drawing seen under the figures is similarly rapid and cursory suggesting Fabris made the initial design in situ, then later using pen and ink to build up the figures. He also added a small self-portrait, the seated artist in the foreground leaning on a drawing board and with his back to the viewer. The careful, ruled ink line around the composition suggests that this was the final drawing made before the finished gouache used as the template for the engraving. There are noticeable compositional differences between this drawing and the finished plate, for example the group of women on the other side of the lava flow shown on the far right of our drawing, was omitted in the finished print.

We are grateful to Kim Sloan for her assistance in cataloguing this drawing.

After Pietro Fabris
Sir William Hamilton conducting their Sicilian Majesties to see the current of lava from vesuvius on 11th May 1771
coloured engraving, plate XXXVIII of the Campi Phlegraei, n.d [c.1776]
University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: rff QE523.V5H3 (SR)


  1. Sir William Hamilton, Campi Phlegraei, Naples, 1776, p.5. 
  2. For an excellent account of the publication see Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his Collection, exh. cat., London (British Museum), 1996, pp.165-168. 
  3. Carlo Knight, ‘Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei and the artistic contribution of Peter Fabris’, in eds. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie, Oxford, Chine and Italy, London, 1984, pp.192-207.