Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803)
Sir William was a passionate collector of antiquities but also one who 'took seriously his part in the traditional role of the enlightened British aristocracy as patrons of the arts and as promoters of good taste in contemporary manufacture. The sale of the first collection to the British Museum in 1772 was more than a mere financial transaction, for it formed part of a life long mission to raise British, indeed European consciousness in what are now called the decorative arts.' (I. Jenkins " 'Contemporary Minds' Sir William Hamilton's affair with Antiquity", in the exhibition catalogue, Vases and Volcanoes, London, 1996, p. 59). Apart from his collections of Greek and Roman vases, cameos and bronzes Sir William also owned, at least for a short time, the celebrated Portland and Warwick Vases.
He applied for his official position in Naples largely in the hope that it would be beneficial for his wife, Catherine's health. While there they naturally played host to a stream of wealthy and artistic visitors from across Europe which included Mozart and Goethe as well as his second cousin, William Beckford in 1780 and, shortly before Lady Hamilton's death, again in the summer of 1782. A year after Hamilton's return to England in 1799 he, his second wife, Emma and Admiral Lord Nelson spent Christmas as Beckford's guests at Fonthill. Only the St. Michael Gallery had been completed but the effect must have been breathtaking, 'illuminated', as it was, 'with a grand display of wax lights, on candlesticks and candelabras of massive silver-gilt exhibiting a scene at once strikingly splendid and awfully magnificent' (The Gentleman's Magazine, LXXI, p.298).
Charles Aldridge, the Silversmith (w. 1766-1793)
Normally one would expect the silversmith to use a print source for the design of such unusual objects and several illustrations of Roman lampstands from the second half of the 18th century are known, most notably those that appear in the last of eight volumes of Le Antichitá di Ercolano Esposte, Naples, 1757-92. Indeed, a generation after these candlesticks were made, a pair of ormolu torchéres, now in the Royal collection, were supplied to the Prince Regent. They are described in Rundell's bill of 1811 as being 'after those found in the ruins of Herculaneum' and are based on two images illustrated in this important work (pl. LXXI, the base on p. 77, the socket on p. 92; the Regency torchéres are illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, Carlton House, The Past Glories of George IV's Palace, London, 1991-2 p. 91, no. 43). However, the present candlesticks appear to be based directly on the original Roman bronze lampstand which was available of course as a prototype for study at the British Museum in London.
The silversmith Charles Aldridge was apprenticed to Edward Aldridge, presumed to be his uncle, in 1758. He entered his first mark in partnership with Henry Green in 1775 and a second mark alone in 1786. He has followed faithfully the ornament of the Roman original in producing these candlesticks, which are almost exactly a third of the size of the prototype. Allowing for the change of use to a candlestick, the construction with detachable tripod foot, circular plate, distinctive fluted and fourfold stem of cross-shape section and detachable crater-shaped top also follows that of the Hamilton lampstand. The main variations are in the feet that have metamorphosed from lions' paws to lizards' claws and their profile which has been altered, presumably because of the lighter load they have to carry in the 18th century version. In addition an extra baluster has been removed beneath the socket and the flat top of the original has been replaced by a detachable nozzle to reflect the change of function.
Charles Aldridge is not particularly noted for the originality of his designs. Much more typical of his work is the teapot he made with Henry Green for William Beckford in 1782 now at Brodick Castle (T. Schroder, et al, Beckford and Hamilton Silver from Brodick Castle, London, 1980, no. B11). It is also of interest that the maker James Aldridge who produced so many of the most imaginative mounted pieces for Beckford from circa 1815-1823 was apprenticed, and surely related, to Charles Aldridge.
William Beckford (1760-1844)
William Beckford and the silver he ordered has been studied in great detail by Michael Snodin and Malcolm Baker (op. cit.) and the former in 'William Beckford and Metalwork' in the exhibition catalogue William Beckford 1760-1844, An Eye for the Magnificent, New York, 2001, pp. 203-215. His early purchases tend to be standard if sometimes exceptionally well-designed examples of domestic silver which he seems frequently to have taken with him on his extensive travels. While Beckford was mainly in Lisbon in 1787 it is known that a considerable amount of furnishing was underway at Fonthill House, later known as Fonthill Splendens, that summer being mainly designed by the architect John Soane (William Beckford, 1760-1844, op. cit. p.60).
It seems reasonable to assume that Beckford, given the extraordinary originality of his later silver purchases, specially commissioned these remarkable candlesticks rather than acquiring them second hand. Even without the Beckford connection these candlesticks are of exceptional interest. They are based directly on an identifiable object sold with the intention of providing prototypes to the artists and artisans of his day, by Sir William Hamilton in 1772 to the British Museum where it still remains.