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OVER AMBITIOUS.

HAMILTON, John (d. 1747)

Stereography, or, a compleat body of perspective in all its branches

London: printed for the author, by W. Bowyer, and sold by S. Austen, 1738
Text volume: π2 a–d2 (–d2) B–5I2, 2A–K2 (–K2), 228 leaves, pp. [18] 400, [38] (last page blank). Titlepages printed in red and black, engraved headpiece on π2, by Mynde, wood or metalcut initial and tailpiece.
Plates volume: title leaf to Volume II and 130 full page engraved plates by James Mynde printed on full sheets and bound as bifolia so that each plate is preceded by a blank leaf.
Condition: 430 x 270mm, untrimmed. 2A2, the second leaf of the table of contents crumpled and torn with loss of a few words; first titlepage browned, endmatter less so (text pages and plates are on different paper stocks which have not browned); watersta
Binding: Contemporary bright blue pastepaper wrappers, lined with printer’s waste from Soyecourt, Plaidoyer pour le marquis de Soyecourt (4to, Paris: imprimerie de veuve Valade 1788) and an unidentified Chinese grammar in French with Chinese characters.
First and only edition; a re-issue is dated 1749.
Bibliography: ESTC T102273; Boyer Ledgers 2586.
£3,000

An important treatise on perspective, inspired by Brook Taylor’s Linear perspective (1715, second edition 1719) but taking the subject much further in its mathematical analysis. Though not a professional mathematician, Hamilton advanced the mathematical basis of perspective which had been played down by Taylor in addressing his short treatise to artists rather than mathematicians. ‘Hamilton combined his presentation of perspective with a study of projections of conic sections and harmonic division. By including these objects he produced a work that more than any other pre-1800 book on perspective belongs to the prehistory of projective geometry.’ (Andersen p. 542, my emphasis). It is only in the last section that Hamilton addresses topics in practical perspective. Hamilton influenced Kirby and Malton and some of his ideas can be found in Lambert’s work, though Andersen does not think that Lambert was familiar with Hamilton’s work (Andersen p. 547).

Little is known of Hamilton’s life. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and may have begun a career in the law, but in his dedication he thanks Joseph Jekyll for placing him ‘in a more easy Station in Life’. This not only allowed him to finish his book, but also to publish it on a lavish scale, employing the best printer and the best engraver of the time. The engraver, James Mynde (1702–1771) had quite recently made a name for himself engraving most of the celestial charts for Flamsteed’s Atlas coelestis (1729). The plates in the present work are however largely diagrammatic and hardly required Mynde’s skill. The extravagance of the printing is also shown by the fact that each plate is printed on the right hand side of a full sheet of paper, so that as bound in this copy in a separate volume, a blank leaf occurs between each plate. They were intended to be bound as throwouts interspersed in the text when the book is bound in two volumes, breaking after p. 208.
Hamilton issued 750 copies of a prospectus for the book on 9 August 1738, but the list of subscribers shows that he managed to garner only 79 names. He nonetheless went ahead with a grossly ambitious print-run of 750 copies. In 1749, two years after Hamilton’s death, the book was re-issued with a new titlepage. This copy of the original 1738 issue with wrappers lined with printer’s waste from a French publication of 1788 suggests that it comes from stock shipped to France before it was re-issued in London. Out of the print run of 750 copies, 22 are now recorded in ESTC, a low survival rate for a folio; it is possible that a large part of the edition was pulped. The copies located by ESTC include North American copies at Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Columbia, Honnold, Hopkins, LC, Chicago, Michigan, Texas, Yale; there is also a copy at Princeton.
Literature: Kirsti Andersen, The geometry of an art: the history of the mathematical theory of perspective from Alberti to Monge (New York, 2007), 541–547.
Keywords:     geometry    perspective