Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740–1808): a life in pictures

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Volume 17

Hamilton represents Lady Emma Hamilton (no relation) in a triple portrait in which she poses as three of the muses: Terpsichore, muse of choral dance and song, holding a lure; Polyhymnia, muse of heroic hymns; and Calliope, muse of epic poetry, holding a book.

Hamilton represents Lady Emma Hamilton (no relation) in a triple portrait in which she poses as three of the muses: Terpsichore, muse of choral dance and song, holding a lure; Polyhymnia, muse of heroic hymns; and Calliope, muse of epic poetry, holding a book.

The past decade has seen a considerable rise in interest in the work of Hugh Douglas Hamilton, best known as a portrait painter. Fintan Cullen’s work on Hamilton has provoked a major reassessment of Hamilton’s importance in the history of Irish art, and Cullen’s analysis of the portrait of Richard Mansergh St George posing beside his late wife’s sarcophagus (c. 1795) in the National Gallery is a tour de force. Then in 2002 Hamilton’s reputation was further enhanced by the sensational discovery of a lost volume of drawings, The Cries of Dublin. The drawings came into the possession of an English family in the nineteenth century and at some time went to Australia, where they were rediscovered. William Laffan’s edition of the Cries, published by the Irish Georgian Society, revealed a completely different side to Hamilton’s career.
Hamilton was born in Dublin and was the son of a Temple Bar wig-maker. In the 1750s he attended the Dublin Society Drawing Schools in nearby George’s Lane, where Robert West was drawing master and Hamilton’s contemporaries included John O’Keeffe and Thomas Hickey. The street scenes, drawn in 1760, display a vivid realism as Hamilton captured the work of ordinary people and Dublin characters such as Hae Ball, King of the Beggars, Blind Daniel the piper and an extraordinary-looking ‘foolish traveling stationer’. The album shows some of the darker sides of street life. Hamilton’s images of the poor avoided picturesque treatment in favour of naturalism, but there is a wealth of finely observed and sometimes amusing detail. One of the grimmer images is ‘Three papist criminals going to execution’, in which the condemned men, garlanded with rosary beads and holding prayer books, are being transported through the streets in an open cart. Social historians of the eighteenth century will be exercised by this album for some time to come.
The Cries of Dublin showed a side to Hamilton’s work that was not pursued. Nor was the substantial talent for architectural draughtsmanship, visible in his frontispiece to William Roque’s estate maps of Kilkea for the earl of Kildare. Hamilton’s career, after these interesting beginnings, was dominated by portraits. His father’s trade may well have helped in the search for wealthy patrons, but it was in London in the 1760s that Hamilton had great success as a painter of portraits, specialising in the fashionable medium of pastels. Ruth Kenny in her catalogue essay sees the powdery pastel as the perfect medium for a powdered age. She also sees Hamilton’s mastery of the illusions and surface effects of the medium as particularly suited to the glittering superficiality of the society described in Toby Barnard’s Making the grand figure. Hamilton’s pastels were commercially successful. A pastel could be completed in one session costing six guineas, whereas an oil portrait was time-consuming and much more expensive. Pastels, small in scale and intimate in character, appealed to the cult of sensibility of the period. They permitted friends to have portraits of each other in their houses. The list of Hamilton’s clients is impressive and includes such major figures from the political world as Thomas Connolly, Walter Hussey Burgh, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Arthur Wolfe.

Hamilton's 1795 painting of Arthur Wolfe, later Lord Kilwarden.

Hamilton’s 1795 painting of Arthur Wolfe, later Lord Kilwarden.

Hamilton is the recorder of the brief, self-confident heyday of the age of Grattan, but he left for Italy with his wife and daughter in 1782. Here he had a successful career painting visiting British tourists and most of the members of the exiled Stuart family, including several portraits of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in his declining years. In her account of the Italian period, Nicola Figgis reveals that Hamilton was close to James Byres, a Scottish antiquarian living in Rome, whose house was the centre of Jacobite activity. Hamilton, though, remained politically neutral, which no doubt was reflected in the range of his clients. From this period date the impressive full-length portraits of Frederick Hervey, bishop of Derry. Hamilton also painted Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples, and his wife Emma. The portrait of Emma Hamilton (above/below)—on loan from Lennoxglove House in Haddington—is striking in its unusual format. Emma Hamilton was one of the most beautiful women of her time. Despite her humble background she rose quickly, marrying the uncle of her former lover George Grenville. She was famous for her ‘attitudes’, a sort of mime or tableau of poses based on classical models. These were a popular court entertainment at the time, and partly explain her magnetic personality. She captivated Horatio Nelson, who embarked on a public affair with her at the height of his career and famously bequeathed her to the British nation in his will. Hamilton represents Emma in a triple portrait in which she poses as three of the muses: Terpsichore, muse of choral dance and song, holding a lyre; Polyhymnia, muse of heroic hymns; and Calliope, muse of epic poetry, holding a book.
Hamilton left Rome for Dublin in 1792 and remained in Ireland until his death in 1808. The last phase of his life saw him abandon the pastel portraits that had earned him the nicknames ‘Chalk’ Hamilton and ‘Crayon’ Hamilton. From this period comes a series of major oil portraits of political figures across the spectrum of Irish politics, including John Foster, John Fitzgibbon, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and John Philpot Curran. Intimacy and psychological insights into the sitter characterise the work of this period. The portrait of Arthur Wolfe, later Lord Kilwarden, from 1795 is a good example of this. Wolfe was attorney-general when he sat for Hamilton in 1795, but the painting is very informal, what Adrien le Harivel calls ‘a distinctly private image’. The painting was exhibited in public after Kilwarden’s murder during Emmet’s rebellion in 1803, ‘the curious intensity posthumously read as a prescient awareness of his imminent demise’. One of the most striking of Hamilton’s paintings in the National Gallery is the portrait of Richard Mansergh St George leaning on the tomb of his late wife, an image of disconsolate grief. Fintan Cullen has hung a very important argument around this work, relating it to the ‘Protestant Gothic’ of the late eighteenth century, an Anglo-Irish fixation with death and the record of the past in the context of an increasingly gloomy political future. St George’s letter to Henri Fuseli on the subject reveals how he intended the work to be viewed by his sons, but not before they reached maturity, until which time it would be kept in a locked room along with a sealed trunk containing some volumes of family history. The intersection of the cult of sensibility of the late eighteenth century epitomised by Hamilton’s later work and the uncertainties of the once-glittering world of eighteenth-century Irish society could hardly be better represented.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.


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