GUSTAVUS HAMILTON (1739-75), Portrait of a Lady Traditionally Believed to be Elizabeth Hamilton

Medium: watercolour on ivory, set in an alternating ruby and diamond surround

H 5 cm


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The ‘Modest School’ of miniaturists is represented here in this portrait by Gustavus Hamilton (c.1739-1775), which is signed and dated on the observe ‘Ham., 1764’. The lady depicted has traditionally been identified as Elizabeth Hamilton, the sister of the artist. She wears an elaborate blue dress, edged with white lace and decorated with small pearls on the shoulder. Rows of sapphires and pearls intertwine as necklaces held by a blue ribbon tied at the back of her neck. Her hair, enriched by decorative jewels and feathers, is worn in a plaited up-style. 

The portrait is set in a gold bracelet clasp mount, oval and measures to 5 cm in height. The frame is encased with original old cut diamonds and rubies. 

This miniature by Hamilton conveys his artistry skill at the height of his career as a miniaturist. This can be seen in his use of blue undertones and shaded stippling prevalent throughout, with particular attention toward her facial features. Her eyes are framed by delicately painted brown lashes with a deep shade of blue used for her pupils.

Hamilton was born in Ireland and was the son of a clergyman. His family settled in Tyrone under the reign of King James I, and he spent the majority of his life and career working in Ireland. As a young man, he was taught by Robert West at the Society of Artists in Dublin, who came from a background with the French Academy whilst under the directorship of François Boucher. During his time studying in Dublin, Hamilton was employed by Samuel Dickson to assist with the painting of basso-relieve prints. These copper linen prints usually depicted colourful birds and flowers with watercolours and would go on to influence his later style as a miniaturist.

In the early stages of Hamilton’s career, he began to paint portrait miniatures along with James Reilly throughout the 1740s-1750s. This was a time of great artistry skill and talent blossoming in Ireland, for Nathaniel Hone had established the ‘modest’ style that would be so influential to many artists in Ireland, including Hamilton and his circle. This particular group became integral to the forming of second-generation artists who painted portrait miniatures using watercolours on ivory on a relatively small scale and a critical decade that helped to establish Dublin as a flourishing centre for portrait miniature painting. In fact, this was a period that became synonymous with the portrait miniature patronage that Dublin became so well-known for later in the eighteenth century. 

Hamilton had such a successful career in the city of Dublin that he never actually exhibited in London, and it is for this reason that he was considered a lesser-known portrait miniaturist. His flourishing establishment attracted the patronage from ladies of high society, and he acquired a rather fashionable clientèle. It has been noted by a contemporary of his, the actor and artist John O'Keeffe who recollects that Hamilton “was encouraged by ladies of the first rank […] and made a power of money by his pencil”.

Hamilton’s work can be found in collections such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Provenance: Private Collection, South Kensington, London.
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Mercer, E., ed., Boase T. S. R., English Art: 1553-1625 (Oxford University Press, 1962).
O’Keefe, J., Recollections of the life of John O’Keeffe (H. Colburn, London, 1826).
Strickland, W. G., A Dictionary of Irish Artists, (Irish Academic Press, 1989).
Walker, R., Miniatures: A selection of miniatures in the Ashmolean Museum (Craft Print Pte Lt, Oxford, 1997).
Walker, R., Miniatures: 300 years of the English Miniature Illustrated from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery (National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1998).