Women in Art 2: Letitia Hamilton

Did you know that the Olympics used to feature an art section? Ireland has won a few medals in this category – most famously Jack B Yeats’ silver medal for The Liffey Swim in 1924. However, Letitia Hamilton also won one of the last Olympic medals for art in 1948. Read all about her career below in the second of my Women in Art series (originally written for tn2 magazine), celebrating the achievements of Irish women artists. Also – for more on art in the Olympics check out this very interesting article.

Women in Art – Letitia Hamilton

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An image of the Letitia Hamilton painting from the Hugh Lane Gallery, and an original leaflet for an exhibition of paintings of Venice by the two sisters in St Stephen’s Green Gallery in 1924.

Letitia Hamilton, painter of landscapes and rural scenes, hailed from an artistic family – her sister Eva was a portrait painter, and the two often exhibited together. Their great-grandmother Catherine Hamilton (née Tighe) was a watercolourist who also produced satirical drawings, and their cousin Rose Barton became the first female member of the Royal Watercolour Society. Barton and her close friend Helen Mabel Trevor offered a model to the sisters as professional painters during a period when women artists and watercolour painting were beginning to receive long overdue recognition. The Hamilton sisters came from an Anglo-Irish background, their home was Hamwood House of County Meath. As their father could only provide a dowry for one of his six daughters, Eva and Letitia both remained unmarried and through their art brought the main income for the household when they lived with their mother and sisters in later life.

The Hamilton sisters studied under William Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Letitia also studied enamel at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and she was commended by both the Metropolitan School and the Board of Education National Commission who awarded her a silver medal in 1912. The use of the Art Nouveau style in her enamel work foreshadows the modernist leanings of her later paintings. Initially the more ambitious of the two, Eva was the first to exhibit, showing work with the Water Colour Society of Ireland in 1898. She later turned to portraiture and became known for informal group portraits, as well as individuals against plain backgrounds.

Letitia first exhibited in 1902. While she was slower in developing her style than her sister, it was Letitia who engaged with the avant-garde movements current on the Continent, and whose modernist style differentiated her from the “accomplished” manner typical of lady painters hailing from the Big Houses.

In 1915 Letitia and Eva exhibited works from their travels in Holland. Letitia was a frequent traveller both in Europe and Ireland, and was influenced by the prevailing modern European artistic trends of the 20s and 30s. She also exhibited internationally – in London (Royal Academy, Burlington Gallery and Kensington Art Gallery), Scotland and the Salon in Paris. It is believed that she first came under the influence of the Impressionists when in France with Anne St John Partridge, whom she was studying under at the time.

1920 is seen as the turning point for Letitia, when her work reached its mature style. In this year she became a founding member of the Society of Dublin Painters, a group encouraging young artists with avant-garde tendencies.  Around this time her signature changed from MH (May Hamilton) to LMH (signifying her full name Letitia Marion (‘May’) Hamilton). She worked by creating small oil sketches, which were later developed into finished works. She painted rapidly, and had a loose and fluid touch.

Letitia first travelled to Venice in the early 1920s, and a booklet on a joint exhibition of Venetian views (The Stephen’s Green Gallery, February 1924) can be seen in the image accompanying this article. When in Venice, Letitia painted on a gondola studio lent to her by her friend, artist Ada Longfield. These Venetian works are among her best, and show the development of her mature style. They are characterised by a looseness of brushwork, and an interest in the effects of light. She worked in pastel shades, and made strong use of outlines. This new palette was later applied to her Irish landscapes, as were her experiments with painting light during her travels in Europe.

In works such as the atmospheric Snow in County Down (part of the Hugh Lane collection, see image above) her use of impasto techniques and work with the palette knife can be seen in the weight of the snow on the branches. This thick, vigorous application of paint and expressive brushwork shows the influence of Van Gogh on her work. The Impressionistic effects of dappled light can also be seen in the use of purples and yellows in the snow.

In 1948 Letitia was awarded a bronze medal in the arts section of the Olympic Games for her painting of the Meath Hunt Point to Point Races, the only Irish medal that year, and one of the last Olympic medals for art to be awarded. She became President of the Society of Dublin Painters in the late 1950s, continuing to paint throughout the 1960s in spite of her failing eyesight. Her last exhibition was held in 1963, the year before her death, in the Dawson Gallery, Dublin.

In her later years, she collected the work of fellow modern Irish artists such as Evie Hone, Louis LeBroquy and Jack B Yeats. The reputations of these respective artists have outlived that of the Hamilton sisters, but it is clear that they both played significant roles in the Irish art world of their time. Letitia in particular is important when examining the application of modern European movements to Irish art – something I will be returning to in the next instalment of this series, which covers the Irish Cubists – Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet and Mary Swanzy.

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