Born in Crow Street in Dublin, in 1740, Hamilton began his studies under Robert West at the Dublin Society Drawing School where students were given rigorous instruction based on methods of French teaching. Hamilton's facility in draftsmanship brought him to the attention of the Huguenot cartographer, John Rocque (c.1705-62) who had been commissioned by The Earl of Kildare (later 1st Duke of Leinster) to produce separate volumes of manuscript estate maps for each of the Earl's eight manors. The exhibition will show Hamilton's decorative frontispiece for the Estate atlas of the Manor of Kilkea (1760), one of the earliest known drawings by the artist.
Hamilton quickly made a name for himself in Dublin, developing close links with several important families in Ireland, especially with the La Touche banking family - a relationship which lasted throughout his career. The exhibition shows a number of portraits of the La Touche family, the earliest of which is a pastel portrait of David La Touche (1765), grandson of the founder of the Irish branch of the family.
Some of Hamilton's best small-scale work was produced for the Conolly and Leinster families who lived in the grand houses of Castletown and Carton respectively. Included in the exhibition is a portrait of MP and landowner, Thomas Conolly (1734-1803), and a number of portraits of the orator and politician, Walter Hussey Burgh (1742-83). In these exquisite pastel works, Hamilton succeeds in capturing the amiable characteristics of his sitters as well as a realism and directness.
"Hamilton's small, unassuming portraits preserve the spirit of the age at the peak of its brilliance and at its most morally suspect; contemporary fashionable life in all its complexity," says Ruth Kenny in her contributing essay in the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Having established himself as a leading portraitist in pastel, Hamilton moved to London around 1764 where the fashionable set flocked to have their likeness recorded by the gregarious young artist. He soon gained recognition by the Society of Artists in London where he regularly exhibited his pastels.
In the early 1780s, Hamilton set off on his first sojourn of Italy receiving commissions for portraits of wealthy English and Irish travellers on their obligatory 'Grand Tour'. During his years in Italy, Hamilton began to paint in oils and his work became bolder in style and scale. Hamilton's finest works were produced for his major patron in Rome, Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry (1730-1803). His full-length oil painting of the Bishop with his granddaughter, Lady Caroline Crichton in the grounds of the Villa Borghese in Rome, was painted around 1790, and is considered one of his masterpieces of the period. During his lengthy stays in Italy, the artist cultivated lasting friendships with prominent artists including the sculptor Antonio Canova, John Flaxman, Gavin Hamilton and Henry Tresham.
Hamilton returned to Dublin in 1792 by which time the city was now larger and wealthier and demand by the art-buying public had grown. Although competition for patronage had increased, Hamilton still managed to attract sitters from established Irish society. The exhibition shows examples of his later works, among them portraits of Galway landowner, Richard Mansergh St. George (1756/9-98), Richard Lovell Edgeworth MP (1744-1817); an iconic portrait of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763-98), fifth son of the 1st Duke of Leinster and a leading member of the Society of United Irishmen, and John Philpot Curran (1750-1815), renowned barrister and member of Grattan's party in parliament.