Irish Art

Discoveries: A Trio of Oil Paintings by Irish Sisters

By Mark Stephen
Three magnificent works by Eva and Letitia Hamilton were consigned to Sotheby's by a client using the online request an estimate service and were sold in the Irish Art sale on 19 November 2019.

T he artist sisters Eva and Letitia Hamilton created these three artworks in the early-mid 19th century. Given to the client’s mother as gifts around 1962, these the artworks remained with the same family until coming to auction at Sotheby's in 2019. The original recipient of the paintings stayed with the then-elderly Hamilton sisters at Woodville House while she was a student at Trinity college, Dublin; during her stay, she received the works from the sisters directly. The artworks have a freshness and immediate appeal, the landscapes painted with a subdued harmonious palette with dappled sunlight falling on water, the thick paint applied with confidence and energy.

Eva and Letitia were the eldest daughters of Charles Robert Hamilton of Hamwood House, Co. Meath, a local landowner and J.P. for the counties of Meath and Dublin.

They were two of ten children, though two died in infancy – leaving two brothers and six sisters. Charles was a keen gardener, restoring the walled gardens of the house and employing a gardener from Kew to advise, but with such a large family and a house to maintain, money appeared to be tight. He was forced to announce that he could not afford dowries for the daughters, all of whom remained single apart from the youngest, Lilian.

Although this was a time of relative economic poverty in Ireland, when the population was shrinking and emigration common (as young Irish left in some numbers to seek work in England or the United States) Eva and Letitia both became established artists in their home country, fighting for recognition in a society where art was still considered a male preserve.

Eva and Letitia studied under William Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and later under Henry Tonks at the Slade in London. Both exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), with Letitia becoming a full member in 1944. Eva (1876-1960) initially concentrated on portraiture, but turned to landscape after the demand for society portraits dried up following the Great War and the Irish Independence of 1922. Being the eldest daughter, she also took on the running of the household after the death of her mother in 1922, which she combined with a career as an artist.

Letitia (1878-1964) was a landscape artist with an Impressionist style. A great Europhile, she travelled extensively, sometimes with her sister, and spent time around Venice and the lakes in Italy, loving the interplay of light on buildings and water, which resulted in a fine group of works. Letitia was a founding member of the Society of Dublin painters which she founded with Jack Butler Yeats, Paul Henry and Mary Swanzy; she later became President, in 1848. Her style shows the influence of post-impressionist artists such as Van Gogh and Dufy, as well as Irish artists such as Paul Henry and Roderic O’Conor. Comparisons may be drawn with O'Conor in her expressionistic application of paint.

She developed a very personal method of using a palette knife, achieving the effect of impasto, which resulted in the lively picture surface so characteristic of her work. In 1948, she was awarded a bronze medal at the Olympics `Sport in Art’ competition, submitting a painting of horses at the start of a Meath point-to-point. As it turns out she was the last recipient, as Art was excluded from later Olympics.

On the death of their father, and Hamwood going to the oldest son, the sisters moved to a series of rented houses including Fonthill in Palmerstown and Woodville at Lucan, where their lifestyle was reminiscent of the prewar conventions of their formative years, despite somewhat straitened circumstances. The income achieved from selling paintings was essential for the family finances. Woodville was fondly known as the `Aunts’ nest’, remembered by locals for memorable parties and an eccentric lifestyle including a tree with sweeping branches hung with umbrellas. Their legacy is a body of work preserving and recording Irish landscapes and village life in rural Ireland, a way of life that has now disappeared.

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