Renowned artist almost a Glasgow Boy

The Arts
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A RENOWNED artist who lived all his life in Helensburgh was a friend of the famous Glasgow Boys and a fringe member of the group.

James Whitelaw Hamilton, RSA, RSW, was one of a group of Glasgow  area painters — including Sir James Guthrie, E.A. Walton, and John Lavery — who painted in the burgh towards the end of the 19th century.

He studied in Glasgow before moving to Paris. In 1884 he joined James Guthrie, George Henry, Joseph Crawhall and Arthur Melville at Cockburnspath painting landscapes of fishing villages in oil, watercolour and pastel, his evening scenes being amongst his finest work.

He was closely involved with the Glasgow Boys, whose influence took him to Kirkcudbright where he painted harbour scenes with people gathered in groups.

For a time his paintings were more appreciated abroad than at home, perhaps because of his winning a prestigious prize in an International Exhibition in Munich in 1897.

He exhibited widely, at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts of which he was honorary secretary for many years, the Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Scottish of Painters in Watercolours and elsewhere.

J.Whitelaw-Hamilton-cutoutIn 1887 he was elected a member of the New English Art Club, a group with which he exhibited in 1888, and of the RSW in 1895. In 1901 he was made Cavaliere of the Order of the Crown of Italy for a painting bought by the King of Italy.

He became an associate member of the RSA in 1911 and a full Academician in 1922, and served on its Council. He was the principal hanger at the Academy exhibition in Edinburgh.

Because of his friendship with Rhu man Sir James Guthrie he was given the leading role in arranging a memorial exhibition of his work which began in Edinburgh and moved to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Galleries.

He was a member of the Society of 25 Artists, and was also president of the Scottish Artists Benevolent Association.

The well known auctioneers, McTears, say of him: “His work is often considered classical and traditionalist in the subject matter and approach, and he was often pigeon-holed for the lack of vibrancy and energy of his work.

“However, in recent years, his work has come back to the limelight and the painterly quality of his sensitive and quiet work has found an ever more enthusiastic international audience.

“This has been reflected by rising prices at auction both in the UK and mainland Europe, including £10,000 for ‘Harbour Side’, a small oil on canvas dated 1887, at Sotheby's sale at Gleneagles in August 2008.”

Born in Glasgow on November 26 1860, Whitelaw Hamilton was the eldest son of wood turner James Hamilton and his wife Mary Stevenson, who lived in Thornton Lodge, Sinclair Street — where several important works were painted by the Glasgow Boys. He was educated at Helensburgh's Larchfield School and in Glasgow.

He married Lillian Millar Shaw, of 12 Lynedoch Place, Glasgow, at St Mary’s Episcopal Church on September 9 1891, and the couple moved into The Grange, 23 Suffolk Street, which remained their home for the rest of their lives.

His sister Maggie married the architect Alexander Nisbet Paterson and set up home at The Long Croft, West Rossdhu Drive, which was designed by her husband — who also designed a single storey wing to the west of The Grange in 1910 as a studio for his brother-in-law.

Whitelaw Hamilton was a director of the Victoria Infirmary and advised Helensburgh Town Council on art matters, being responsible for the siting of the burgh war memorial in the old walled garden of Hermitage House and the selection of the design by A.N.Paterson.

J-Whitelaw-Hamilton-restored-wThis was of close personal interest to him as his son, Lieutenant Arthur Leslie Hamilton, was killed in Mesopotamia on October 25 1918, one of the last days of World War One, while serving with the 1st Highland Light Infantry.

A portrait of Lieutenant Hamilton was completed by Sir James Guthrie in 1916 and is in the collection of the Glasgow Art Gallery.

Whitelaw Hamilton was instrumental in obtaining Guthrie as the artist to paint the portrait of Town Clerk for 60 years George Maclachlan, even posing for the hands as the sitter was apt to fall asleep.

He was also a music lover and chaired the Subscriptions Concerts committee, a body which ensured that burgh residents could hear chamber music of the highest quality.

His death came not long after returning from a holiday. He felt unwell and entered a Glasgow nursing home, but died soon after an operation at the age of 71. A private funeral followed.

An obituary in the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times stated: "Mr Whitelaw Hamilton will be greatly missed in Helensburgh, where he was much admired and esteemed for his kindness of heart.

"His appreciation of beauty was widely recognised and his guidance and opinion was of immense value to the community.

"In selecting the design for our beautiful War Memorial, Mr Hamilton's services were invaluable, and in every movement for the good of the town where his assistancen was invited he invariably responded with the utmost cheerfulness and took infinite trouble and meticulous care to see that the best results possible were achieved.

"He was the ideal type of citizen, modest, unassuming, zealous, and enthusiastic for every cause in the common weal.

"The work as a director of the Victoria Infirmary appealed to him greatly, and for many years he rendered yeoman service on the board — unostentatious labour which made towards perfecting the highly efficient institution of which we are justly proud today.

"Mr Whitelaw Hamilton has left behind him no resentments and no enmity — nothing but a gracious memory of a winning personality, the memory of one who served his generation and his country by his interpretation of the beautiful in nature, and his town by ungrudging helpfulness and good citizenship."

A tribute was paid to him at the annual meeting of the Scottish Artists' Benevolent Association in Glasgow Art Club.

Chairman J.Morris Henderson said that Mr Hamilton had been long and intimately associated with the management of the association's affairs, having served as president for the past ten years.

He said that during that time, the funds of the association had been increased considerably, and he felt sure that a good deal of that increase was due to Mr Hamilton's work and influence. His zeal in behalf of the association never flagged, and his bequest of £200 was a lasting testimony to his interest in the work.

The Anderson Trust Local Collection, based in Helensburgh Library, has a Whitelaw Hamilton oil painting, 14 x 18 ins, entitled ‘Evening on the Gareloch’ and reminiscent of a Whistler ‘Nocturne’.  It shows the Empress, a Clyde Training Ship for boys, moored off Rosneath Point.

The painting was acquired by Nance Anderson, MBE, JP, and was in her original bequest that in 1980 formed the nucleus of the Anderson Trust Collection. It has since been professionally cleaned and restored by the Trust.

Recently a second painting of the Gareloch by him turned up in Dorking, Surrey.

Owner Daniel Fearon said: “My wife and I acquired the painting from a gallery and antique shop in Dorking. It is unusual for us to spot a picture that we both instantly like! However neither of us had heard of James Whitelaw Hamilton.

J-Whitelaw-Hamilton.Fearon-w“We went home and looked him up on the internet, thought some more, had a week's holiday and went back to the gallery, where we were told that they had the painting on consignment and that it had been returned to the consignee who had a buyer.

“We left our details in case the sale fell through and just when we had all but forgotten it — and spent our budget on another picture — we heard that the gallery could get it back.

“So off we went, had another look, still liked it and bought it.”

The painting they bought was oil on canvas, titled ‘Sunset’, signed, but not dated, and measuring 20 x 24 ins.

Art historian Mary-Jane Selwood, a Trustee of the Anderson Trust, said of it: “It is a beautiful painting, and I am fairly convinced the view is the same as the one of the Gareloch in the painting in the Anderson Trust Collection.”

The Anderson Trust owns two other Whitelaw Hamilton watercolours, ‘Ebb Tide’ and 'Loch Lomond from Glen Douglas'.

  • The photo of Walton, Crawhall, Guthrie and Whitelaw Hamilton in 1883 is reproduced from the programme for Helensburgh and District Art Club’s loan exhibition ‘Helensburgh and The Glasgow School’, staged in the Victoria Hall from September 9-23 1972.