Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740-1808), Portrait of Mrs Hartley (c.1773)

Hugh Douglas Hamilton , Mrs Hartley

Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740-1808), RHA, Mrs Hartley (c.1750-1824), c.1773
Pastel on paper; 23 x 20cm
The upward gaze given to the sitter of this portrait is a clue to her identity. Elizabeth Hartley (née White) was an actress in eighteenth-century England, first making her appearance at Covent Garden in 1772. Hartley was known more for the beauty of her vivid red hair and freckles than for her acting abilities – many critics of the time commenting on her grating voice…


Hartley was the subject of “The Vauxhall Affray” in 1773; – a scandal where several well-bred men engaged themselves in a boxing match, reputedly over drunken comments and sideways glances directed at Hartley and defended by her companion the Rev. Henry Bate. Given the notoriety of the men involved, gossip was rife and a pamphlet was even circulated.
The artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton was a Dublin-born, well regarded and prolific portrait painter. He took formal training in drawing and painting at the Royal Dublin Society, then on George’s Lane, before specialising in small-scale crayon and pastel portraits, frequently oval in shape. He moved to work in London from 1764 and lived in Italy for many years before returning to Ireland in 1791.
He was kept very busy working on these portable images of loved ones and those “in vogue”. Hamilton created good likenesses with expressive eyes and delicately drawn hair, perhaps owing to the fact that his father was a peruke (wig)-maker. Given his queue of clients, he likely produced these bijoux portraits quite quickly – spending time on what was important – the face – but not much time on the background or clothing.
However, he is not just known for these oval pastels. He also produced large-scale oil paintings, the most famous of these being Cupid and Psyche in the Nuptial Bower and Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry with his granddaughter Lady Caroline Crichton, both in the National Gallery of Ireland.
We know that Hamilton was often commissioned to make several copies of the same portrait for various family members and their different homes. It is however possible that this portrait is the same as listed in the Catalogue of Pictures and Antiquities at Carton House (1885) hanging in the Duke’s Study along with 27 other Hamilton ovals.

Signed ‘Hamilton’, with inscription ‘Portrait of / Mrs Hartley / (singer) / by / H.D.Hamilton R.H.A’ on an old label verso
The work was purchased by Richard Wood, from whom the McCarthy family of Cork bought and donated it to the Trust in 2008. Fota is lucky enough to have five pastels by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, all hanging in the Watercolour (also known as the Flower or Breakfast) Room.

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