Hamilton, Eva Henrietta (1876–1960) and Laetitia Marion (‘May’) (1878–1964), painters, were the eldest and second daughters respectively among eight surviving children of Charles Robert Hamilton (1846–1913), landowner and JP for Co. Meath, and his wife Louisa Caroline, eldest daughter of Francis Richard Brooke of Summerton, Co. Dublin and Coolgreany, Co. Wexford. Both were educated at Alexandra College, Dublin, and their early family life fostered an interest in art; they would have been familiar with the satirical drawings and watercolours of their great-grandmother Caroline Hamilton (née Tighe), while their cousin Rose Barton (qv), an established professional artist, was a close friend of Mildred Anne Butler (qv). Eva, born 28 June 1876, was particularly good at portraiture, and painted her younger sisters as they sat or worked in the gardens at Hamwood, the family home in Dunboyne, Co. Meath. She had a reputation among the family for being somewhat severe and domineering, but this is not reflected in the portraits she painted, which show an intuitive understanding of her sitters; indeed, she was noted for her sympathetic paintings of children. Undoubtedly she was a confident, committed painter; she entered her work for the first time with the Watercolour Society of Ireland in 1898, and showed at an exhibition of Irish painters, organised by Hugh Lane (qv), at the Guildhall, London (1904). The same year she exhibited portraits of her sisters with the RHA.
Her father made it clear that he could not provide a dowry for all of his daughters and only one daughter, Lilly, married. Hamilton put her energy into her painting and, aged 31, joined the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (1907) with her sister Laetitia, where they studied under William Orpen (qv). Her portraits from this period show his influence. She painted a portrait of her mother, Louisa Hamilton, in the drawing room of the family winter residence at 40 Lower Dominick St., in an ‘Orpenesque’ style, and included his device of adding a mirror with a reflection of the sitter. Orpen had painted her mother in the same room. After further studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, under the tuition of Henry Tonks, her personal style evolved, and she preferred to paint more informal groupings or individual sitters against simple, less distracting backgrounds. A perfect example is a portrait (c.1925) of her sister-in-law Violet Hamilton in a cream dress, sitting in a chair. She spent some time situating the chair to achieve the right lighting effects, and the result is one of restrained, elegant beauty. She earned a living for a time copying portraits, including some by Orpen. When her father died (1913), her brother Charles inherited Hamwood and she stayed with her mother and sisters in Dominick St. until the lease expired. She and Laetitia went to Holland (1915) and that year she showed, among other works, a painting entitled ‘Amsterdam’ with the RHA. She became a member of the Society of Dublin Painters (1922). Her mother died the same year and she took over the housekeeping, which meant less time for her painting. However, she held a one-woman show (May 1925) at the society's gallery, 7 St Stephen's Green, Dublin, and the reviews were positive, with special mention made of her portrait of James MacManaway, Church of Ireland bishop of Clogher (1923–43), for its excellent likeness; her views of Northern Italy; and a view of a woodland, painted in the demesne of Sir Oliver Nugent (qv) near Oldcastle, Sligo. She was then living at Font Hill, Palmerston Road, Dublin, where she shared a studio with Laetitia until their mother's death.
From 1926 she concentrated more on landscapes and often held joint exhibitions with her sister. She remained a regular exhibitor with the Society of Dublin Painters until 1951 and was elected president (1948). Her work was shown in the Watercolour Society of Ireland (1898–1950), and she entered the Oireachtas art exhibition a number of times. She exhibited in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (1944), with two works, ‘The chestnut tree’ and ‘The beech tree’, and contributed every year to the RHA, showing in 1946 a portrait of Laetitia. Eva and her sisters Constance and Amy moved house a few times over the years but finally settled (1946) at Woodville House, Lucan, and Laetitia moved in with them. Eva Hamilton died there on 14 March 1960.
Laetitia Hamilton (1878–1964) was born 20 July 1878 at Hamwood, third among the children. Her earliest work, watercolours of the gardens at Hamwood, was shown at the exhibition of the Watercolour Society of Ireland in 1902. She continued to exhibit there for much of her career. At this early period she exhibited under the name ‘May Hamilton’; she was known as ‘May’ among her family. At the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, she also studied enamel and was awarded (1910) a prize for a plaque. In 1912 she won a silver medal in the board of education national competition, again for a work in enamel. These works show an interest in the decorative qualities of the art nouveau style, and look forward to her exploration of the abstract qualities of colour and form that characterise her later work in painting. She exhibited for the first time at the RHA in 1909 and continued to do so regularly throughout her career. She was elected a member of the academy in 1944. In 1920 she was a founder member of the Society of Dublin Painters, along with artists such as Grace Henry (qv), Paul Henry (qv), Mary Swanzy (qv), and Jack B. Yeats (qv). The society, which held its first exhibition in August 1920, aimed to provide a focus for young artists concerned with more avant-garde artistic trends. It was later joined by artists such as Harry Clarke (qv) and Mainie Jellett (qv).
During the 1920s and 1930s she travelled in France, Italy, and Yugoslavia to paint, often in the company of her sister Eva. Her interest in the quality and effects of light, always a key artistic concern for her, was given greater scope on these visits to southern Europe. She also travelled extensively around Ireland. Everyday Irish life was an enduring theme for Hamilton throughout her career. The markets of various towns of the Irish midlands were a favourite source of inspiration for works such as ‘The fair at Castlepollard’ (c.1948, Brian P. Burns collection, Boston). Her style shows the influence of post-impressionist artists such as Van Gogh, whom she admired, and Dufy, as well as Irish artists such as Paul Henry and Roderic O'Conor (qv). 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 a lively picture surface so characteristic of her work. This skilful control of her medium can be seen in the painting ‘Snow in Co. Down’ (c.1937; Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane), a work that reflects her ability to respond to the aesthetic potential of natural forms. Hunting and racing scenes also feature in her work. She was awarded a bronze medal in the ‘sport in art’ section of the Olympic Games of 1948 for her painting ‘Meath point-to-point’.
In October 1939 her work was included in the ‘Loan and cross-section exhibition of contemporary paintings’ held at the Contemporary Picture Galleries, Dublin, alongside artists from abroad (such as Braque, Dufy, and Picasso) and Irish artists Mainie Jellett and Jack B. Yeats. In February 1939 her work had been among that chosen by Victor Waddington to take to the United States to promote Irish art there. She became president of the Dublin Painters Society in the late 1950s. Despite failing eyesight she continued to paint and exhibit in the early 1960s.
After 1946 she lived with her sisters at Lucan, where their lifestyle was reminiscent of the prewar conventions of their formative years, despite somewhat straitened circumstances after the death of their father. From that time the income she derived from her painting was an important source of support for herself and her sisters. Hamilton impressed those who knew her with her charm, a deep love of nature and animals, and a boundless enthusiasm for all she did. She died 10 August 1964 in Dublin; she never married.