Artist James Whitelaw Hamilton was born on 26th November 1860, the eldest child to wood turner James Hamilton, and his wife Mary Stevenson of 1 Morris Place Glasgow.
Whitelaw Hamilton was to spend most of his life in Helensburgh after his parents moved the family to the town. The family took residence in Thornton Lodge, 107 Sinclair Street, Helensburgh.
Whitelaw Hamilton displayed an aptitude for painting at an early age, and after studying in Glasgow, he moved to Paris and studied in the studios of Dagnan-Bouveret and Aime Morot, both considered leading lights of the 19th century French Movement – specialising in landscapes and portraiture.
Whitelaw Hamilton’s landscapes had a rugged and raw quality, and his best work is considered to be of fishing villages, particularly scenes of quays and harbours with people gathered or working on them. He did not limit his work to one medium and was equally happy using oils, pastels and watercolours.
Not surprisingly, given Helensburgh’s reputation as a centre for artists, Whitelaw Hamilton became friends with the Glasgow Boys. In 1884, he joined Guthrie, Henry, Crawhall and Melville at Cockburnspath, a village in the Scottish Borders area lying between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Edinburgh. It was here that James Guthrie and EA Walton shared a house and worked together.
Whilst a close friend, Whitelaw Hamilton’s own work is not considered as being representative of the School , possibly due to its perceived lack of imagination and originality and he is therefore viewed as an ‘associate of’ or a ‘fringe member’ of the Boys.
Much of Guthrie’s early work was done in Helensburgh, using friends and local scenes as source material. His famous ’Midsummer’ was painted in the garden of Thornton Lodge, the models being Whitelaw Hamilton’s sisters, Margaret (the artist Maggie) and Mary Ann and one of EA Walton’s sisters. E A Walton, who spent his winters at Thornton Lodge, and James Guthrie were to remain friends with Whitelaw Hamilton throughout their lives, they shared similar ideals, and spent many years in Helensburgh recording the urban lifestyle of the wealthy residents in the town.
James Whitelaw Hamilton married Lillian Millar Shaw of 12 Lynedoch Place, Glasgow at St Mary’s Episcopal Church on 9th September 1891. He moved out of the family home and he and Lillian took residence in the Grange, 23 Suffolk Street, Helensburgh, the home that he was to remain in for the rest of his life.
For much of Whitelaw Hamilton’s life, it appeared that his work was appreciated more abroad than in his own country, and he exhibited abroad as often as he did at home. This was highlighted when he became a member of the Munich Secession and winning a gold medal at the Munich International Exhibition in 1897. He became a member of the New English Art Club in 1887, a member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1922 and a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours in 1895. He also held the position of Hon. Secretary, Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts.
Whitelaw Hamilton was certainly well known and played an active role within the Helensburgh community. His sister Maggie had married Architect and artist Alexander Nisbet Patterson in 1897, and he counted the artist Viola Patterson amongst his grandchildren. Another grandchild, Ian Purvis Hamilton, son of daughter Hilda, was to win the military cross with the Ghurkas in the Second World War and was a leading light in the campaign to allow the Ghurkas to settle in the UK after active service.
Whitelaw Hamilton suffered personal loss in 1918, when his son Lt. Arthur Leslie Hamilton was killed in action in Mesopotania on the 25th October, serving with the 1st Highland Light Infantry. A portrait of his son was completed by Guthrie in 1916 and is held within the collection of the Glasgow Art Gallery.
During the later stages of his life, Whitelaw Hamilton became a town councillor in Helensburgh and used his artistic connection to great effect. He encouraged his brother in Law, AN Paterson, to enter the competition to design the Town’s war memorial in Hermitage Park, which he did, eventually winning. He managed to secure the services of his old friend James Guthrie to paint both a portrait of the Town’s Clerk George Maclachlan, who had served for the 60 years and also to design a memorial stone for the wife of Andrew Bonar Law.
James Whitelaw Hamilton died in Helensburgh on the 16th September 1932 aged 71.
His work is represented in the Glasgow Art Gallery, Perth Art Gallery, City of Edinburgh Collection, Lillie Art Gallery and Weimar Art Gallery in Germany. The local Helensburgh Anderson Trust collection contains a couple of Whitelaw Hamilton’s paintings, including the 1886 watercolour ‘ Ebb tide’. A depiction of the Helensburgh sea front , the painting shows the building behind the hansom cab and horse, which now houses ‘The Cats Pyjamas’.