(British-Irish, born 1956)
Ken Hamilton was born of Irish missionary parents in 1956 in the mining town of Jos, Nigeria. He received his early education at boarding school until the age of eleven, when his parents decided to transport the family back to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Belfast in the 1960s was a city balancing between a gritty industrial past and an uncertain political future. From its shipyards at Harland & Wolff, the great ocean liner Titanic had been launched. It was also a city on the brink of serious social unrest. Against this backdrop, the young Ken Hamilton completed his secondary education, and in 1975 enrolled at the College of Art and Design, Belfast.
As sometimes falls to a student of singular vision, the academic milieu of the college seemed not to provide direction for the pursuit of goals that mattered to him. The techniques of the great masters that he hoped to learn were not appreciated, and so the young Hamilton decided to change course. In 1977 he moved to the British mainland, and started studying horticulture and landscape design at Merrist Wood College in Surrey. For the next several years, he worked as a landscape designer, a profession that supported his love of nature, harmony and design. Having found the means to earn a living, his mind began to revisit his original plan to become an artist. Putting behind him his earlier disappointment, in 1990 he took up painting again. His natural curiosity for his subject led him to search in old art books for the key to unlock the mysteries of the old masters. Twelve years later, in 2002, he travelled to Paris to teach himself by first-hand examination the methods of the great European painters. Setting his easel in the grand halls of the Louvre, he painted the works of the French and Spanish masters, Ingres, Le Valentin and Ribera. The exercise proved to be a watershed experience in his vocation as an artist. Direct observation of the techniques of these painters strengthened his foundation, and gave him the confidence he needed to follow his dream to create his own modern masterpieces. Ken Hamilton, the artist, would never again look back.
In the art of Ken Hamilton, the principles of the great masters are carefully applied in the making of his portraits. His paintings are built from the ground up through a series of glazes, each thinly laid down, one upon another. Glazes may be best understood as layers of paint that are transparent, but which are tinted by small amounts of pigment. They are made by mixing together a drying oil, a diluting solvent and a varnish. In the case of Hamilton, the early stages of a painting are executed with a fast drying paint to model the form and set the overall tonal relationships. Each subsequent glaze dries more slowly and contains less pigment. After each layer has dried, the artist uses a fine abrasive to create a bonding surface for the next layer. Each glaze is formed differently and in the case of Hamilton, their properties have been arrived at over the course of many years of research and experiment.
One might fairly inquire as to the reason for this method of painting. The answer lies in the realization that the use of glazes allows for the creation of what are known as ‘optical’ colors. These ‘optical’ colors are what we experience in a painting as the gray of shadow or the flesh tone of skin. They cannot be represented by any color, but can be created optically through the layering of glazes. When used successfully, glazes can achieve a luminous glow. The study of the effects of layering is one of the principal occupations of the artist Ken Hamilton.
The use of Cremnitz white — paint also used to good effect by the artist Lucien Freud — is favored by Ken Hamilton, due in part to a lessening of the paint’s opacity over time. It is an intriguing prospect to think that a slow-release transparency in the glazes will gradually reveal more of what the artist intended, and that one may be looking at a more, fully realized depiction of his vision at some future date.
Ken Hamilton’s paintings are an exercise in high aesthetics. It is hard to explain the life force with which they are imbued merely by pointing to the skillful application of paint onto board. In the physicality of the paintings, one feels surrounded by objects of rare beauty, but something above and beyond that, some higher alchemy seems to inhabit them. They are masterful expressions of the artist’s aesthetic sense, as though he brings to the faces of his models an element of imagination that is not earth bound, but inspired by a higher power. His women seem not to be fixed in any one period. Rather it is as if they are time travelers, who, through the medium of the artist’s palette, live simultaneously in the present, the past and the future. It is this transcendence of time in the portraits that represents a signature achievement of the artist.
The present collection of twelve oil paintings was painted during the years 2011 to 2012. Some of the paintings deal with the human emotions of hope and desire as depicted in ‘Esperance’ and ‘Longing for the Islands.’ Others are inspired by biblical characters, as in the case of the Jewish ‘Esther in Waiting,’ or by characters who played a role in literary history such as ‘Laura,’ unattainable muse of fourteenth century, Italian poet Francesco Petrarch. Depictions of other characters like the Italian Caravaggist painter, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), one of the first women to gain entry into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing, Florence are also present in the collection. A few of the portraits such as ‘La Espanolita’ or ‘She Speaketh Not’ touch on the idea of impermanence, a recurring theme in the work of the artist, the notion that physical beauty or innocence is fleeting, and that we must honor and pay homage to it, or run the risk of watching it disappear before our eyes forever.
Ken Hamilton works in the tradition of artists, who from earliest times, have made it their life’s ambition to create works of enduring beauty, masterpieces that reach out and challenge us at the deepest level of human experience. Such artists are not motivated by extraneous factors like public acceptance. Rather it is their inner voice to which they listen, and which gives them direction. Ken Hamilton’s women seem almost perfect to us, not in a self-satisfied way, but by virtue of the human qualities that animate them. They are not about physical beauty alone, although they possess it in abundance. No, the allure they possess comes from the emotional life we find in them, from a claritas, an inner light that radiates outward, and which, at a certain level, may be thought of as a reflection of the divine spirit in us all.
Philadelphia, April 2012