“Recollections of a Portrait Painter, A Brother of the Brush”-Part Three
by Ann Neilson
The story of Hamilton’s life was now told. He was the son of a country artist, a struggling man, who had never risen to any eminence in his profession, but who had managed to “make a living,” as the phrase goes, for himself and his family by portraying the effigies of the boors who surrounded him, occasionally copying a picture for the squire, and, when other work was scarce, touching up and remodeling the sign-posts for a dozen miles round. To his son he bequeathed little, except a talent for painting, some degrees superior to his own, but still not of the kind that is likely to bring its possessor much fame or profit. He married early, and somewhat imprudently, but his wife died a few years after their union, leaving him one only child, a son. This son was, indeed, a genius. The light which, in descending, had passed by his ancestors, leaving them but a faint reflection of its glories, seemed to settle in full and perfect lustre on the head of George Hamilton. Even in early childhood its emanations were apparent in the bold and beautiful sketches that were the produce of his untaught pencil. In like manner was the love and pride of his father’s heart concentrated on him. Once he had felt some faint aspiration for fame on his own account, but this was all merged in an absorbing thirst for the glory of his son. Poor as he was, he resolved to submit to every possible sacrifice that might promote the cultivation of his child’s talent, and converting his little property into money, he departed for Italy, resolved, by privation, and toil, and self-devotion, to procure for the youth those advantages which a residence on the continent alone affords. One trait of this mighty love and unselfish ambition must be told. He actually bound himself to grind colours, and perform the [?] [?] offices for a celebrated [?] in Rome, in return for lessons bestowed upon his gifted son. He who so loved his art himself—he who had once even hoped to attain some excellence in it, gave up all, and became a very servant for the sake of that son of his heart.
Years rolled on, and found the father contentedly labouring in the very drudgeries of his profession, and the son still promising to excel in its highest walks. He designed and executed several small pictures, which were advantageously disposed of, and the father began to see the reward of his self-denying love in the dawning excellence of his son. But George Hamilton, unfortunately, was not of a temperament to persevere patiently in a course of steady, pains-taking improvement. He had submitted to the trammels of a tutor so long, because mighty and glorious creations were swelling in his soul, which he lacked the power of pouring forth on canvass. No sooner did he attain this power to a moderate degree, than, with the self-confidence which is so often the attendant upon high talent, he imagined he had no more to learn, and that genius, rich and vivid as his own, could need no farther training. At nineteen he married an orphan Italian girl, without any dower but her beauty and her virtues; and dearly as father and son both loved her, she could not but be a serious burden on finances so slender as theirs. Another year saw a farther addition to their cares, in the shape of a little girl, who was named “Madeline,” after her mother. Young Hamilton continued to paint, but, alas! not to improve. The few English at Rome, who had purchased his pictures at first as an encouragement to rising genius, either left the city, or were attracted to the studio of some newer artist. He was naturally of a roving and restless disposition, and he now imagined that if he were in England, the land of his birth, he should more than realize his dreams of fame and fortune.— He left his family in Italy, and came to England, where, before he had time to make trail of his success, a violent fever hurried him to the grave.
For weeks his relatives remained in ignorance of his death. They learned it at last through the medium of an English paper, which found its way into Mr. Hamilton’s hands. His daughter-in-law was near her confinement, and the shock of the tidings proved too much for her. She gave birth to a still-born child, and expired in a few hours afterwards.
Poor Hamilton was now utterly desolate. The loss of his son had crushed his pride and hope forever, but the death of his beloved daughter was almost a more distressing stroke. He was left a stranger in a strange land, without resources, and with an infant grand-daughter dependent on him for support. He gathered together his few remaining effects, and was on the eve of leaving Italy, determining to make his way, if possible, to England, and, consigning his little charge to the care of some public charity, lay down his lonely head and die. But circumstances occurred which changed his plans.
On the very day before that on which he intended to leave his residence, the carriage of the Marchesa di V— broke down before his door. Its fair inmate sought refuge beneath his roof—was charmed with the beauty of his grandchild—drew from him the outline of his story—and, with the quick decision of a rich, young, and self-willed woman, determined on taking his future fortunes into her own keeping. On the day which was to have witnessed the beginning of their pilgrimage to England, Hamilton and his Madeline were rolling in the carriage of the Marchesa towards her splendid villa near Florence.
And for ten years Madeline’s life was like a dream of fairy land. The Marchesa was married to a man of calm, almost stern manners, who, whilst he allowed his lovely wife to do pretty much as she pleased, never troubled himself to make any very extraordinary manifestations of attachment to her. She was, moreover, childless, and she made this title orphan the recipient of the overflowings of her warm and passionate nature, her liberal gifts, her pent-up affections. Strange that one so affectionate should have been scarcely amiable! She loved Madeline because she was beautiful, and returned her love; and, moreover, early showed herself the possessor of a brilliancy and diversity of talent most remarkable in a child.—Of Hamilton she soon got tired. He had not depth enough or genius enough to interest her long; she had taken him as a pendant to her “little cherub,” as she called Madeline, and soon began to account him an incumbrance. Not like a happy dream did his ten years pass away, but in the endurance of slights and neglect that amounted to insult. In Madeline’s presence, indeed, open unkindness was forborne, and to her he never complained—with her he tried to seem cheerful and happy, and for her dear sake he bore all that was to be borne, for she was the last tie of earth around his heart, and he felt he could not voluntarily leave her.