This picture, which was painted in Rome circa 1789, is one of Hugh Douglas Hamilton's masterpieces and among the most tender and compelling portraits by any Irish Artist in the Eighteenth Century.
Hugh Douglas Hamilton, who was born in Dublin and studied at the Dublin Schools of Art, had already established a considerable reputation for himself as a portrait pastellist when he went to Italy with his wife and daughter in 1782. He was to remain in Italy until 1792, principally in Rome, although he spent two years in Florence, and travelled to Venice, Naples and Sicily. He became an influential member of the community of British and Irish artists, developed close friendships with the celebrated sculptors Canova and Flaxman, and painted portraits of many of the most distinguished aristocratic Grand Tourists as well as some large subject pictures. In Italy Hamilton achieved his greatest brilliance as a pastellist, but increasingly turned to working in oil and this picture illustrates his mastery of the latter medium.
Mary, Countess of Erne (1753-1842), the eldest daughter of Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and 4th Earl of Bristol ('The Earl Bishop'), had married John Crichton, later 1st Earl of Erne, of Crom Castle, Fermanagh, in 1776. Her marriage proved to be a difficult one, and in 1778 her father, in a letter to his younger daughter Lady Elizabeth Foster, commented 'your poor sister is exhausted, worn out, and can do no more. He [Lord Erne] tries her to his atoms ... great God, how ill she is matched'. However, rather than seek a divorce she took to travelling with her only daughter, Lady Caroline Crichton. She left Crom Castle for an extended sojourn at her father's English estate, Ickworth, when her daughter was only one year old, and later spent a considerable amount of time at Downhill, which her father had built in his diocese. A few years later she set off together with her daughter, accompanying her father on his fourth visit to Italy, where she was to remain until 1790.
Lady Erne's father, the 'Earl Bishop', one of the most remarkable and eccentric men of his generation, was an inveterate traveller and a passionate art collector. As the third son of Lord John Hervey (1696-1743), eldest son of the 1st Earl of Bristol, he thought initially of a legal career, but decided to opt for the church. When his elder brother, the 2nd Earl of Bristol, was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766, he was appointed his chaplain, and his brother later secured for him the Bishoprics of Cloyne (1767) and Derry (1768). Frederick Hervey was able through clever management to increase the income from his Derry estates to £20,000 a year which allowed him to indulge his passion for travelling and collecting works of art and led him to ever more prolonged absences from Ireland. He eventually became so well known in Europe that the name of Bristol was given to hotels across the continent. His income as Bishop of Derry, which had already enabled him to build a vast mansion at Downhill on the North coast of Co. Londonderry and to embellish his new diocese with new churches was greatly increased when on the death of his elder brother in 1779 he inherited the Bristol titles and estates. The 'Earl-Bishop', as he was subsequently known, was to build two other great houses, Ballyscullion, in Co. Londonderry (begun in 1787) and Ickworth, in Suffolk (begun in 1795), with unusual central rotundas, which were largely conceived to display the magnificent collections he was assembling on his travels.
In all he spent some eighteen years in Italy in the course of five separate visits. Lady Erne accompanied her father on his fourth trip to Italy in 1785, together with her daughter, Lady Caroline, and her younger brother Frederick, later 5th Earl of Bristol. They were in Florence on January 1786 and on 8 February arrived in Rome where the 'Earl Bishop' was occupied more than ever with artistic patronage. The 'Earl Bishop' returned home to Ireland by February 1787, but Lady Erne and her daughter remained in Italy. They travelled northwards to Genoa, with her sister-in-law Lady Hervey, and on to Evians-les-Bains, where Ludwig Guttenbrun portrayed them in a delicate conversation piece taking tea with the Prince Carlo of Piedmont, the future King Carlo Emanuele of Sardinia and his wife princess Clothilde, sister of King Louis XVI of France, together with her sisters-in-law Lady Hervey, Lady Caroline Foster and her niece the Hon. Elizabeth Hervey (Fig. 1). Lady Erne and her daughter then returned to Rome for the winter of 1786 and they remained there for the next four years, making occasional visits to Naples, Florence and Bologna. By December 1789 the 'Earl Bishop' had returned to Rome, no doubt partly inspired by the fact that his house Ballyscullion was nearing completion. This portrait of his daughter and granddaughter is one of a few large oil portraits by Hugh Douglas Hamilton which the 'Earl Bishop' presumably commissioned while in Rome on this penultimate visit. The best known of these is the double portrait of the 'Earl Bishop' with his granddaughter Lady Caroline Crichton in the Gardens of Villa Borghese (Fig. 2; National Gallery of Ireland, no. 4350), but this picture is a no less tender statement of family affection. Lady Erne is shown, elegantly dressed, with a broad straw hat, beside her daughter in a wooded landscape reminiscent of the landscape in the portrait of her father (the trees are very similar), her daughter stands beside her with a loving gaze. A mandolin lies at Lady Erne's feet perhaps a reference to an interest in music, and her daughter shows her a drawing, indicating that she was probably receiving artistic instruction while in Rome. As Michael Wynne (op.cit.) commented 'these two large paintings must surely count among his finest achievements'. A smaller portrait of Lady Erne and her daughter of different composition was in the collection of Lady Saltoun. Hamilton was also commissioned to supply several pastels, including a full-length portrait of the Earl Bishop, with an extensive view of Rome beyond him (81.3 x 100.8 cm.; Ickworth, The National Trust; F. Cullen, op.cit) and a smaller oval pastel of the Countess of Erne (35.6 c 29.8 cm; Ickworth, The National Trust; F. Cullen, op. cit., fig. 76).
The Earl Bishop's choice of Hamilton to execute these family portraits was no doubt a conscious act of patronage. He gave portrait commissions when in Italy to Batoni, Maron and Vigee-Lebrun and his selection of Hamilton was perhaps inspired by a desire to emphasise and encourage the abilities of an Irishman and to elevate the status of the latter's painting to the exalted levels attained by his continental European contemporaries. Hamilton, who must have been well aware of the extensive range of his patron's interests and his ambitious scheme at Ballyscullion, to represent the European schools of painting with the Italian Schools represented from Giotto to Batoni and the Northern European Schools from van Eyck to Kaufmann, certainly rose to the challenge, creating what are among his most compelling and sensitive compositions in oil. Before he travelled to Rome in 1782, where he was to remain for nearly twenty years, Hamilton's talents had been almost entirely limited to drawing pastel portraits on a small scale, although his evident ability had met with a great degree of success. This portrait and the other which he undertook for the Earl Bishop show the extent of the transition that his art underwent while in Rome. Increasingly painting in oil, Hamilton began to work on a much more ambitious scale, and his pictures reveal a deep understanding of contemporary portrait painting in Rome by Italian and French artists.