Lot 80: Nathaniel Hill RHA (1860-1930)ConvalescentOil on canvas, 103 x 79cmSigned with initialsExhibited: Taylor Scholarship, Royal Dublin Society, 1883, entitled 'Convalescence'; Royal Hibernian Society, 1884, Catalogue No. 258, entitled 'Convalescent'
December 7, 2016
Dublin 2, Dublin, IrelandLive Auction
Description: Nathaniel Hill RHA (1860-1930)ConvalescentOil on canvas, 103 x 79cmSigned with initialsExhibited: Taylor Scholarship, Royal Dublin Society, 1883, entitled 'Convalescence'; Royal Hibernian Society, 1884, Catalogue No. 258, entitled 'Convalescent'Literature: J. Campbell, 'Hill, Nathaniel', in Painting, 1600-1900, ed. by N. Figgis, RIA/Yale, 2014, p.301.Provenance: Taylor Scholarship, RDS, 1883; McComas () family, Rock Road, Blackrock, Co. Dublin; probably purchased c.1917 by father of Ita Hackett, by descent to Ita Hackett, Donnybrook, Co. Dublin.Nathaniel Hill was one of a circle of highly talented young artists associated with Walter Osborne in the 1880s. They studied together in Dublin and Antwerp, painted open-air subjects in Brittany and England, and then helped to introduce a new continental-inspired naturalism into Irish art. Hill also painted genre scenes, children and portraits. During his student years he won many prizes and he exhibited his work regularly. Yet he was a slow, painstaking worker. Only a few of his pictures are in public collections, the majority remaining in private collections.Nathaniel Hill was born into a Quaker family in Drogheda, Co. Louth in 1861. His father, Richard, had set up the oatmeal milling company R.R. Hill & Sons, Drogheda. Hill went to Dublin in 1877, studying in the Metropolitan School of Art, then the Royal Hibernian Academy Schools, exhibiting at the RHA for the first time in 1880. In autumn 1881, together with his contemporaries Osborne, Joseph M. Kavanagh and John J. Greene, Hill went to Antwerp to study in the Academie Royale, a pupil of Realist painter Charles Verlat. In 1883, he was awarded second prize in Painting from Life. Hill was also awarded Taylor Scholarships in Dublin on three occasions, and continued exhibiting at the RHA.Hill also painted in villages in Brittany and England, sometimes in the company of Osborne. He painted two versions of 'Breton Peasants Waiting at a Convent Door' (1884), the second of which was sold at Adam's in 2010. He sometimes depicted the same motifs as Osborne, for example 'Goose Girl in a Breton Farmyard' (1884) (formerly AIB collection, now Crawford Gallery, Cork). Osborne painted a small study of Hill painting at Walberswick, Suffolk and Hill drew a portrait of Osborne in charcoal (National Gallery of Ireland).Back in Ireland, Hill was based at his family home, Queensboro, Drogheda. He continued to exhibit at the RHA, being elected an associate in 1892 and a full member of the RHA in 1894. He also showed at the Dublin Art Club. He painted sympathetic portraits of children, and some official portraits of local dignitaries. In his plein-air scenes, his early careful style gave way to a looser, more Impressionist manner. After 1895 he ceased to exhibit regularly. His later years were spent at Bettws-y Coed in Wales.The present picture 'Convalescence' is one of Hill's largest canvases and dates from the early 1880s. It shows a young girl sitting in a chair and an elderly woman seated beside her. The girl has a pale, beautiful face and shining hair. She wears a red and brown striped shawl with tasselled edges over a red blouse. Her head rests against a large pillow and a cream-coloured blanket covers her knees. The woman has a weary face, with eyes cast down. She wears a black scarf over shining silver hair and an orange and silver silk scarf over dark dress or cardigan. Her large work-worn hands are crossed over her knees and her blue apron falls almost to the floor.Although the two figures are seated closely together, they are each lost in their own thoughts, the child's eyes looking out of the picture, her companion's eyes cast down, perhaps reflecting upon her life. Hill observes his subjects with sympathy, contrasting the lined, weary beauty of the woman, with her worn, heavy hands, with the pure beauty of the child, with smooth skin, glowing eyes and youthful hands.Faces, hands and clothing are scrupulously clean so there is no sense of poverty in the interior. The picture is set in quite a shallow space, figures and clothing carefully modelled, light from the right casting short shadows. The tonality of the painting is quite subdued, yet Hill employs a palette of rich, burnished colours. Equally, he contrasts smooth and rough textures. There are shades of brown and blues, terracotta reds, shining orange and silver, blue-grey, white and cream. The colours in the child's clothing are echoed in the red and dark blue floor tiles. Hill also observes other details such as the sheets of print, the images blurred, upon the girl's lap, the gleaming white and pink cups on the shelf behind and flowers or leaves on the ground, perhaps hinting at the fragility of life.The sense of intimacy and familiarity of 'Convalescence', the cream barún, Foxford-style blanket with stripes and the masonry tiles may suggest that the picture was painted at Hill's family home in Drogheda: the child a younger sister, perhaps, and the elderly woman a loyal member of the household. She is portrayed again in a smaller picture by Hill, with silvery hair and eyes closed, seated at a table. Yet the floor tiles in 'Convalescence' resemble those in some Flemish interiors and the womans headware and scarf, the large square pillow and the blanket are all characteristic of Belgium or The Netherlands . The canvas was painted during the artist's second year at Antwerp. Indeed, it could be a major picture executed in the Life class there.The themes of the sick child and of convalescence were popular in the history of art. They had been represented by Dutch artists in the 17th century, notably Gabriel Metsu, and especially in the latter part of the 19th century, by painters and writers when societies were haunted by the prevalence of childhood illness. These themes were treated by painters as diverse as Millais, Bouguereau, Tissot, Carriere, Ensor and Munch and indeed by Irish artists such as H.J. Thaddeus, R. Moynan, Mary E. Martin and John Lavery, as well as Hill.According to Christopher Wood, most Victorian attempts at the subject of convalescence 'involve mothers anxiously watching over sick children, or moist-eyed maidens offering up prayers.' But artists from the Low Countries, Scandinavia and Switzerland treated the subject in a much more realistic way in the early 1880s, as did Hill. Most notable were 'Sick Girl' (1881) by Christian Krohg (National Gallery, Oslo), a meticulous photographic painting of a girl in a chair, and the more expressive 'Sick Child' (1885-86) by Edvard Munch (National Gallery, Oslo).However, Hill's painting is not overly melancholy; although the theme is of convalescence it provides him with the opportunity to represent a double portrait of childhood and old age in a realistic and affectionate manner. Hill was a modest artist, signing his pictures with a small signature, a monogram, or not at all. In 'Convalescence' a tiny monogram 'NH' is just visible in the lower left area of the picture. The picture was awarded a Taylor Scholarship at the RDS in 1883, and is probably the same picture, entitled 'Convalescent', exhibited at the RHA in 1884. The painting may not have been exhibited in public since that date and has remained in private collections in Dublin.Dr. Julian CampbellNovember 2016