Hamilton, Richard (b. 1922)

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British painter, designer, and graphic artist.

Richard Hamilton studied at the Royal Academy Schools from 1938 until 1940, when the Second World War cut short his course. During the war he trained as a jig and tool draftsman, which gave him skills in precision drawing. He returned to the Royal Academy Schools but was expelled in 1946 and entered the Slade School of Art in 1948. He stayed there until 1951, his peers including William Turnbull, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Nigel Henderson. Hamilton and these men, together with the critics Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham, were the core members of the Independent Group, which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) between 1952 and 1955. This group shared strong enthusiasm for popular culture and a desire to widen the sources of contemporary art.

Hamilton taught design at the Central School of Art from 1952 to 1953 and from 1953 to 1966 at King's College, Durham University, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His gifts as an imaginative designer are evident in the exhibitions he designed and largely curated throughout the 1950s. The first, On Growth and Form, at the ICA in 1951, was based on D'Arcy Thompson's eponymous book. It was followed in 1955 by Man, Machine, and Motion at Newcastle, where Hamilton displayed photographs showing man's ambitious use of machines to extend the capacities of his body. Environmental exhibitions of mazelike spaces, devised with his colleague Victor Pasmore, followed in 1957 and 1959, and in the latter year they also mounted The Developing Process to explain their new teaching, based partly on Bauhaus methods.

The most famous of these exhibitions was This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 1956. Though Hamilton did not originate this exhibition, in which teams of artists and architects worked together to create environments that were themselves works of art, he devised a section with John Voelcker and John McHale. Their section, a "fun house," had two themes—"imagery" and "perception." "Perception" involved optical illusions, such as Marcel Duchamp's Rotoreliefs. "Imagery" included material from popular culture, such as a blowup of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Popular culture was the basis of a collage Hamilton made for the poster to his section. Entitled "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" it was assembled from iconic images drawn from advertisements and popular magazines. This collage has been taken, with Paolozzi's collages of around 1950, which used similar imagery but in a less programmed manner, as the start of Pop Art in England.

Hamilton's earlier work is very different. His illustrations to James Joyce's Ulysses, begun in 1947, recall Pablo Picasso's neoclassical drawings of around 1919. Abstract paintings of around 1950 have systematically expanding linear compositions suggested by D'Arcy Thompson's explanations of natural growth. A series of figurative paintings of 1954–1955 recall Paul Cézanne, seen through the lenses of Eadweard Muybridge or Éttiene-Jules Marey. The suggestion of movement is important and was to remain so, although Hamilton's techniques were to change radically. Influences came from James Gibson's The Perception of the Visual World, Sigfried Giedion's Mechanization TakesCommand, Amedée Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art, and, most importantly, Duchamp. In 1960 Hamilton produced a typographic version of Duchamp's Green Box, and in 1966 he curated a major Duchamp exhibition at the Tate Gallery. For this exhibition he painstakingly made a replica of Duchamp's Large Glass.

Duchamp's aim "to put thought back into art" and especially his invention of the "ready-made" were crucial for Hamilton. But where Duchamp chose his ready-mades with "aesthetic indifference," Hamilton was attracted by highly designed objects of two very different kinds. On the one hand, he admired the austere post-Bauhaus products of the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm; on the other, he delighted in the glamorous advertising of rapidly obsolescent American consumer goods. In the early twenty-first century it is difficult not to see irony in his use of both these sources, but his enthusiasm was an antidote in the drab postwar years. Hamilton visited Ulm in 1958 and in 1963 made his first trip to the United States, where he was befriended by Duchamp. By then, Hamilton had made his first pop paintings, such as Hommage à Chrysler Corp (1957) and $he (1958–1961). His harnessing of the sexual glamour of advertisements predates that by the pop artists at the Royal College and by American artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Hamilton himself has said that he has been engaged on "a search for what is epic in everyday objects and everyday attitudes" (1982, p. 37).

He has used photography extensively, translating images into his works with startling ingenuity. He will use photographic silkscreen, negative reversals, and soft and sharp focus, drawing his images from very diverse sources. He explores new techniques of reproduction as they become available. He has designed a hi-fi set and a computer for industrial production. In these ways he has broken down the division between design and fine art. Yet he thinks of himself primarily as a painter, and his genres are traditional—interiors, still life, figures, landscapes.

In much of his art there is a strong narrative content and, as Hamilton is left-wing, there is often sharp social comment. Examples are Swingeing London '67, based on a newspaper photograph of the handcuffed Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser after a drug raid, or the savagely satirical Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964). And since about 1973, Hamilton's view has darkened. The Citizen (1982–1983) and The Subject (1988–1990) use reportage photographs to present sectarian figures in the civil war in Northern Ireland. Treatment Room (1983–1984) and Lobby (1985–1987) convey the bleak alienation of modern corporate interiors. War Games (1991–1992), referring to the war in Kuwait, shows how war, as a news item, has become a spectator sport.

Hamilton had exhibitions at the Hanover Gallery in 1955 and 1964 and major retrospectives at the Tate Gallery in 1970 and 1992. An anthology of his writings was published in 1982.

See alsoPop Art; Popular Culture.


Hamilton, Richard. Richard Hamilton. Introduction by Richard Morphet. London, 1970. Catalog of an exhi bition at the Tate Gallery, London, 12 March–19 April 1970.

——. Collected Words. London, 1982.

——. Richard Hamilton. London, 1992. Catalog of an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, 17 June–6 September 1992. Essays by Richard Morphet, David Mellor, Sarat Maharaj, and Stephen Snoddy.

Alastair Grieve

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