Hermione Hammond

Versatile painter and portraitist
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The Independent Online

Hermione Hammond was a versatile artist who invaluably recorded Second World War bomb-damaged London. After her own war service, she seized the opportunity to capture aspects of the city never before visible and soon to be hidden by rebuilding. Her pictures of the city and its churches made an exhibition at All Hallows, London Wall, and continued to be sought after for many years. As well as being a landscape artist she painted portraits of many distinguished sitters.

Still active in her mid-nineties, Hammond was one of the few surviving painters in Chelsea's old artistic quarter, based at 2 Hans Studio, Glebe Place. The architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh had worked there from from 1915 to 1923.

Hermione Hammond was born in Hexham, Northumberland, on 11 August 1910. Her father remarked that if she had been born a day later she could have been christened Grouse. Captain Leslie Hammond was a professional sailor who had taken part in an expedition to the South Pole, on the voyage out meeting the writer R.L. Stevenson, on return viewing his grave in Samoa. He met his future wife, a Canadian, Edith White, on the West Indies station in Bermuda.

Naval rules dictated that when Hermione was born he had to take a shore job - sea-going officers had to take half-pay if they did not have a ship; it was peacetime, and he did not - and he was assigned to the Admiralty, eventually managing the Navy's munitions factory in Dorset. It blew up in 1936, he had a stroke and was thereafter an invalid. Hermione said that her birth had blighted his career.

She suffered the family complaint, a delicate stomach, being frequently sick as a child. It would prompt her Irish nanny to remark, "Oh, shucks!" The children could not say "shucks", but "tooks", and for the rest of her life Hermione was known to intimates as Tooker. She had one brother and one sister. Rolt was a civil engineer who became a freelance journalist and wrote 26 books, notably engineering textbooks; Rosemary wrote music and assisted the composer Peter Maxwell Davies when he taught at Cirencester Grammar School. Hermione attended Francis Holland School in London, her mother insisting that while she might not learn a lot there she would make excellent and interesting friends. She did, among them the actress Joyce Grenfell.

Encouraged by her mother, herself no mean artist (she had exhibited in Quebec), she studied art at Chelsea Polytechnic under Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, then at the Royal Academy Schools, under Walter Russell and Tom Monnington. She learned mural decoration at the Royal College of Art and attended night classes in etching. Hammond remembered Moore leaning over her shoulder to examine work on her easel and saying: "Just keep going on as you are."

She kept herself by winning prizes and doing odd jobs. The altarpiece in the ecumenical chapel of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, was a student work and the altarpiece in Marlborough House School, Tenterden, was a commission carried out after the Second World War.

After winning the competition to decorate the ceiling of the new Senate House of London University in 1937 she gained a Rome Scholarship in 1938, but her studies there were cut short by the outbreak of war. With an added sense of urgency, she absorbed all she could of the Italian Renaissance in Rome, Florence, Arezzo and Ravenna. She met the future Pope Pius XII and later attended his coronation in St Peter's.

Hammond left Mussolini's Italy for England via Switzerland, having strapped money to her body underneath her ski pants. "She always had a sense of the dramatic," says her niece Jane Brown, who cites other aspects of the Hammonds' eccentricity:

Her sister Rosemary after the war when rationing had stopped, but she was still convinced there was unofficial rationing, bought a jar of jam then returned disguised with a wig and glasses and other things and bought another.

Because the prime minister Neville Chamberlain's daughter Dorothy was Hammond's best friend, during the critical period before the war she several times visited Chequers. "I am very worried, Hitler is a very dangerous man," Hermione remembered him telling her one day during a walk. She was behind a curtain at 10 Downing Street in September 1939 when Chamberlain made his famous broadcast that Britain was at war with Germany.

A painter again after the war, in 1949 Hammond took the Glebe Place studio that she would occupy for the rest of her life. When she arrived, most of the 40 studios were occupied by artists. The painters Pietro Annigoni, Edward le Bas, Alfred Egerton Cooper and Nina Hamnett, the sculptors Derwent Wood and David McFall and writer Vita Sackville-West had lived and worked there at various times. By the early 1990s Hammond was only one of two or three painters left, high rents having driven away the rest. This spurred her to work hard. On one occasion, paintings of Eton and Windsor led to a show in Eton which paid the year's rent. She was proud to have "lived by my brush, without having to sink to teaching as yet", she told me when in her late eighties.

She was a busy exhibitor, showing in mixed company at the Royal Academy, New English Art Club, Royal Society of Portrait Painters, in the provinces and abroad. Her ink drawing Park Bench was included in Edward le Bas' superb exhibition "A Painter's Collection" at the Royal Academy in 1963. It was typical of the little features that distinguished her landscapes and interiors: a pavilion on a pier, a summer house in an Oxford college garden, a staircase, a drawing room, with often human figures to bring vigour and vitality to a scene. Mullahs in Iran set off the mosques, peasants in Cyprus enliven the olive groves, the posture of the figures suggesting a whole attitude of mind and personality. A trip to the Taj Mahal, in India, was financed by the sale of William III candlesticks owned by her parents.

One of Hammond's most enterprising commissions was to decorate, in collage, the Director's rooms of the Institute of Historical Research at London University. Of its then Director, Professor Francis Wormald, she painted a touchingly sympathetic portrait for the Society of Antiquaries. Other portrait commissions included Sir John Peel for the Assembly of the Western European Union in Paris, Dr Kate Bertram for Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and a number of studies of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré before her first concert.

Her works were acquired by institutions including Guildhall in the City of London; Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge; the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow; the Fondation Custodia (Lugt Collection), in Paris; the Museum of London; and Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

Hammond's solo exhibition venues included Colnaghi's, the Bishopsgate Institute, Arthur Jeffress Gallery, New Grafton Gallery, the University of Madison, Wisconsin, Hartnoll & Eyre and Michael Parkin. Latterly, she abandoned galleries for her successful studio June "cash-and-carries", from which those invited could pay for and take a picture or leave a red spot and collect later. "People look on these as a social event," she would say. "I don't want to be a social event."

Hermione Hammond remained a forceful personality to the end, strong on etiquette and social behaviour. "She could say outrageous things," says Jane Brown, "but people, including the young, still adored her."

David Buckman

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