Patrick Hamilton: Itinerant writer and painter

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The Independent Online

Asked to leave theological college in the late 1940s after a sudden extinction of his faith, Patrick Hamilton soon came to make a habit of losing his job. He was sacked first by BP, then by the publishers Longmans, and finally, at the pinnacle of his salaried career, in 1969, he achieved dismissal by Robert Maxwell. But he discovered creativity and, aged 46, found his path in life, as a writer and painter.

He was the youngest of five children of parents whose unshakeable social and religious preconceptions shrank their horizons: Patrick's father was a lay preacher and farmer who specialised in diseases of chickens, his mother the daughter of a Leicestershire parson. With distant landed roots in Protestant Ireland on his father's side, and the Trevelyan dynasty on his mother's, a future in the church for Patrick had been anticipated.

Briefly at Wellington, he progressed to Pangbourne Naval College, from where, in 1940, he joined a minesweeper in the Shetlands, and transferred first to HMS Dido and then to HMS Lively on the Malta convoys as a midshipman. On Lively he took part in the second Battle of Sirte, and in another engagement was sunk twice in one day, 11 May 1942. On the upturned hull of Lively, the captain asked him: "How do you like life in the navy, m'boy?" Picked up by HMS Kipling, he woke aboard HMS Jervis, after Kipling was sunk.

Directly after the war Hamilton married a second cousin, and went up to the theological college Westcott House and Caius College, Cambridge. Being compelled by university rules to live in college apart from his young wife and, by 1948, two sons, Simon and James, Patrick Hamilton found himself making for London and trawling the streets around Leicester Square. The marriage ended, and with it his embryonic career as a priest.

After a succession of dull jobs in journalism in London, Hamilton drifted into preparatory school teaching. He married a second time, had a third son, Christopher, and to his great surprise talked his way to a £1,000-a-year salary in the Markets Department of BP. This took him to Ghana and Nigeria in the early 1960s, but while he made a success with the tribal chiefs who assisted BP in finding sites for petrol stations, he had no idea about profit margins. When some nuns came down from a bush hospital to pay for fuel oil with small change, he was caught telling them to put the money away and take the stuff.

BP exiled him to Aden to manage public relations at the oil refinery, "a job known to all except me as the end of the line. A year later I was let go." Marketing manager at Longmans followed, another world he knew nothing of, and in due course Hamilton was asked to leave after being busted for possessing cannabis (fine £75).

He was taken on by Robert Maxwell as overseas sales manager, but in due course Maxwell sacked him when he failed to remember the Pergamon Press sales figures for South-east Asia. He then worked briefly as a labourer, helping to build a cooling tower at Didcot power station.

The Maxwell sacking proved to be Hamilton's launch-pad. He had been attracted for years to painting and writing, despite having had no formal training in either. He had written poetry and plays in Lagos, and his play David and Bathsheba was broadcast on Radio Nigeria. Now he developed his talent for painting by travelling round Oxfordshire knocking on the doors of good-looking country houses and eliciting commissions to paint them.

His second marriage had long collapsed, but a third followed, which brought with it the birth of his fourth son, Ben. This marriage too foundered, in a bout of communal living and a hippie phase complete with rock stars and chicks. Soon Hamilton found himself alone in Valetta with £50 in his pocket.

There he discovered the writer Ernle Bradford with whose help Hamilton's book Drawings of Malta was published (1971). When his six-month residency permit ran out he moved to Taormina in Sicily, and through a chance encounter on Mount Etna with a young American woman whose name he never knew, he was encouraged to go to Florence. For the next 18 years, Florence was to be his home.

Hamilton's attic studio, used before the war by Pietro Annigoni, looked out over Piazza di Santa Croce. His door was always open to passing artists and friends. This was most expressly a "room with a view", and it was only appropriate that Hamilton should appear briefly as an extra in the 1985 Merchant Ivory film of E.M. Forster's novel.

There, with the loving support of Claire Burnand, he brought up his youngest son. He drew Florence and its people, and taught classes in drawing from the life model. One airport novel set in 1970s Florence begins with a tall English artist opening his studio door and saying "Come in my dear. Take off your clothes." Hamilton's teaching principle was to encourage a feeling and expression of love between artist and subject. "Look at that shoulder," he said. "It is looking back at you. Love it." Many young art and language students, among them the painters Mario Dubsky and Nick Archer, came through the studio, and it was there that Hamilton met his fourth wife, Caroline.

With Florence as his base, Hamilton travelled to Greece, the Middle East, India, Jamaica, Venezuela, California and elsewhere. He generally travelled light, but came home laden with paintings and drawings, and enough money from sales to keep going for a few more months. He banked, as he put it, with the "Celestial Bank"; and made his own luck. The hundreds of life and landscape drawings and watercolours, many exhibited in London at the Brian Koetser and King Street galleries, attest to an energetic career passionately spent seeking out new experiences.

Hamilton was an imposing figure. At 6ft 5in tall, with a full beard, thick, generous hair and a warm welcoming hug, he made friends easily, and enemies with very great difficulty, if at all. Thoughtful and reflective, he sought spirituality after a life of frugality of excess. In the words of the painter Dubuffet he found a description of his own life as it had been lived, and as he would wish to continue it: "Unless you say goodbye to the things you love and unless you travel to completely unknown destinations you can merely expect a slow wearing-away of yourself and an eventual extinction."

These words may have provided self-justification for a natural wanderer, they also gave him the assurance he needed to leave Florence in 1987 and drive the foundation of the Florence Trust in St Saviour's Church, Highbury in London. Patrick with Caroline's support secured the building, raised the money and orchestrated the groundswell to create in the handsome but redundant brick church a group of studios for artists who like himself seek new destinations.

Even in his old age, Hamilton's wanderlust never left him. In the 1990s he went back to Lagos, and, on a merchant ship, to the Baltic ports. In 2006, aged 82, he travelled to China for a month to make a series of watercolours for a patron and friend. He continued to write, leaving 200 pages of autobiography, a long diary of his travels as a painter in Greece and Italy, and an unpublished manual for artists who, like Patrick Hamilton, would let their eyes "watch with astonishment what the tip of the brush is doing".

James Hamilton

Patrick Norman Hamilton, painter, writer and teacher: born Edenbridge, Kent 28 October 1923; married first 1945 Diana Dixon (two sons; marriage dissolved), secondly 1952 Jean Kirk (née Lavender; one son; marriage dissolved), thirdly Helen Allom (née Ford; one son; marriage dissolved), fourthly 1988 Caroline Garnham (née Kirwan-Taylor); died Salisbury 8 January 2008.