James Hamilton Hay was born at 98 Bridge Street, Birkenhead, on 6 December 1874, the second of four children of Scots-born James Murdoch Hay, and his wife, Annie Wilhelmina Hamilton Lothian Hogg. James Murdoch Hay was an architect, working in partnership with his elder brother, William, as W & J Hay, and specialising in churches. Early in their marriage, James and Annie lived with William and his wife, Mary Ann, at Bridge Street, moving to 8 Carlton Terrace, Great Meolse, Wirral, Cheshire, as their family grew.
For a short time, James Hamilton Hay worked in the family firm, with his father and uncle, but soon enrolled at Birkenhead School of Art. In the late 1890s, he travelled to St Ives, in Cornwall, to take lessons from Algernon Talmage and Julius Olsson, and would consider the latter the best of his teachers.
On returning to Liverpool, he continued his studies at Liverpool School of Art under John Finnie, David Muirhead and Augustus John, the last of whom became a friend.
In 1895, Hay had work included for the first time in the prestigious Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, and would continue to contribute annually to these exhibitions until 1915. The other leading venues at which he exhibited included the Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy, the Liverpool Royal Institution and the Liverpool Academy, of which he became a member in 1904. In that year, he also curated ‘The Independent Exhibition’ at The Studio, which included work by E A Hornel, Augustus John and James McNeill Whistler (who was an influence upon him).
By the early 1900s, Hay’s work had started to sell, the poet, Gordon Bottomley, becoming the first major collector of his paintings. Then, in 1909, he made a public breakthrough when the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, bought his painting, The Lovers, from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, and another in the following year.
In 1907, Hay collaborated with the writer, Walter Dixon Scott, on Liverpool for A & C Black’s series of colour plate books. In the same year, he married the artist, Enid Rutherford, daughter of William Rutherford who, at the time, was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Liverpool West Derby. They soon settled at Taintree House, Heathfield Road, Audlem, near Nantwich. Like James, Enid was a member of both the Liverpool Academy and the Sandon Studio Society. James was also a member of the committee that selected the works for the Sandon’s ground-breaking exhibition, which, in 1911, introduced the Post-Impressionists and other Modernist artists to the Liverpool public. Sadly, Enid died in the same year.
In 1912, Hay moved to London and took lodgings at 18 Trafalgar Square, Chelsea (now Chelsea Square). Having already held a solo show at the Baillie Gallery in 1910, he showed work with various dealers and societies, including the Camden Town Group, where he appeared as a guest, and the London Group, of which he became a member in 1915. His later work shows the influence of the Camden Town members, Spencer Gore and Robert Bevan.
In 1914, Hay was one of the 90 artists selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. The other artists included his friend, Francis Dodd, who produced a drypoint portrait of Hay.
Alongside the Japanese printmaking tradition, it was the example of Dodd that influenced the decision of Hay to turn his own hand to drypoint, and make it the main focus of his work during his last few years. Following diagnosis with lung cancer, his health began to deteriorate and, in 1915, he returned to Cheshire, where he settled at his family home at Foenum Lodge, Oldfield Road, Heswall, Wirrall. His father died there in October 1915, and he followed him to the grave a year later on 7 October 1916, aged 42. The Goupil Gallery held a ‘Memorial Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by J Hamilton Hay’ in March 1917.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) and the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum (Birkenhead).
With acknowledgements to the researches of David Brown, Secretary, past-President and committee member of the Liver Sketching Club.