Northern Ireland

Clifton House: Seattle family discover link to portraits

Uncle Tom portrait
Image caption 'Uncle' Tom became known as the home's oldest resident, living to be 110

When 27 portraits were found in the attic of a former poor house in north Belfast, staff were determined to discover the identity of the subjects.

The pictures were shared online and the mystery began to unravel.

Six months on, some of the pictures have been paired with the relatives of those who sat for them.

Hilary Tompkins and her relatives travelled more than 5,000 miles from Seattle to Northern Ireland to find out more about their family tree.

Image caption Hilary Tompkins and her father Hamilton Hutchinson view the portrait

But they were oblivious to their link to the now-famous Clifton House portraits.

Ms Tompkins had tracked her family's history from her home in Seattle to Belfast, where her father, Hamilton Hutchinson, had emigrated to Canada in the 1950s.

Just a few years earlier, Mr Hutchinson's 95-year-old great uncle, Tom Hutchinson, became a resident in Clifton House residential home on North Queen Street.

'Uncle' Tom became known as the home's oldest resident, living to be 110.

Along with some of the other residents, 'Uncle Tom' sat for a portrait with Belfast artist Tobias Everard Spence, the former president of the Belfast Charitable Society, which owned Clifton House, in the 1940s and 1950s.

Until recently the portraits were stored among black bags, suitcases and historical documents dating back about 300 years.

When Ms Tompkins and the genealogist she was working with contacted Clifton House, staff brought out their records.

They put two and two together and realised that Uncle Tom was the star of two of the mystery portraits.

The first portrait was from when Mr Hutchinson was 95 - and at 103 he sat for a second painting.

They told Ms Tompkins and her father to visit Clifton House, but kept tight-lipped about the paintings until the family could see them in person.

Image caption Clifton House meeting

Both were presented to Ms Tompkins and Mr Hutchinson.

Ms Tompkins said: "We lost track of him in 1919 when his wife died, between then and when he came to Clifton House is a mystery to us. I'm sure there's a lot more still to find out in the archives."

Louise Canavan is archive manager at Clifton House. She has been involved in unearthing the portraits and helping to trace the subjects' families.

"We're delighted to be able to find one from so far away. We have reunited three of the portraits, to date, so this is number four and five," she said.

Image copyright Clifton House
Image caption One of the 27 mystery paintings Belfast Charitable Society wishes to return to families

"The work that has gone into this from the Hutchinson side and from our own side has been immense, to match up dates and times and people.

"It's been great to be able to reunite Hilary and Hamilton with their portraits."

There are still more than 20 portraits outstanding, which staff at Clifton House are keen to send to their rightful homes.

Image copyright Clifton House
Image caption One of the 27 mystery paintings Belfast Charitable Society wishes to return to families

Related Topics

More on this story