Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity

A new exhibition illuminates the dramatic career of a much-maligned woman, John Westbrooke reports

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Wikipedia is blunt about Emma Hamilton: “Known for: Mistress of Lord Nelson”. As a fascinating new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich shows, that was just one part of an extraordinary life.

Born Amy Lyon in 1765 to a Cheshire blacksmith who died two months later, she headed for London when she was about 12. We don’t really know what she got up to for a while, though people tend to suspect the worst – chargirl? prostitute? actress? – and the exhibition captions illustrating louche life in Covent Garden slide too easily from “perhaps” to “probably” to “doubtless” to “did”.

In the Age of Enlightenment, life for women in Georgian London was firmly unenlightened. An ambitious girl needed a man to protect her, and could expect to be vilified for it. Emma found Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, a young aristocrat who dumped her when she became pregnant. His friend Sir Charles Greville, son of the Earl of Warwick, agreed to support her and her child, in return for the usual consideration.

Remarkably, he introduced her to one of England’s finest artists, George Romney. Even more remarkably, Romney found her the perfect muse. It’s hard to say which one needed the other more; there’s clear creative collaboration at work. Fourteen of his portraits are on display in one impressive room – he made more than 70 of her altogether – depicting her as Circe and Cassandra, spinstress and sibyl, mostly decorous, as well as more racy roles such as Bacchantes, followers of Bacchus, god of wine and revelry. Prints taken from the paintings were widely sold. Barely out of her teens, she must have had the best known face in London.

But Greville sneakily abandoned her too, passing her on to his widower uncle Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples. Expecting him to follow her there, Emma was distraught when she found she’d been tricked, but she eagerly seized the golden opportunity Italy offered her.

To produce a worthy companion, Hamilton provided her with an education in history, languages, and song and dance. His home was already a regular destination on the Grand Tour of young aristocrats travelling through Europe to study the classical world and eager to seek his advice, as a famous connoisseur, on the art and statuary to take home with them.

One of the sensations of their visit was Emma’s “Attitudes” – performances that combined mime and dance to depict women from classical history and legend. Even the neo-Grecian clothing she wore became fashionable across the continent. The educated audience would have recognised the characters represented, from Medea to Cleopatra – but no more Bacchantes, for Emma was seeking respectability, and so successfully that Sir William married her in London in 1791.

Europeans were agog too. Artists painted her; even Goethe turned up. Less admiringly, and displaying more than a touch of tall poppy syndrome, British cartoonists like Gillray and Rowlandson depicted her Attitudes as striptease; the curators have wisely filmed a recreation that shows them as closer to modern dance.

As an ambassador’s wife, the poor Cheshire girl rose even higher, becoming politically influential and a friend of Naples’ Queen Maria Carolina. She was awarded the Cross of Malta for sending food to the locals when war was causing starvation. In 1798, the British navy destroyed Napoleon’s fleet in the Battle of the Nile, and when Admiral Horatio Nelson arrived in Naples, Emma arranged the spectacular celebrations to greet him. (The queen had her own reasons for fearing revolutionary France: she was the sister of the luckless Marie Antoinette and had no wish to follow her to the guillotine.)

It was the beginning of a famous love story (Sir William politely stayed with them in a ménage a trois, and Emma’s mother went along too); but it was all slowly downhill for Emma after this. Having never quite become socially accepted at home, she became scandalous again. Both she and Nelson were married, but she was the one the gossips and caricaturists went after.

Back in England they bought a country home, Merton Place near Wimbledon, but spent little time together because he was often at sea; love and war didn’t mix. They had a daughter, Horatia, who had to be handed over to a wet nurse; Emma may never have told her she was her mother. The couple loved each other passionately, but the romance ended abruptly with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

He became a national hero; she, the poor country girl, the aristocratic plaything, the adulteress, became a national embarrassment. In a codicil to his will, written within sight of the enemy fleet and on display here, he wrote “I leave Emma Lady Hamilton a Legacy to my King and Country that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her Rank in Life.” King and Country lavished money on Nelson’s wife and brother; Emma got nothing.

She still had Merton Place, an annuity from her husband and a lump sum from Nelson, and well-to-do friends who tried to help; but she blew it all trying to keep the home as a shrine. Imprisoned for debt, she eventually fled to Calais where she died in 1815, not yet 50. Horatia, who was with her, had to disguise herself as a boy to get back into Britain without being arrested over her mother’s debts.

The miserable ending in exile casts a shadow over the dazzling life that preceded it. Though Emma had to sell up to meet her creditors, a few of her possessions are among the many exhibits: her song book, a betrothal ring from Nelson, a poem he wrote her (“From my bent cable tho I’m forced to part, I leave my anchor in my angels heart …”); Nelson’s uniform, complete with the bullet hole from the fatal shot, is there, as is his pigtail and the codicil.

It’s easy to see all this as the triumph of a hypocritical male world over a brilliant, determined woman; but that’s only part of the story. British society as a whole doesn’t come out of it well, but individual males fell in love with her, and she stayed in touch – late in life she was still corresponding with Fetherstonhaugh and Greville. She evidently had a knack for friendship. She needed male patronage and won it the hard way, but there’s no doubting her own drive, intelligence, and thirst for learning. She grew from playing roles in portraits to becoming an artist herself. The former collectors’ item became a force in politics and taste. This exhibition gives her her due; maybe she deserves better from Wikipedia.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, National Maritime Museum Greenwich until April 17 2017. Adults from £12.60, concessions £10.80