As the pithy saying goes: ‘behind every great man is a great woman’. We think of Michelle and Barack Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as prime examples. Similarly, Emma Hamilton’s memory has been connected with her association with famous men, particularly as the mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson. “Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity” at The National Maritime Museum reveals an intimate portrait of Emma alone — a woman whose staggering accomplishments have often been overshadowed by the men she inspired.
The exhibition is laid out chronologically, split into theatrical Acts to mimic her dramatic life. Exploiting the galleries’ ample space, each section represents a chapter of Emma’s life through artefacts, audio-visuals, thematic music, digital projection, and text. The microscopic attention to detail highlights the expertise of the researchers and of curator Quintin Colville, who clearly communicates Emma’s importance in her context and ours. The layout also uniquely takes us into Emma’s psyche. The coloured lighting changes from a sultry red representing her life as a seductress, to a powdered pink as an artist’s muse, and finally to a morose black at the tragic close of her life. Simultaneously, the exhibition manages to convey the difficulties of constructing a portrait of Emma Hamilton because, like many legendary women in history, she was enigmatic and much-misunderstood — a powerhouse of potential and “infinite variety” that made her a sensation in 18th-century Europe.
Emma was born into a poor family in Cheshire in 1765 and consigned to a career as a domestic servant. Early on, inspirited with an adventurous impulse, she left for London’s Covent Garden to find a better life, as did many other country girls in that period. The concept of performing must have been an enticing prospect for Emma since in 1780s Britain performance was like a social fast-track; through the quality of one’s art and its reception, performers could redefine their identities. Emma’s vulnerability as a young girl in bustling Covent Garden is evoked by an engraving depicting the employment of a fictional young lady called Harriet Heedless (1780). Harriet presents herself as a servant to prospective employers — a demure country belle who smiles trustingly at onlookers, unaware that the woman passing her a card is a brothel keeper and those who look on her do so with ill-fated intent. The dangers of Covent Garden did not go amiss for Emma, as she mingled among the high-society brothel owned by Madame Kelly. Beautiful, talented girls in the world of 18th century prostitution could aspire to find security from a wealthy protector.
At the age of 16, the young aristocrat Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh took Emma as his mistress. This period of her life ended abruptly when she fell pregnant with his child, at which point he disowned her. Emma was left deprived of both money and friends; her desperation is acutely evident in a heart-felt letter to one of Fetherstonhaugh’s associates Charles Greville featured in the exhibition, “What else am I but a girl in distress, in real distress…tell me what is it to become on me” (1782). Greville was a scholarly aristocrat who was accustomed to the treatment of courtesans and prostitutes amongst his class. He agreed to give Emma protection as a lover, with the exception that Emma had to give up her child once it was born. Even on these extreme terms Emma was so close to destitution that she agreed. It was Greville who took Emma to be painted by London’s leading portraitist, George Romney, who became infatuated with her, painting her more than 70 times between 1782-91. The room showcasing Romney and Emma’s relationship is a beautiful, moving space, documenting the boundaries left undefined and crossed in a painter’s pursuit to capture the raw beauty he found in Emma. She was a set apart from girls of her century, which Romney captures vividly in his paintings; slung in classical dress, she languishes in experimental poses that Romney’s high society clients would have shunned.
There is a sense that beneath the various dramatis personae through which Romney presents Emma, he was translating her “infinite variety” to the audience; from the seductive Circe in Homer’s Odyssey, to the courageous Miranda in The Tempest. No work pins down Emma’s magnetism more than “Emma as Circe” (c.1782). Auburn colours orbit around her, contrasting with her paused expression of entrancement. Half of her face illuminated, the other half eclipsed in shadow, it depicts a woman who is simultaneously present yet withdrawn from our public knowledge. Strikingly, the portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to Romney’s own self-portrait; the brushstrokes are rough and untamed, the paint jutting in unruly directions. To me this is a testament to the personal empathy Romney had for Emma — she was a muse who mirrored his own genius. “Emma as Absence” is a powerfully melancholy piece that Romney completed after Emma departed for Naples in 1786, after which he slipped into depression. We see the Emma who leaves England from Romney’s paintings — the masses of white clothes accentuating her innocence, yet in her vibrant expressions, a lady who was clearly self-possessed, determined, and a little lost.
Greville sent Emma to Naples as a mistress to his widowed uncle, the British envoy Sir William Hamilton. This was a time when a woman of Emma’s socio-economic status depended on the rich aristocrats who protected them. Despite the inertia of such a situation, Sir Hamilton was respectful to Emma and fuelled her desire to learn by giving her a genteel education. Emma became an exemplar of sophistication, fluent in French and Neapolitan Italian, and a masterful singer. William Hamilton’s admiration for Emma’s latent potential can be seen in a commissioned triple portrait depicting Emma excelling as a musician, scholar, and an actress. Emma also proved to be inventive by developing a hybrid of dance and acting called her ‘Attitudes’, attracting the likes of Goethe and sparking a fashion revolution for Grecian dress in its trail.Within fourteen years in Naples, Emma invited European fame through her ‘Attitudes’ and political alliance with Queen Maria Carolina. This period marked Emma’s ascent to glory. In a letter from Sir Hamilton to Greville (1790) in the exhibition, he writes, “she really deserves everything and has gained the love of everybody…she is preached up by the Queen & the nobility a rare example of virtue.” Here, Emma’s determination and wonder for the Arts (previously denied to her because of her social position) are truly celebrated.
Naples became entangled in the French revolutionary wars of 1793, where a young Horatio Nelson requested King Ferdinand’s aid in Britain’s war against France. It was here that Nelson first met Emma, and the alliance they formed would prove politically and romantically advantageous. The final galleries, the most emotive of the exhibition, are dedicated to Emma’s relationship with Lord Nelson. Emma was an instrumental political agent during the turbulent war, helping the Royal family escape to safety in Sicily and donating grain to the starving population of Malta during the famine. Lord Nelson himself saw Emma as a hero, requesting her to be awarded the Maltese Cross for her efforts in helping the island, making her the first English woman to bear the proud achievement.
The codicil to Nelson’s will requested a pension for Emma Hamilton. But after Nelson’s death in battle, not only was Emma denied admittance to Nelson’s state funeral for being a mistress, but while Nelson’s estranged wife received £200 a year, Emma received nothing. The final item in the exhibition is, like much of Emma’s life, laced with sorrow and love; Lord Nelson’s uniform, which he left her. The end of Emma’s life was very much like her beginning; a victim to socio-economic hierarchy, a commodity for the upper-class, yet someone who was bursting with potential and destined to be a star. For all the splendour Sir William Hamilton believed she deserved, Emma’s fans who claimed to love her were never beside her deathbed. After being imprisoned for debt in 1813, Emma spent her last moments in Calais with her daughter Horatia, dying on the 15th of January 1815.
Yet there is a shining, redemptive light to Emma’s story. As one Hungarian newspaper in 1800 put it, ‘one of her many rare qualities is her clear, strong voice…she filled the audience with such enthusiasm that they almost became ecstatic’. Despite her struggles with the social Leviathan, she eventually found her voice, becoming a romantic ideal of the individual rising above bureaucracy. Her voice and utter conviction empowered other voices to be born. This exceptional exhibition enables Emma’s legacy to continue leaving a blazing trail even after she has gone.
‘Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity’ runs at the National Maritime Museum, London, until 17 April. To read more about the exhibition and to buy tickets, please visit the museum website.