The National Maritime Museum's Emma Hamilton:Seduction and Celebrity exhibition seeks to remove Hamilton's story from the shadow of the men it normally resides under. She lived in hugely sexist times so it's a tough ask but not only do they pull it off they do so with some panache. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to.
Emma Hamilton was more than a 'muse', more than a lover, and more than a mother. Though she was, too, all those things. That her story, and the story of most women who ever lived, has been told through the prism of the men who surrounded her, loved her, and mistreated her is indicative of how unfair a woman's lot has been throughout most of history, how far we've come in the last two hundred years, and, how far we still have to go. The story of female emancipation is far from over.
None of this means that Hamilton led a saintly life. Like all of us she made mistakes. Some of them proved incredibly costly, others seemed to work in her favour. She used a combination of brains, beauty, and often outrageous circumstance to make herself something of a celebrity, possibly the first ever, yet by putting herself in the firing line she was a sitting duck for the male dominated establishment and was often shot down mercilessly.
Her rags to riches tale began in Ness, Cheshire in 1765 when she was born, as Amy Lyon, to a humble blacksmith and his servant wife. She received no formal education whatsoever and by her teenage years she'd been drawn to the bustle and variety of Covent Garden and, following in her mother's footsteps, she became a servant herself. Based in Blackfriars sexual exploitation of naïve country girls in the city was ripe. Between the ages of 14 and 16 she would sell her body on the streets of London.
John Collet - Covent Garden Piazza and Market (1770s)
Matthew William Peters - Lydia (1777)
Eventually she became the mistress of Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh. He'd hired her to dance nude on a dining table at a stag party and had delightfully described his fondness for a certain part of her anatomy as an "ebon tendril that plays in wanton ringlets around the grot". So fond of her was he he impregnated her and then, in the custom of the time, abandoned her.
She spiralled into desperation and became easy meat for further sexual exploitation but Charles Greville, a dull yet sincere man (and Earl of, and MP for, Warwick) she'd struck up a close friendship with while Featherstonehaugh was away drinking and hunting, wanted to 'protect', 'mould', and 'refine' her. A boring patriarchal patrician seemed preferable to a reckless amoral carouser so she began a relationship with Greville, even though it was on the proviso that Featherstonehaugh's child was given up on birth.
Pompeo Batoni - Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh (1776)
George Romney - Charles Greville (1789-95)
Greville took Emma to be painted by George Romney, London's most fashionable portraitist at the time. Romney became fascinated and painted Emma 70 times both as herself and in the guise of various figures from Greek mythology. It feels like there's a fairly large percentage of those Romney paintings in the Maritime Museum. 1782's portrait of Emma as Circe is particularly powerful. Those guileless eyes betraying a childhood of misery and a fierce intelligence finally being nurtured.
George Romney - Emma as Sensibility (1780s)
George Romney - Emma as Circe (1782)
George Romney - Emma as Bacchante (1783-85)
George Romney - Emma as Absence (1786)
So attached had Romney become to his muse that when she left for Italy in 1786 he sunk into depression. As Romney lived out his final years in Hampstead the explosion in printmaking saw replicas of his, and others, work make Emma a celebrity.
A former prostitute turned celebrity was not marriage material for Greville though. In order to marry a heiress he had Emma packed off to Naples, against her wishes, to go and live with his uncle Sir William Hamilton. Greville expected Emma to simply transfer her affections to Hamilton (by now rubbing his legs in anticipation like Vic Reeves on Shooting Stars) who was a great collector of objects d'art and seemed to see Emma as just another acquisition. Emma was 21. Hamilton was 56. What's perhaps most surprising is that, eventually, she appeared to do just that. In 1791 Sir William Hamilton took Emma, 35 years his junior, as his bride.
Joshua Reynolds - Sir William Hamilton (1777)
Pietro Fabris - Naples from the West, with peasants gaming (1760)
Emma loved the culture of Naples, she learnt Italian (even the local Neapolitan dialect), she learnt about French opera, antiquity, and contemporary art. She even befriended the Queen, Maria Carolina (Marie Antoinette's sister). Emma, now Lady, Hamilton even contributed her own art to the conversation. Her 'Attitudes' combined classical poses and modern allure with dance and dress inspired by the peasants who lived around the Bay of Naples. They were widely praised, porcelain service was made in tribute, but also grandly mocked by contemporary satirists of the day like Thomas Rowlandson who saw a woman getting ideas above her station.
Thomas Rowlandson - Lady H******* Attitudes (c.1810)
E L Vigee Le Brun - Emma as a reclining Bacchante (1790)
Sir Thomas Lawrence - Emma as Le Penserosa (1791-92)
When French forces threatened the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies later that decade the British navy sent a fleet of ships to the Mediterranean led by Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson. Sir William and Lady Emma were both quick to greet Nelson in Naples. Although it seems highly likely that Nelson enjoyed Emma's 'special' greeting more than William's handshake. Nelson, at that time, was missing an arm and most of his teeth but he certainly wasn't 'armless as both the French and Sir William were about to find out.
Leonardo Guzzardi - Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson (1799)
Dominic Serres - Arrival of their Sicilian Majesties at Naples, 17th October 1785 (1787)
With Napoleon defeated (and Marie Antoinette executed over in Paris) William, Emma, and Nelson set sail for Great Yarmouth together in 1800. It was to be something of a heroic homecoming for Nelson yet Emma, now widely understood to be his lover, had become infamous for her adultery. Hamilton was old and tired and didn't seem that bothered but someone had to be at blame and it certainly wasn't going to be Nelson. He was a national hero. He was THE national hero. So Emma had to be the guilty party. A woman who only a decade earlier was being held up as a classical beauty was now ridiculed for her obesity and supposed grotesque features.
Sir William died in 1803 and Nelson, himself, was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar just two years later. Nelson and Emma had been unable to marry as his estranged wife Fanny (go on, have a giggle) wouldn't grant him a divorce. During their time together they lived in Merton Place but it wasn't quite the 'Paradise Merton' they'd lovingly nicknamed it. Nelson was mostly away on duty during their time together and when his spectacular state funeral was held Emma, the scarlet woman, was not permitted to participate.
Emma was left with two far more meaningful reminders of their time together though. On his deathbed he requested his pigtail be removed and passed to her. You can see it under Perspex in this exhibition. More importantly their daughter Horatia had been born in 1801 (a second daughter only survived a few weeks) and was now a toddler. A toddler without a father.
A toddler, too, with a mother consumed by grief, financially unstable, and hitting the booze big time. In 1809 she sold Merton to pay off her debts and moved back to London with Horatia. Four years later she was arrested and imprisoned (Horatia had to go to prison with her) for further debts she'd been unable to settle. On her release in 1814 she escaped her creditors by going to live in Calais and in January 1815 she died in France of liver failure. She was 49 years old. Her daughter Horatia never once publicly acknowledged Emma as her mother.
It must've felt like Emma had lived five separate lives in her relatively short time here. This was a powerful story of how the establishment protects its own, how women are often marginalised in history, and how affairs of the heart are never ever straightforward. The curators told it in a wonderful way, steering clear of overt didacticism and letting the visitor join the dots themselves. I wouldn't have wanted to have lived in those times as a man or a woman but it's pretty clear that if I had to it'd have been best to be a man. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
James Gillray - Dido in Despair (1801)
Benjamin West - The Death of Admiral Lord Nelson on board Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (1808)