In the second room of the exhibition Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, the teenage Emma Hart – she who would become Lady Hamilton – looks down at the visitor from every wall.
The National Maritime Museum has displayed, together in one room, a group of portraits by George Romney, and in each one she is playing a different role: Emma as a Bacchante, Emma as a Spinster, Emma as Absence. This was a woman who, despite her achievements, we cannot help but see through the eyes of men; and she was well aware that her very existence depended on stoking their desires. This exhibition gives us a glimpse of the many and varied roles she played.
If a novelist concocted a fictional plot like the life of Emma Hamilton, they would not be believed. Most famous as the mistress of Horatio Nelson, she is something of a historical caricature. Seduction and Celebrity, which is shaped around the various stages of Emma’s life, such as wife, mother and lover, challenges that all too easy cliché, and the result is deeply moving. Born Emy Lyon in 1765, the daughter of a servant and a blacksmith, Emma came to London at the age of 12 and spent her early teenage years as a servant in Covent Garden, lapsing into prostitution when hard times came. At 16, she was the lover of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, but was passed on to his friend Charles Greville when she fell pregnant, changing her name to Emma Hart at Greville’s suggestion, the first of many re-inventions. When Greville in turn decided to marry, he sent the unwitting Emma to his uncle, the diplomat Sir William Hamilton, in Naples. Initially unwilling to be his mistress, with time Emma found Hamilton to be a kindly mentor and proof of his affection came when, boldly, he married her. It was as Lady Hamilton that Emma grew not just in fame, but in political influence, and met her great love, Lord Nelson.
The exhibition supplies enough context to convey the extraordinary nature of this story. The brief but intense vision we are offered of the London she came to as a child is a painful one defined by images of the harlot’s progress and teenage prostitutes. Emma’s subsequent role as mistress is represented not just in Romney’s portraits, but in poignant items such as the ledger she kept where she was made to account for every expenditure in her tiny, laboured hand; or in her letter to her lover, when she realised she had been sent to Naples as a gift for his uncle, which mixes despair with the bridling of an angry, resilient spirit: ‘I submit to what God or Greville pleases…if I was with you, I would murder you and myself boath’.
Although I thought I already knew Emma Hamilton, the level of her celebrity as shown here still surprised me. Prints and commemorative ceramics illustrate how her image was dispersed across Europe; and there is a re-enactment of her ‘attitudes’ by an actress, giving an evocative sense of her power as a performer. But what also emerges is her intelligence and her drive for self-improvement. Arriving, heartbroken, in Naples, she became fluent in French and Italian, gained an education, and became the closest confidante of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily. Emma, it is clear, was no open-mouthed siren, despite the many caricatures of her as a chubby-cheeked joke by Rowlandson and Gillray, some of which are displayed in the exhibition. When Nelson wrote that in all of his travels, he had seen no woman to equal her, we are inclined to believe him.
The story of Emma’s love affair with Nelson is a familiar one. In its re-telling, audio-visual material is sensitively used, with a silhouetted staging of readings from Emma and Nelson’s love letters, giving a sense of the intensity of their passion, and a reminder that they spent most of their relationship apart. The remaining traces of their love are also on display – the rings they wore; Nelson’s pigtail, cut from his head and sent to Emma at his death; and his last will asking that she and their daughter Horatia be provided for. These sad remnants lie in sharp contrast to the vitality of the earlier letters and portraits. For there was no happy ending for Lady Hamilton, a fact reflected in the exhibition’s display describing Emma’s ‘last hand’, giving the sense of her story as a complicated game with life-changing stakes, which she ultimately lost.
The catalogue, edited by Quintin Colville, is handsomely illustrated and contains essays on themes such as Emma’s creative partnership with Romney, her artistry as a performer, and her role as icon and mistress of Nelson.
Seduction and Celebrity is a richly textured exhibition which draws on a wide range of exhibits, from portraits to dresses, and includes enough personal artefacts, including jewellery, ceramics and silver, to create a sense of Emma’s life, and to bring her closer to us. But the stars of the show are Romney’s portraits. Emma once wrote to the artist: ‘you have seen and discoursed with me in my poorer days, you have known me in poverty and prosperity’. To be loved is to be truly seen, and perhaps she knew that the purest love of all was that of the man with no stake in her who wished to make her immortal. This exhibition reveals the many faces of Emma, and shows her as a woman who was wronged, mocked and commodified but, above all, loved. I would argue that he who loved her best was not Sir William Hamilton or Lord Nelson, but George Romney – and the proof of it lies in his every brushstroke.
This article first appeared in Historia Magazine in December 2016.