Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is a major new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum that focuses on the fascinating, scandalous and ultimately heart-breaking life of Hamilton (1765-1815). History has remembered Emma as little more than the beautiful seductress who tempted Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) into an adulterous affair; but this, of course, was only one chapter of her remarkable story.
With over 200 objects on display, including an impressive selection of portraits, prints, caricatures, and letters, Emma’s life is explored with great sensitivity. Rising out of poverty, she became one of the most celebrated women of Georgian England. Famed for her beauty, she was also one of the most painted women of her day. At the height of her success she mingled with royalty and wielded significant political power at the Neapolitan court. It is therefore both tragic and surprising that she eventually died in poverty, forgotten by the world.
The National Maritime Museum is excellently placed to host this exhibition due to its own extensive archival collection relating to the lives of both Emma and Nelson. The exhibition itself is structured by chronologically outlining all of the different roles that Emma played throughout her life. These roles are put into their historical context using information boards, and fleshed out using a wide variety of artefacts. The narrative starts by exploring Emma’s life as a child, and follows her as she finds herself taking on a variety of personas, including those of muse, political figure, celebrity and mother. The exhibition uses atmospheric lighting, audio and video displays as well as the intimate space itself to create a sense of exploration and intrigue. Accompanying the exhibition is a series of events including walks, lectures, courses and film screenings, as well as a significant new book edited by Quintin Colville and Kate Williams.
Emma was born into an impoverished Cheshire mining community in 1765, the daughter of an illiterate blacksmith. At the tender age of twelve she and her mother moved to London where she soon took up a nursery-maid position in the house of Richard Budd, the physician of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and then in 1778 she became the maid for the composer Thomas Linley. The Linleys’ house was located close to the dangerously exciting Covent Garden, where people of all ranks mingled as one. Emma was drawn into this intoxicating world, and within a few years she had dallied at the bustling Drury Lane theatre, been picked up by the notorious Mrs Kelly, madame of the fashionable ‘nunnery’ at Kings Place, and had become the lover of a young and rakish nobleman, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh.
At the age of sixteen, Emma was abandoned by her lover, pregnant, desperate and destitute. She was saved by the Hon. Charles Greville (1749-1809), who set her up in relative comfort and arranged for her to be painted by the eminent portraitist George Romney. Emma’s theatrical creativity and expressive face provided Romney with the perfect muse – she sat for him over a hundred times. Her striking, youthful beauty has endured to this day within Romney’s evocative paintings, the most haunting of all being his study of her as Circe (c.1782). In total there are fourteen of Romney’s paintings of Emma on display, a rare treat to see them en masse and most certainly the highlight of the exhibition.
By 1786 Greville began to tire of his pretty lover and, unbeknown to Emma, organised for her to become the mistress of his uncle, Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), the British envoy in Naples. Although passed from nephew to uncle as though nothing more than a luxury possession, Emma’s enduring ability to reinvent herself soon ensured that she was the toast of Naples. Her sensual looks, her pleasing manner and her famous ‘Attitudes’ won her fame and admiration throughout Europe. The exhibition has charmingly re-created Emma’s ‘Attitudes’ in video format in which a classically-attired actress silently strikes the dramatic and familiar poses of famous historical women, such as Medea and Cleopatra.
Much to the shock of society, in 1791 Sir William married his mistress, thus cementing Emma’s incredible leap up the social ladder. As the new Lady Hamilton and the wife of an envoy, Emma now had access to the glittering Neapolitan Court. Her charming and capable personality quickly won her the friendship of Queen Maria Carolina (sister to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette), which in turn provided her with considerable political power. An array of Emma’s intriguing letters are on display in the exhibition. These demonstrate her political agency as well as her centrality to the Neapolitan court.
In 1798 these political dealings propelled her (quite literally) into the arms of England’s great ‘Victor of the Nile’, the celebrated Admiral Nelson. When the French marched on Naples, Nelson arranged for the royal family to escape on board his flagship HMS Vanguard to Sicily, during which Emma played an essential role in supervising the transportation of royal money and jewels. Later, Emma also organised British ships of grain to be sent to the starving people of Malta, for which she was awarded the Maltese Cross – the only English woman ever to have received one.
The mutual attraction and admiration felt by Nelson and Emma soon culminated in a passionate love affair. They were inseparable when together and fervent letter-writers when apart: ‘…no separation, no time, my only beloved Emma can alter my love and affection for you, it is founded on the truest principles of honor…’ declared Nelson ardently. Such an affair soon became common knowledge resulting in society’s fascination and censure in equal measure. Print shops were full of unflattering caricatures, the papers crammed with salacious details of the risqué affair. Consequently, in 1801 their daughter, Horatia, had to be born in the greatest of secrecy to prevent any further damage to their reputations.
In a bid to set up a peaceful and quiet home away from society’s glare, Nelson purchased Merton Place, a small country estate in Surrey. Under Emma’s direction the house was transformed into a glorious tribute to their joint fame, with Romney portraits and naval trophies throughout. Two ceramic services commissioned by the lovers are on display, one entitled Nelson arms and oak-leaf service, the other the Horatia service. All was in vain, however, because in 1805 Nelson was cruelly struck down at the moment of his victory at Trafalgar. Perhaps one of the most poignant objects of the whole exhibition is Nelson’s handwritten codicil to his will written prior to battle. He begs that Emma be treated kindly by the nation and that she receive a generous pension. Even as he lay dying, Emma dominated his thoughts – he asked for his pigtail to be sent to her, which is also displayed.
Emma was inconsolable upon Nelson’s death, her life irrevocably shattered: ‘Days have passed on, and I know not how they end or begin … nor how I am to bear my future existence’. It is likely that she never recovered. Hamilton having died in 1803 and with her looks fading, Emma’s situation was financially precarious. She was excluded from her beloved’s state funeral and Nelson’s codicil was utterly ignored. His inheritance went to his estranged wife and greedy family – Emma’s desperate pleas completely snubbed.
Following 1805 Emma’s life progressively spiralled downwards. Incapable of living within her means, her debts soon mounted up, eventually landing her in King’s Bench Prison in 1813. A few loyal friends raised the funds to release her and she fled to Calais with her daughter to live in disgraced exile. Dejected, betrayed, destitute, the once vivacious and celebrated Emma Hamilton died in January 1815. The final object in the exhibition is Nelson’s uniform that he had worn at Trafalgar – such was the extent of Emma’s financial desperation that she was forced to give up her most treasured possession for cash.
Emma’s distressing end remains a black mark on the nation’s maritime history. It is some small mercy that at last Emma is receiving the acclaim and respect that she deserves. She was an astounding woman whose vibrant spirit enabled her to defy social convention and break through the restrictions of her gender. Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity provides an enthralling account of Emma’s life and is heartily recommended.
Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is at the National Maritime Museum until 17th April 2017.