(National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 17 April 2017)
If you aspired to be anyone in the 1790s, one of the mandatory stops on your Grand Tour would be the villa of Sir William Hamilton, British envoy in Naples. You would enjoy Hamilton’s learned conversation, admire his remarkable collection of antiquities and, perhaps, take a trip up Vesuvius to admire the steaming crater. And, if you were especially fortunate, you might have the chance to see Lady Hamilton perform her famous Attitudes, a series of tableaux vivants representing famous women from the Classical world. Yet the appeal was as much due to Lady Hamilton’s notoriety as her talents.
Emma Hamilton’s beauty was famous; indeed, she had once been the muse of the painter George Romney. Her admirers were legion but, by the turn of the century, she would have attracted one more persistent and more celebrated than any of the others: the dashing naval officer Horatio Nelson. It’s for this passionate love affair that Emma, nowadays, is best remembered. Yet this exhibition at Greenwich does an excellent job of telling the rest of her story: a tale of an intelligent woman struggling to make a life for herself in a world driven by male patronage; a woman who shone, briefly, as the brightest star in the firmament, and yet ended her life in poverty, abandoned and betrayed by the wealthy friends who had once celebrated her. It is a far more intelligent, disturbing and moving exhibition than the sensationalist title suggests and it leaves you brimming with sympathy for a woman who, too often, is now remembered only for striking poses while wearing skimpy clothes.
Emma Hart (born Amy Lyon) arrived in London in 1777 at the age of twelve. Like many girls of humble birth, she entered domestic service and presently got a job working for the artistic Linley family (if you’ve ever been to Dulwich Picture Gallery, you’ll have seen Gainsborough’s portraits of some of the Linleys). It was here that Emma first glimpsed the possibilities available to a talented actress: the Linleys were closely involved with the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane, and Emma may occasionally have worked there as a dresser. She very probably saw the great Sarah Siddons on stage (the greatest actress of the age, who had herself worked up from domestic service). But Emma would also have seen the limitations within such women existed. The two Linley daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, were both very talented opera singers and had performed at Covent Garden but, once they were married, propriety demanded that they retired – Elizabeth, who married the playwright Sheridan after a rather eventful courtship, was forbidden to perform in public so as not to compromise his reputation. As Emma would come to see, it was a world of cruel double standards.
By the age of fourteen, Emma had probably drifted into prostitution – albeit of a peculiarly rarefied form. It’s thought that she was a dancer at the Temple of Health, an institution run by the quack James Graham, which claimed to aid conception with the help of scantily-clad dancers who performed around a large bed. But we do know that by the age of sixteen she’d found some measure of security and had become the mistress of Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh, who’s shown here in a portrait by Batoni, all pink and white and vapid. Emma went to live with him at Uppark, his estate, but the idyll didn’t last long: she became pregnant and Fetherstonehaugh, showing his colours as a complete cad and a bounder, abandoned her. In desperation, she turned to his friend Charles Greville, who eventually condescended to take her on as a project, aiming to redeem this ‘fallen woman’. He insisted that she gave up her child and began work on refining her – though I should stress that his plan for her ‘salvation’ included taking her as his own mistress. It’s Greville, though, whom we have to thank for one of the most significant relationships of Emma’s life: that with the painter George Romney.
If you go to any country house in England, it’s a good chance that somewhere there’ll be a Romney portrait of a pretty young woman, eyes wide or twinkling, lips parted or smiling, performing the part of some classical figure. Shy and misanthropic, Romney was captivated by Emma and she became his chief muse during the 1780s, modelling for more than seventy paintings. The exhibition includes a wonderful selection of pictures. Among my favourites were Emma as Circe (c.1782; Tate Britain), the exhibition’s poster image, with those astonishing eyes and the lips just parted, and Emma as Bacchante (c.1784; Private collection), which sparkles with mischievous flair. The latter painting was commissioned by Greville’s uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who had met Emma in 1783 and wanted her picture for his Neapolitan villa.
Emma looked considerably more dignified in Emma as a Spinstress (c.1785; Kenwood House), which was commissioned by Greville himself, perhaps aiming to show off his success at refining her into an elegant lady. But the most moving of these portraits is Emma as Absence (c.1786; National Maritime Museum). This was painted by Romney shortly after Emma had left to go to Italy and it hints at the artist’s sense of loss. His former muse is shown sitting in a cave, evoking a Neapolitan grotto, turned almost in profile with her head to one side and her eyes cast down. Out on the sea beyond, a tiny ship bobs on the waves. The mood is entirely forlorn; plaintive; abandoned.
So why did Emma go to Italy? Surely she had it all: a comfortable life; an attentive lover; and a successful career as a model. Why change? As so often, the choice wasn’t hers to make. Greville decided that it was time for him to marry and, in order to get Emma out of the way, he sent her to Italy to stay with Hamilton. As we’ve already seen, the older man was an admirer of Emma’s and the exhibition notes, in a disturbingly understated way, ‘He had commissioned several portraits of Emma which already hung in his residence, the Palazzo Sessa. He had now acquired the original.’ Emma, however, had no idea that she was effectively being sent as a sexual gift from one wealthy man to another. When Greville wrote, informing her that she should regard his uncle as her lover, she was horrified. Her reply to him still survives:
Oh, if you knew what pain I feel … when you advise me to whore; nothing can express my rage. I am all madness, Greville … [You] advise me to go to bed with him … If I was with you, I would murder you and myself both.
She was 21. Fortunately for Emma, though, Hamilton was a gentle man – like Greville, he saw her very much as a project. Emma’s whole story, in fact, reeks of Pygmalion. Where Greville had tried to give her social graces, Hamilton focused on her education and was rewarded with great success, for Emma was intelligent and very keen to learn. She learned Italian, Neapolitan and French and was fluent within the year, and absorbed everything he had to teach her. He was smitten and, in 1791, he married her. Greville was aghast; popular society was titillated; but Neapolitan society accepted her wholeheartedly and she even became a confidant of the queen, Maria Carolina (the sister of Marie-Antoinette). There was no shortage of visitors to the Hamilton villa. Emma’s performances of Attitudes became one of the must-see sights of polite society and those who attended included Baron Vivant Denon, Angelica Kauffman and Wilhelm Tischbein. It was easy to mock her pretensions to art – and James Gillray, the satirist, dutifully did – but she clearly had great charisma and those who met her in the flesh were enchanted. One of these, of course, was Lord Nelson, the hero of the Battle of the Nile.
The charismatic beauty and the naval hero seem to have hit it off immediately and the rumour press wasn’t far behind. In 1800 Emma and Hamilton returned to London, as did Nelson; Emma was pregnant with Nelson’s child and, although Hamilton and his wife officially lived in London, Emma actually spent most of the time with Nelson at the country estate of Merton, where their daughter Horatia was born in 1801. To preserve both their reputations (a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, if there ever was one), Horatia was sent to live with a nurse and her birth date was carefully falsified to a date when both Nelson and Emma were abroad. These few years seem to have been some of Emma’s happiest: she was living with a man whom she seems to have genuinely loved and was adored in turn. The surviving letters which passed between her and Nelson, some of which are quoted in the show, are full of affection. Emma wrote to him up until the end and her final letter dates from 8 October 1805:
How do I idolize you, my dearest Husband of my Heart, you are all in this world to your Emma – may God send you victory & Home soon to your Emma, Horatia and paradise at Merton.
But, by the time this letter reached the fleet, Nelson was dead. In his will, he begged the nation to take care of Emma on his behalf (poor, cuckolded William Hamilton had died in 1803, but the couple still hadn’t been able to marry because Nelson’s own wife, Frances, was inconveniently still alive). Needless to say, the establishment utterly ignored his pleas. Emma was excluded from her lover’s grand state funeral and, although the nation gave Frances Nelson a pension, Emma received nothing except Nelson’s pigtail, shown here in a case: a faded blond-grey bundle of hair. She managed to survive for a while, but she’d grown used to a style of living that simply couldn’t be maintained on a tight budget, and she rapidly fell into debt. Full of hope, she wrote to those friends who had welcomed her in happier days, but virtually all of them ignored her. Romney was dead and there was no one she could turn to. In 1813 she was actually imprisoned for debt and was forced to sell her possessions, including portraits of Nelson and Hamilton, in order to clear her slate. Exhausted and broken, she moved to Calais with Horatia and died there in 1815, in near-poverty. She was only 49.
The exhibition does a marvellous job of bringing Emma’s tragic story to life, assembling portraits and letters, objects from Hamilton’s collection, prints and ephemera, which help to put flesh on the bones of fact. I was especially impressed by a film in which a dancer showed what Emma’s Attitudes might have been like: seeing them performed in this way, you could well imagine the magical impact they must have had by candlelight on a dusky Neapolitan evening. The show also gives you a real sense of Emma as a person, not just as a pretty face staring out of a Romney, but as a woman who strove to better her condition, even though she could never truly be accepted by the ‘ton’. You end up feeling thoroughly angered by the way she was treated, not just by the men who passed her around as though she were an object to be traded and admired, but also by the establishment itself, which welcomed her while Nelson lived and cruelly turned its back the moment she needed it.
There is still plenty of time to see this show, so please do make an effort if you’re interested: it’s very well done and gives a sobering insight into the mores of Georgian society. Even better, if your name is Emma, then you can get free entrance on certain weekends; just check out the museum’s website for more details. The catalogue is excellent: full of so much more information than I can possibly convey here, with plentiful illustrations. Most highly recommended.