Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE 10, until 17th April 2017
This is an exhibition that has exceeded my expectations and one I had been looking forward to since I learnt of it.
It is I think very much a story of a beautiful young woman that has resonance today – a tale of humble beginnings, of becoming a “celebrity” but ending in disillusionment and obscurity.
Born in Cheshire in 1765, daughter of a struggling blacksmith Emma came to London in her thirteenth year and became part of the Covent Garden world which mixed high society with the sexual underworld. Aged sixteen she became the mistress of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh and as readers of my blog ‘Unravelling Uppark’ (06/06/14) will know Emma danced naked on the dining room table there to entertain his friends. However when she fell pregnant Fetherstonhaugh chucked her out and she returned to Cheshire and gave birth to a daughter.
Fortunately she had made the acquaintance of Charles Greville, a son of the Earl of Warwick, and he took her under his wing, installing her in his house just off the Edgware Road in London, an area more rural then than it is today. It was there that Greville introduced her to the painter George Romney. She was, as the wonderful paintings shown in the exhibition amply prove, a perfect Muse for the artist.
She also met Greville’s uncle Sir William Hamilton and it was on to him that Greville passed Emma when he tired of her by sending her to Naples where Hamilton was British envoy. Naples was a major stopping-off place on the Grand Tour and thanks to Hamilton’s patient teaching and her own talent she created her famous “Attitudes” which brought scenes from paintings and sculpture to life. She achieved even more of a celebrity status which was crowned when Hamilton married her in 1791.
Her new position as an envoy’s wife meant that she had to play a political role too and in this Emma was fortunate that the Neapolitan King’s wife Maria Carolina, a sister of Marie Antoinette, liked her and made a confidante of her.
However in 1798 the arrival of Admiral Nelson, following his victory at the Battle of the Nile, was the beginning of what would be one of the great love affairs of history. It was one fraught with dangers as her infidelity rocked society and it was not helped by Emma’s giving birth to Nelson’s child whom they named Horatia.
They acquired a house at Merton in Surrey and set up home their but because of Nelson’s naval duties he was frequently away. His death at the Battle of Trafalgar 21st October 1805 brought it all crashing down. Life became difficult in every way and her attempts to maintain her lifestyle and position led to her being imprisoned for debt in 1813 in the King’s Bench Prison. Thanks to funds being provided she was released but had to flee to Calais to escape her creditors and it was there in January 1815 she died after months of illness in the same poverty as she had been born.
This somewhat salutary tale is beautifully told through pictures, objects, jewellery, furniture, prints, costumes and personal letters. It really does give a wonderful insight into her life and times and explains why she remains so beguiling a figure. She is one of those people from history you would really want to meet!