Victory at last for Emma Hamilton
A welcome chance to redress the balance for the Admiral Lord Nelson’s famously alluring lover, in an exhibition that makes up for two centuries of slights.
It’s easy to see Emma Hamilton as a figure of fun. She became famous as the lover of the late eighteenth-century (married) war hero and national treasure Lord Nelson.
But as a young woman she was said to have danced on the table at raucous country parties and been hired as a ‘nymph’ by the charlatan medic James Graham at his Temple of Health and Hymen on Pall Mall (famous for its ‘Celestial Bed’ that could be rented by married couples for the equivalent of £5,000 per night today).
Later, as wife of the respected diplomat and antiquarian Sir William Hamilton in Naples, she became known for striking dramatic ‘attitudes’ – static poses, dressed as a goddess or heroine from the past, watched by mesmerised expatriate Society. She travelled back to England in a ménage à trois with Hamilton and Nelson, and they caused a sensation wherever they went.
This exhibition does so much to restore her dignity, partly because of the stunning collection of images the National Maritime Museum has assembled. Emma was the artist George Romney’s muse and his many portraits of her occupy three walls, laid out rather like Vogue covers of Kate Moss. There are pieces of her jewellery and clothing – not hers, but contemporary – in the high-waisted, small-busted style that would have been familiar to Jane Austen, and originals of her breathless, emphatic letters, full of underlinings and dashes.
It examines her humble beginnings as ‘Emy Lyon’, born to a blacksmith and a servant in Ness, Cheshire, in 1765, as well as the biographies and writings of her well-born and frequently selfish lovers. Her names changed as she climbed the social ladder – she became Emma Hart and then, to everyone’s amazement, Lady Hamilton – but she always seems to have kept her charm and her generosity. Nelson was, like her, humbly born and it was a love match, with a daughter, Horatia, who was brought up by someone else and, despite her name, never knew that she was the great admiral’s daughter (apparently children all over Britain were named in Nelson’s honour).
Her troubles began immediately after Nelson’s death, something he obviously anticipated, as he left a letter pleading her cause, which was ignored by his friends, many of whom had enjoyed Emma’s hospitality and borrowed her money. She died in penury in Calais, where she had been forced to move with her daughter, in 1815.
The exhibition is large, informative and surprisingly moving, with letters to read and recordings to listen to – and the chance to appreciate, quite genuinely, the talent and energy of a woman who fought for everything she achieved. No sneering allowed.
- Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity runs at the National Maritime Museum Ofer Wing until 17 April 2017. Tickets from £12.70.
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