The Emma Hamilton story has taken many twists and turns since her own day. Her reputation was widely traduced during her lifetime. Worse was to come during the Victorian era when our national heroes had to be seen and remembered as flawless paragons: Emma was further dismissed as one who lured a helpless Nelson to her bed. Matters improved in the 20th Century when she was represented more sympathetically by Vivien Leigh (1940) and Glenda Jackson (1973). The discovery and attendant research of many private letters about ten years ago shone more light. But still, as far as she is known at all, Emma remains simply Nelson’s mistress.
Her memory deserves better and I believe a new exhibition in Greenwich does her proper justice.
To start life as a poor girl from Cheshire and end up married to the leading connoisseur of the age and rubbing shoulders with European royalty was a massive achievement. Yes, good looks were essential to take her along that road. But equally, it took intelligence, determination and hard work to secure her place at William Hamilton’s side in 1790s Naples. This she did by educating herself in everything and more that a well-born woman would know in the spheres of language, art, science, music. If it weren’t for the mores and the snobbery of the age, the Nelson and post-Nelson years for her would surely have been less tragic.
Yet while she did so well and achieved so much in her extraordinary life, to any observer Emma Hamilton’s story is also a heartbreaking one. Having moved to London as a teenager and based in notorious Covent Garden, Emma worked in domestic service for local families and leading thespians. Her beauty ensured additional work as an artists’ model. But falling pregnant to a typical Georgian swell with the almost comical toff name of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, she then fell under the wing and into the bed of Charles Greville. Although she saw her daughter occasionally, the girl was taken care of by others, and they led separate lives. Later on, when Greville himself sought and advantageous marriage, he virtually sold Emma on to his uncle, the aging Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples. Emma had no idea the Greville would not be following. She was distraught. Nonetheless, she knuckled down and made a singular success of her new situation.
Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) tells this story brilliantly. And fairly. Comprising a wonderful mix of objects, the exhibition is nonetheless dominated by portraiture, most of which is from the NMM’s own collection (it has the second largest portrait collection after the National Portrait Gallery itself). Emma was captured by many painters, illustrators and cartoonists great and small. Most prolific among these was George Romney whose portraits are the most accomplished simply because he knew her the best and was clearly smitten. She was also still young. But Joshua Reynolds had a go, as did Thomas Lawrence – not one of his best but interesting to see for comparison. Rowlandson and Gilray had their fun with her, notably the latter, who was uncompromisingly vicious. But funny, to be fair.
It is the Romney portraits which dominate the first half of the show and probably what one takes away. It is good that this show raises his profile, deservedly so. To what extent his Emmas are idealised is difficult to say. Certainly she was a huge celebrity model in her time, in the modern sense, pretty much. This, combined with her obsessive self-improvement, puts one in mind of Marilyn Monroe. Their fame and vulnerable position at society’s top table strike one as eerily similar.
The exhibition includes many other personal objects such as tea sets, frocks, jewellery, Nelson’s hair and dress coat. These are interesting, but it’s the sizeable collection of letters between our leading players in Emma’s life which give weight and balance to the whole and make it truly personal. There are also great examples of books which give a good flavour of the times. I was pleased to see copies by moralistic Georgian do-gooders Jonas Hanway (“the most boring man in London” (!)) and Mrs Trimmer.
This show succeeds on many levels. First, it gives a very balanced assessment of Emma Hamilton’s life. Although titled Seduction and Celebrity (you have to catch the punters’ eye), it nonetheless emphasises her achievement, and that is most important. It sets her place properly in the historical and social context of women’s place in late Georgian society, reminding us of the essential weakness of their position and their lot.
But if I were to describe it in a word, I would say: lavish! Beautifully designed, lit and presented. Looking back at NMM shows of recent years such as Royal River (2012) and Pepys, (2015) this is something NMM does particularly well. This Emma Hamilton show is easily the equal of those superb exhibitions.
Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity runs at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 17 April 2017. Tickets are £12.60 (adults, concessions apply).