Going to the Emma Hamilton exhibition at the National Maritime Museum must be like it was for all those men in her life – Romney, Greville, Hamilton and Nelson – who came under her spell. You begin by being caught in her glance, those deep sensitive eyes, the delicate rosy cheeks and luscious red ruby lips. Whilst her beauty draws you in, you stay for those elegant poses, the knowing tilts of the head. You quickly realise there is much more to this lady than beauty. Her story is bewitching, her changes in fortune and position are beguiling. Her thirst for knowledge, betterment and improvement, her wit and intelligence is the core that keeps you coming back for more.
She always seems to be walking a fine line of what is expected of a poor girl born to a blacksmith in 1765, of a maid, a mistress, a muse, a wife, an actress and a lover. Yet she pushes the boundaries at every step. She confounded the notions of what a woman was and could be in the 18th century whilst still constrained by society rules.
She was a woman in a man’s world but equally a woman who knew how to play those men to her advantage. You get the sense she knew very well how to use her charms to draw out masculine chivalry.
“What else am I but a girl in distress.” January 1782, letter to Charles Greville
But she is no hapless weak feminine at the mercy of circumstance, her aim is –
“..to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool.”
Her path does not always run smoothly, she is passed as a plaything from younger nephew to older uncle when Charles Greville, desiring a well made marriage match disposes of his inconvenient mistress. Sir William Hamilton may have accepted her as a possession, a beautiful treasure to own and exhibit –
“The prospect of possessing so delightful an object under my roof so soon certainly causes in me some pleasing sensations”. 1786, Sir William Hamilton to Charles Greville.
but miraculously and unbelievably she turns this into a marriage, even at the strong protestations of his friends and family. I love the audio transcription of Heneage Legge’s letter to Charles Greville calling it –
“..the duty of every friend to change his mind”.
The exhibition sets her story as a play, it is a theatrical showpiece with rich velvet curtains opening on Act One – Becoming Emma. Here humble origins are set against expectations of the time for a girl like her when an estimated 20-50,000 women were employed as prostitutes in the capital.
I love the ‘wall of Emma’, having been introduced to the artist George Romney by her ‘protector’ Charles Greville, Romney’s obsession is clear for everyone to see. Like a wall of Instagram selfies, her knowing looks and beauty speak so clearly of that special spark she must have had. In one painting by Romney I am entranced, it is as if her lips quiver, there is innocence, beauty and sex all wrapped up in one man’s attempt to paint his muse.
Her time with Sir William Hamilton in Naples is confusing, she comes as mistress but seems to satisfy her own needs and her thirst for knowledge, she learns French and Italian in a year. I wonder if this desire for betterment was for herself or a calculated move to make herself a better and less disposable companion. I love the idea of her taking inspiration from Greek and Roman sculpture, what messages did she take from such classical beauties?
The theatrical qualities of the exhibition continue with diaphanous drapes and a performance art installation to give you a sense of Emma’s ‘Attitudes’. Her way of bringing to life paintings and sculptures that brought her admiration and fame. You really get a sense of this with the addition of prints and even porcelain celebrating her artistic endeavours.
What I really feel is the mark of the woman that she was, is her role as political agent. Even with an assured position as wife to Sir William, as Lady Hamilton she did not sit back once her security was achieved but played a pivotal role in the Neapolitan Court as confidante to Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily.
It was this role as political lynchpin that brought her into contact with Nelson and sealed her fate. She is now more know to us as ‘that Hamilton woman’ that Nelson risked it all, wife and position for.
I love the letters between them, passionate words, so heart-felt and tender in a time when there wasn’t the freedom to follow your heart.
“No separation no time my only beloved Emma can alter my love and affections for you”. Nelson to Emma Hamilton.
The great sorrow I feel as a 21st century woman is seeing how her role as a mother was so cruelly controlled and judged. Her first illegitimate child given up when she accepted Charles Greville as ‘protector’. Her child with Nelson similarly could not be acknowledged.
On the left ‘Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature at Naples’ after Friedrich Rehberg, 1797. On the right a distortion of the original ‘A New Edition Considerably Enlarged’ attributed to James Gillray, 1807.
The exhibition shows strong resonances with today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. In particular there are parallels of being raised up and then brought low and ridiculed by society and the press of the day. I loved the prints and caricatures that tells us of a time not so very different from our own, when a woman’s appearance and worth was cruelly judged by the moral standards of the time.
It is so refreshing to see a woman at the heart and centre of a large exhibition, particularly at the Maritime Museum where tales of men at sea are paramount. It is a story and a woman I did not know much about, but one with which I became completely engrossed, spending two hours bewitched by her highs and lows.
If this is a theatrical showing then I feel Emma is not only the star of the show but at times, costume designer, musician and director in her own life. Perhaps at the very end she became nothing more than a spectator at her own demise, unable to influence or change her situation. But at the final curtain call, as I leave the exhibition, my heart hopes for an encore just to catch another glimpse of the remarkable Emma Hamilton.
Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity runs from 3 November 2016- 17 April 2017 at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. For more information and ticket prices please see the website – http://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/emma-hamilton-seduction-and-celebrity
There are a number of events running alongside the exhibition including a Seduction & Celebrity Late on Thursday 17 Nov. http://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/exhibitions-events/late-seduction-and-celebrity