Emma Hamilton: you know her, she’s the one that ensnared Admiral Lord Nelson with her flirty semi-clad dancing. Turns out there was a lot more to her than that as I learnt at the latest exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, EMMA HAMILTON: SEDUCTION AND CELEBRITY. As the daughter of a blacksmith and a servant, little is known about her early life. Emma followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a servant for the Linley family who had connections to the Drury Lane theatre. At some point she caught the eye of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, one thing led to another and she became pregnant. Sir Harry dismissed his sixteen year old mistress and life looked grim for Emma at this point.
Emma was beautiful so soon Charles Greville, another wealthy man, stepped forward to be her ‘protector’. Pleased with his new possession, Charles asked the premier portraitist of the age, George Romney, to paint Emma. So impressed was Romney that what was meant to be just one portrait became seventy over a nine year period. A whole wall is filled with them at Greenwich. Many of them were reproduced as popular prints; Emma was famous.
Famous but not rich. Charles Greville needed to marry a wealthy woman and so arranged to have Emma shipped off to his Uncle, Lord Hamilton, in Naples. Emma had no notion of what was happening. She thought she was going on holiday, not passed on like an unwanted gift. Turns out the Lord Hamilton was not so bad after all. Not just a pretty face and Hamilton provided her with an education. She learned Spanish and French in a year as well as studying the classics. He even married her. Emma became the friend and confidante of the Queen of Naples and an important diplomatic conduit between Naples and England. She also came up with a novel form of entertainment called ‘Attitudes’. Part of the exhibition is devoted to a rather clever smoke and mirrors reproduction of these Attitudes.
At this stage, enter Nelson. The hero of the battle of the Nile was rather taken with Emma and her Attitudes and before long they were lovers. Lord Hamilton was very understanding. Polite society was scandalised for Nelson had a wife back home. Their relationship was far more than a fling, it was the real thing. Lord H died but divorce for Nelson was out of the question. The lovebirds had a daughter, Horatia, and set up home together until the idyll came to an end with the death of Nelson at Trafalgar. Love letters between the two are on display, Norfolk’s finest had quite a way with words.
After Nelson’s death, she was left with a lavish lifestyle but not the means to support it. A codicil added to Nelson’s will just before Trafalgar asking for a pension for her in recognition for her diplomatic work in Naples went unheeded. She kept the coat in which Nelson died with her at all times, but died young after a spell in debtors prison.
There were many pretty, poor girls like Emma who found temporary protection with wealthy men, most were dumped when they either got pregnant or old. To inspire the greatest portraitist of the day, devise a new form of entertainment, marry a Lord, befriend a Queen and win the love of an Admiral was exceptional. Emma must have been quite a woman.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Open: Daily 10am – 5pm
Admission: Adult £14, Child £7, Concessions £6