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Tell me what the name Emma Hamilton means to you. No, she is no relation to Lewis Hamilton, yet she was a celebrity of her time. Hamilton was, and is still known as, a muse who like many a model before her became an icon of her time through portraiture and her reputation in the entertainment industry. This considered, how did she get to the be the persona we know today?
We know that Hamilton was born with the name Amy Lyon, and started her early career as a servant before becoming a dancer and model for a rather ‘experimental’ fertility doctor. That is… until she met Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. Ole Harry boy saw the twinkle in Hamilton’s eye and quickly took her as a mistress. In between his gallivanting (one can only assume excessive drinking and hunting) he asked Hamilton to entertain guests. One form of entertainment is said to have been requesting for her to dance nude on the table for Harry’s friends (Bingley, 2010: 54).
In a somewhat uncomplicated twist of events, Hamilton fell pregnant. Fetherstonhaugh abandoned her and Charles Greville, the second son of the Earl of Warwick and regular guest at Fetherstonhaugh’s humble abode, offered her help. He gained something in return and took her as his mistress on the understanding that she abandoned her ties with her child, and more or less did whatever he said. At this time, what choice did she have? Hamilton changed her name to Emma Hart at the request of Greville and conformed to his demands. OBEY THY MAN or whatever twaddle it was society said at the time.
Greville admired Hamilton’s beauty, and who can blame him when you see paintings of her? Whilst under Greville’s influence, she sat for George Romney and became widely known throughout the art community. George painted many exceptional portraits of Hamilton which were widely well received. When Greville sought a wealthy wife he disposed of Emma by passing her off to Sir William Hamilton – and she gained the name we now know her by. Emma Hamilton moved to Naples, for what she thought would be a brief holiday, and triumphed in the epicentre of the Grand Tour. She became the confidante of Queen Maria Carolina (Royal Museums Greenwich, 2017) and here she did have influence, in contrast to her passive role in society.
After her scandalous affair with Lord Nelson, Hamilton’s name became tarnished. Well, she was a married woman and the affair formed a bit of a love triangle with Nelson and Sir William. How much Sir William knew about his wife’s affair at the beginning is still a question raised by Historians to this day. Nelson referred to Hamilton as the ‘wife of his heart’ and Hamilton reciprocated that love. By 1800 Emma was pregnant with Nelson’s child and Sir William definitely knew. They even bunked up together in a new pad Sir William purchased for the three of them.
The menage et trois was not to last however, and Sir William died in 1803 leaving Hamilton to fully pursue her passionate romance with Nelson. Hamilton was still the centre of the media attention which reported her clothing choices, interior design – anything! Nelson preferred a quieter lifestyle, and Hamilton turned to home comforts to entertain herself.
Unfortunately, Hamilton again was left heartbroken in 1805 when Lord Nelson was fatally wounded during the Battle of Trafalgar. Abandoned by her current circles, she turned to drink. Sir William had left her a small pension that would have been enough for a comfortable lifestyle, but this wasn’t what Hamilton craved. Rather unfairly, the request by Lord Nelson to support Hamilton and their daughter together had been denied by the government, and was instead passed on to his brother. Emma gambled and drank her pennies away, until she and Horatia (her daughter) had nothing left. In her later life, Emma moved to Calais, and died as she had come into her life – in poverty. Her daughter however, went on to marry, and never publicly admitted to being Emma Hamilton’s daughter.
But what about the perception and portrayal of her body image? Why was this so severely commented upon in her time? Earlier images of Hamilton show her as a visually stunning character; later on she becomes a lady who is the butt of jokes. Was it the drastic weight gain tied with the scandalous affair that caused Hamilton’s popularity to deteriorate?
The image by James Gillray (see above) entitled ‘Dido in Despair’ (1801) tells us Hamilton was the centre of celebrity mockery. We can see her portrayed as an older, fatter, woman who can barely keep her own balance in this comical scene. It’s no accident that this image directly makes statements on Emma’s choices. For example if we look beyond Hamilton we can see a book laid upon the window seat. In this book is a nude woman, laying in ‘sensual abandonment’ (British Museum, 2017). A direct hint at Hamilton’s current life at the time this image was made.
Her clothing, or state of undress, gives us a social commentary of the regular opinion of Hamilton at the time. Her nightdress and sleeping cap represent ‘impropriety, an unfashionable entrance into the public sphere’ (18th Century Clothing, 2017). Although just one image circulated of Emma Hamilton, it gives us an insight into the public portrayal of this iconic lady.
You may have seen or heard of Hamilton and never realised. For example, the painting Circe by George Romney was used as the cover of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (fancy that!) Or in Blackadder where Rowan Atkinson repeatedly makes jokes about Nelson and Lady Hamilton’s affair. All in all, it is rather a shame that Emma Hamilton’s name has been remembered for her relations with men, although there is no denying she certainly ‘got around a bit’ for the societal standards of the time.
I like to think that Emma Hamilton, a peculiar character, rose from peasantry to popularity. She became a woman of influence and intelligence (fluent in many other languages), she may have made some poor decisions with her money but she is not a character to be overlooked.
*This post is written in collaboration with the Royal Museums Greenwich, which house the exhibition “Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity” in the National Maritime Museum from NOW until 17th April 10am – 5pm daily. Tickets available here from £12.60.
Bingley, Randal (2010). Behold the painful plough. Thurrock Unitary Council Museum Service. p. 53. citing Uppark and its people by M Meade-Fetherstonhaugh.