Emma, Lady Hamilton  

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"Emma, Lady Hamilton is an Englishwoman of about 20 and is very beautiful and well built. She has a Greek dress made for her which suits her wonderfully. She lets her hair down, takes a couple of shawls, and presents such a variety of poses, gestures, expressions, etc., that one finally wonders whether one is dreaming. Accomplishments vainly attempted by many artists were here seen finished, spontaneous and in surprising variety: standing, kneeling, sitting, lying, serious, sad, teasing, voluptuous, repentant, enticing, menacing, anxious and so on, one follows after another. She changes the drapery of her scarves and makes a hundred different head-dresses with one and the same piece of material. The old Knight holds the lights for her, and is wholly absorbed in the business. He sees in her all the antiques, the beautiful profiles of Sicilian coins, and even the Apollo of Belvedere. Anyway, it is a delightful entertainment, and we enjoyed it two evenings. This morning she is being painted by Tischbein."--Italian Journey (1816–17), Goethe, cited in Sexual Life in England: Past and Present (1936)

"Emma accompanied him to Italy, where she so perfected herself in her art under his guidance that her enchanted teacher married her the following year, and thus she was admitted at court. Here she soon became of influence, due mainly to her intimate friendship with Caroline, Queen of Naples, whose debaucheries made the court of Naples a modern Capri, as described in a rather exaggerated fashion in the Marquis de Sade’s Justine et Juliette. According to the result of the critical revision of Gorani and Coletta’s statements by Moritz Brosch, Caroline undoubtedly deserved to be named the ‘ Messalina of Naples ’, for besides many love-affairs with different men, she was passionately in love with her friend Emma Hamilton. They were inseparable, and vied with each other in organising luxurious feasts and in devising and planning new and artistic amusements. There, also, Emma found many admirers, and was in no wise insensible to them: Lord Bristol, the Bishop of Derry (an ingenious, lively, coarse-witted man, whose rich assortment of anecdotes and bon mots seemed to be inexhaustible), had the honour of being one of her lovers."--Sexual Life in England: Past and Present (1936)

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Emma, Lady Hamilton (26 April 1761; baptised 12 May 1765 – 15 January 1815) is chiefly remembered as the muse to George Romney, and the successive love interest of William Hamilton and Lord Nelson; as well as her "Attitudes," in which she posed with no undergarments.

She is is caricatured as "Cleopatra" in "A Cognocenti contemplating ye Beauties of ye Antique" (1801) by James Gillray and portrayed in the films That Hamilton Woman (1941) and in the sex comedy Emma Hamilton (1968).


Early life

She was born Amy Lyon in Neston, Cheshire, England, the daughter of a blacksmith, Henry Lyons, who died when she was two months old. She was brought up by her mother, formerly Mary Kidd, at Hawarden, with no formal education. She later changed her name to Emma Hart

Details of Emma's early life are unclear, but at age 12 she was known to be working as a maid at the Hawarden home of Doctor Honoratus Leigh Thomas, a surgeon working in Chester. Then she worked for the Budd family in Chatham Place, Blackfriars and met a maid called Jane Powell, who wanted to be an actress. Emma joined in with Jane's rehearsals for various tragic roles. After this short stay in London, Emma went back to her mother, who was living near Oxford Street. Inspired by Jane's enthusiasm for the theatre, Emma started work at the Drury Lane theatre in Covent Garden, as maid to various actresses, among them Mary Robinson. However, this paid little.

Emma next worked as a model and dancer at the "Goddess of Health" (also known as the "Temple of Health") for James Graham, a Scottish "quack" doctor. The establishment's greatest attraction was a bed through which electricity was passed, giving paying patrons mild shocks. This supposedly aided conception, and many infertile couples paid high prices to try it.

Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh met Emma, then still only fifteen years old, and he hired her for several months, as host and entertainer at a lengthy stag party at Sir Harry's Uppark country estate in the South Downs. Sir Harry took Emma there as mistress, but frequently ignored her in favour of drinking and hunting with his friends. Emma soon formed a friendship with one of the guests, the dull but sincere Honourable Charles Francis Greville (1749–1809), second son of the first Earl of Warwick, and a member of Parliament for Warwick. It was about this time (late June-early July 1781) that she conceived a child by Sir Harry.

Sir Harry was furious at the unwanted pregnancy, but is thought to have accommodated Emma in one of his many houses in London. Emma gave up on Sir Harry: probably at this time she had formed a romantic attachment to Greville. He was closer to her in age, and she might have believed that he was able to marry her. Emma became Greville's mistress. When the child (Emma Carew) was born, it was removed to be raised by a Mr and Mrs Blackburn. As a young woman, Emma's daughter saw her mother reasonably frequently, but later when Emma fell into debt, Miss Carew worked abroad as a companion or governess.

Emma was at Greville's mercy, and agreed to change her name to "Emma Hart". Greville kept Emma in a house at Edgeware Row, but he was in love with her and, wanting a painting of her, sent her to sit for his friend, the painter, George Romney. Romney painted many of his most famous portraits of Emma at this time. Indeed, Romney maintained a lifelong obsession with her, sketching her nude and clothed, in many poses that he used in paintings he made in her absence. Through the popularity of Romney's work, and particularly of his striking-looking young model, Emma became well-known in society circles, under the name of "Emma Hart". She learned quickly and was elegant, witty and intelligent. And, as paintings of her attest, Emma was also extremely beautiful.

George Romney was facinated by her looks and ability to adapt to the ideals of the age. He painted her in many guises.

In 1783, Greville needed to find a rich wife to replenish his finances (in the form of eighteen-year-old heiress Henrietta Middleton). Emma would be a problem, as he disliked being known as her lover (this having become apparent to all through her fame in Romney's artworks), and his prospective wife would not accept him as a suitor if he lived openly with Emma Hart.

To be rid of Emma, Greville persuaded his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples, to take her off his hands. Greville's marriage would be useful to Sir William, as it relieved him of having Greville as a poor relation. To promote his plan, Greville suggested to Sir William that Emma would make a very pleasing mistress, assuring him that, once married to Henrietta Middleton, he would come and fetch Emma back. Emma's famous beauty was by then well-known to Sir William, so much so that he even agreed to pay the expenses for her journey to ensure her speedy arrival. He was interested in her, as a great collector af antiquities and beautiful objects, and that was how he first viewed Emma. He had long been a happily married man, now in his mid-fifties, and he liked female companionship very much. His home in Naples was wellknown all over the world for hospitality and refinement. He needed a hostess for his salon, and from what he knew about Emma, she would be the perfect choice.

Greville did not inform Emma of his plan, instead suggesting the trip as a prolonged holiday in Naples while he (Greville) was away in Scotland on business. Emma was thus sent to Naples, supposedly for six to eight months, little realising that she was going as the mistress of her host. She became furious when she realized what Greville had planned for her. But in fact this was the best thing that ever happened to her.


tableaux vivants

As Sir William's mistress, Emma developed what she called her "Attitudes", using Romney's idea of combining classical poses with modern allure as the basis for her act. This eventual cross between postures, dance, and acting, was first revealed in Spring 1787 by Sir William to a large group of European guests at his home in Naples, who quickly took to this new form of entertainment - guessing the names of the classical characters and scenes which Emma portrayed.

For her "Attitudes", Emma had her dressmaker make dresses modelled on those worn by peasant islanders in the Bay of Naples, and on loose-fitting garments such as she wore when modelling for Romney. The performance was a sensation across Europe. Using a few shawls, she posed as various classical figures from Medea to Queen Cleopatra, and her performances charmed aristocrats, artists such as Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, writers — including the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — and kings and queens alike, setting off new dance trends across Europe and starting a fashion for a draped Grecian style of dress.

Attitudes were taken up by several other (female) artists, among them Ida Brun from Denmark, who became Emmas successor. The famed sculptor Alberto Thorvaldsen admired her art. Attitudes was, of course, a form of "mime art", which disappeared for a long time, only to surface again in the 20th century. Emma developed her Attitudes from mere poses to small, wordless plays - in her later years she excelled as Medea.

Emma was also a talented amateur singer. She sang the solo part of Haydns Nelson Mass and entertained guests at her home. At one point, the Royal Opera in Madrid tried to engage her for a season, in competition with their star, Angelica Catalani, but that offer was turned down.

Marriage to Sir William Hamilton

Sir William was smitten with Emma and, to Greville's shock, married her on 6 September 1791 at Saint Mary-le-bone, Middlesex, England. This gave her the title Lady Hamilton. At the time of their marriage Saint Mary-le-bone Parish was one of the largest in England. It is interesting to note that despite all her name changes during her early life when she married she used her birth name of Amy Lyons.

The meeting with Nelson

Lady Hamilton became a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina, wife of Ferdinand I of Naples. As wife of the British Envoy, Emma welcomed Nelson in 1793, when he came to gather reinforcements against the French. He returned to Naples five years later, on 22 September 1798 (with his eighteen-year-old stepson, Josiah), a living legend, after his victory at the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir. However, Nelson's adventures had prematurely aged him: he had lost an arm and most of his teeth, and was afflicted by coughing spells. Emma reportedly flung herself upon him in admiration, calling out, "Oh God, is it possible?", as she fainted against him. Nelson wrote effusively of Emma to his increasingly estranged wife, Lady Fanny Nelson. Emma and Sir William escorted Nelson to their home - the Palazzo Sessa.

Emma nursed Nelson under her husband's roof, and arranged a party with 1,800 guests to celebrate his 40th birthday. They soon fell in love and their affair seems to have been tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the elderly Sir William, who showed nothing but admiration and respect for Nelson, and vice-versa. Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson were by now the two single most famous Brits in the world. They were not only in love with each other, but admired each other to the point of adulation. They were, so to speak, also in love with both their own fame, and that of their lover.

Emma had by then become not only a close personal friend of Queen Maria Carolina, but had developed into an important political influence. She adviced the Queen on how to react to the threats from the French Revolution. Maria Carolina's sister Marie Antoinette had fallen a victim to the Revolution. In 1799 Naples was the scene of a strange revolution, led by members of the aristocracy. The people did not care for the revolution. French troops were welcomed and the Royal family fled to Sicily. From here Nelson tried to help the Royal family put down the revolutionaries. He had absolutely no support from the British government. He even executed one of the leaders of the revolution, the admiral Caracciolo. Emma Hamilton tried to create a parallel between the revolution in Naples and the Irish uprising in 1798.

On Nelson's recall to Britain shortly afterwards, Nelson, Emma and William took the longest possible route back to Britain via Central Europe (hearing the Missa in Angustiis by Joseph Haydn that now bears Nelson's name in Vienna in 1800), and eventually arrived in Britain later in 1800 to a hero's welcome. The three then lived together openly, and the affair became public knowledge, which eventually induced the Admiralty to send Nelson back to sea, if only to get him away from Emma. Nelson perhaps had the idea that he could divorce his wife only after a decisive victory. Sir William also remained an obstacle. In fact the two lovers, who both loved and respected Hamilton, had to wait for his death to even contemplate marriage. Emma would not even consider the possibility of divorce. That would taint her for life, and, even worse, taint Nelson.

Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter Horatia, on 31 January 1801 at Sir William's rented home in Clarges Street, 23 Piccadilly, London. By the autumn of the same year, Nelson bought Merton Place, a small ramshackle house on the outskirts of modern day Wimbledon. There he lived openly with Emma, Sir William, and Emma's mother, in a ménage à trois that fascinated the public. The newspapers reported on their every move, looking to Emma to set fashions in dress, home decoration and even dinner party menus. But Emmas great days were over. She had become obese, and Nelson did not like the social life she craved. She had turned down the offer from the Royal Opera in Madrid to sing for money. Now she and Nelson tried to create a new, quieter life.

Sir William died in 1803 and Nelson returned to sea soon after, leaving Emma pregnant with their second child (by Nelson). She was desperately lonely, preoccupied with attempting to turn Merton Place into the grand home Nelson desired, and frantic for his return. The child, a girl, died a few weeks after her birth in early 1804. Emma reportedly distracted herself by gambling, and spending lavishly. Now she was free to marry Nelson, if he could only obtain a divorce.

The final years

After Nelson's death in 1805, Emma quickly exhausted the small pension Sir William had left her, and fell deeply into debt. Nelson had willed his estate to his brother; he gave Merton Place to Emma, but she depleted her finances by trying to keep it up as a monument to him. In spite of Nelson's status as a national hero, the instructions he left to the government to provide for Emma and Horatia were ignored. They showered honours on Nelson's brother instead.

Emma was to spend a year in a virtual debtor's prison, in the company of Horatia, before moving to France to try to escape her creditors. Turning to drink, she died in poverty of amoebic dysentery, an illness she probably picked up in her years living in Naples (Sir William Hamilton also suffered from this) in Calais, in January 1815.

Horatia subsequently married the Rev. Philip Ward, and lived until 1881. She had ten children: Horatio Nelson (born 8 December 1822); Eleanor Phillipa (born April 1824); Marmaduke Philip Smyth (born 27 May 1825); John James Stephen (13 February 1827–1829); Nelson (born 8 May 1828); William George (born 8 April 1830); Edmund Nelson (1831); Horatia Nelson (born 24 November 1833), Philip (born May 1834) and Caroline (born January 1836).

Horatia never publically recognized that she was indeed the daughter of Emma Hamilton.

In popular culture

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