While in London recently I attended the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see the exhibit called “Emma Hamilton. Seduction and Celebrity”. She is mainly known, if at all, as the woman who was Lord Nelson’s lover. But, that was only one part of an interesting life.
She was born in 1765 to a blacksmith and his wife, a strong-minded woman. Her mother brought her to London about 1777 and little is known about her life. It seems she was a servant girl, a backstage theater girl, probably a prostitute. Then, about 1781 she, reportedly an ‘astonishing beauty,’ was “taken up” by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, a well known rake. She became pregnant; he did not respond to her pleas, her letters, he did not take care, or apparently care. She was friendly with (probably danced on table tops for) Lord Greville. When she appealed to him regarding her pregnancy he agreed to take her in if she gave up her child and abandoned all those she knew except for her mother. Despite heartbreak at losing her daughter she agreed, and she and her mother became housemaids in the service of Lord Greville. Emma became his lover as well. When he tired of her he sent her on to his uncle, the ambassador to the court of Naples, William Hamilton. William Hamilton was genuinely smitten and in love with her. When his first wife died he married Emma. During their twenty-five years together she grew into an educated, respected wife, a great beauty and entertainer, and a women of some political influence.
This exhibit was one of the most comprehensive I have ever seen. Emma Lyons Hart Hamilton was a friend and muse for the painter George Romney. He called her his “Divine Emma.” From 1782-1791 he painted her portrait 70 times in historical themes, sketches, society portraits. She was beautiful, intelligent, sensuous, theatrical…..and not yet 21 years old.
While in Naples the Napoleonic wars raged, putting the court of the Queen of Naples and Sicily at risk. When Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson visited Naples, Emma and William Hamilton enlisted his aide to secure safe passage for the Queen and her retinue. They became friends and eventually, Emma and Nelson became lovers. This appears to have been a grand, real, passionate love. However, because Nelson was a hero to the British (a married hero) and Emma was of poor reputation (despite a respectable marriage) she was seen as a manipulator and a bad influence. She was not approved of because of her birth, her class, her employment (entertainer), and now because she held sway over Lord Nelson. Yet, the lovers persisted in returning to England, living on a shared estate, having a daughter together. He added a codicil to his will “I leave Emma Lady Hamilton therefore a Legacy to my King and Country that they will give her ample provision to maintain her rank in life. I also leave to the beneficience of my country my adopted daughter Horatia Nelson Thompson.” Alas, when he died at Trafalger in 1805 the King and Country, so grateful to their hero but saddled with prejudice, did not honor his last wishes.
Emma Hamilton died impoverished in Calais in 1815 at the age of 49. This wonderful exhibit goes a long way to redeeming a powerful and interesting woman who lived in an intolerant time.