Emma Hamilton at the NMM. What a Woman.



The National Maritime Museum (NMM) has decided, for its latest exhibition, to explore the life of Emma Hamilton, and what a life she had.

Emma Hamilton is perhaps most well-known for her love affair with Lord Nelson. But there is so much more to her than that. In fact, she was only with Nelson for 6 years before his untimely death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Hello there! Emma as the goddess Circe, George Romney, c.1782

The exhibition, much larger than expected, walks you through the different roles that Emma played in her life, from the very beginning to the very, rather tragic end. The curator, Dr. Quintin Colville, has been quoted saying:

She was a really remarkable person, who has usually been seen only in the shadows of the men in her life. It is time to bring her back into the light.

And this exhibition does just that. It splits Emma’s life chronologically into Acts and within each Act there are scenes. Act I, for example, contains Emma in the guises of Servant, Seductress and Muse.

Each ‘scene’ displays collections of objects that range from letters and books to jewels and paintings, and explain the stages of Emma’s life. By breaking down her life in this way, not only are we able to appreciate how she evolved to suit different environments but also just how much she achieved.

We are first introduced to the Young Emma, probably the haziest era of her life. In a very ‘My Fair Lady’ kind of way, she rose from being a servant girl in Covent Garden to becoming the muse to the artist George Romney.

Romney went on to produce 80 paintings of the girl so the National Maritime Museum had a wealth of imagery from which to choose. They have selected about twenty of Romney’s paintings that not only show how many different poses and characters Emma embodied in her portraits, but also helps the visitor to get a real sense of this dynamic yet graceful beauty.

Whilst a muse to Romney, we learn she was also a mistress to Charles Greville who, it seems, she adored. But her path changes once again and she was whisked off to Naples to become (unknown to her before she arrived) mistress, and eventual wife, to his uncle, Lord William Hamilton.

Visitors are guided through a corridor with quotes about and from Emma, illustrated on the walls together with a projection of a watery surface. Having crossed the ‘sea’ much as Emma did, leaving England behind, you arrive in Italy for Act II: International Celebrity.

In a year, Emma was fluent in both French and Italian, was educated in the Classics and became close friends with Maria Caroline, Queen of Naples and sister to Marie Antoinette. Emma even acted on the Queen’s behalf when the Neapolitan royal family fled to Sicily at a time when they were threatened by anti-royalist revolutionaries in the city.

It was in Naples that Emma’s fame grew in leaps and bounds. Among her many charms, she enchanted the aristocracy with what became known as her ‘Attitudes’ – small theatre performances of figures from Antiquity that she would portray in small tableaus/dances. The exhibition has included prints, paintings, books and even a porcelain service that testify to her fame not just in Naples, but also in Europe. I don’t think even Angelina Jolie can boast of a porcelain service created with her likeness.

At this point in the exhibition, the Museum steps it up a notch by replicating what a performance of these Attitudes would have been like.

In a small private theatre-like space, a life-size projection of an Emma Hamilton lookalike appears and performs for visitors. Complete with text that hovers and fades to guide you through what you’re seeing there is an audio of mumbled approvals from other ‘audience’ members, Emma comes to life before your eyes. You can’t help but admire how quickly this young lady had learned, adapted and excelled in her new Italian home. Emma said herself :

I mean to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool.

It would seem she certainly achieved that and more, repeatedly surpassing expectations.

NPG 394; Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott
The dashing Lord Nelson by L. F. Abbott in 1797, around the time he met Emma

As you progress through the exhibition and approach the latter years of Emma’s life, you reach the section exploring her relationship with Nelson. This section includes numerous love letters of the two writing to each other during Nelson’s lengthy trips away at sea.

There is the danger, however, of becoming a little fatigued at having to read so closely when, by this point, you have seen a lot already in the previous rooms. It seems that the museum considered this too and have created another media experience.

This time, the scene is set within a domestic-type space with candles on the walls and draping curtains. A silhouette of a lady representing Emma walks in her room reading her letters and replying in kind. Her thoughts, together with those of Nelson, can be heard aloud. We discover another, more tender side, to Emma. She is now an educated, famous woman, mother and lover, hopelessly devoted to a successful Naval Vice-Admiral.

Gold ‘fede’ or betrothal ring, one of a pair exchanged between Nelson and Emma. National Maritime Museum collection.

This exhibition, housed in a modern and open space, does not labour over what we know but instead gives a balanced account of the remarkable life of Emma Hamilton. It has taste and charm, and the theatrical elements used to structure the entire exhibition relate to Emma’s life so appropriately whilst also making it enjoyable and digestible for the visitor.

She is wonderfully presented in all her roles and the objects exhibited never cease to interest. You are not constantly faced with paintings, nor are you continuously nose deep in letters. Instead, the variety of objects included and their presentation makes this exhibition a visually stimulating experience that is accessible and approachable.

This is a lady whose life should not be overlooked, and neither should this exhibition.


Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity‘ is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich until 17th April 2017. Be there or be square.


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