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Emma Hamilton

2 of 30 portraits of Emma Hamilton

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Emma Hamilton

by George Romney
oil on canvas, circa 1785
24 1/2 in. x 20 1/2 in. (623 mm x 521 mm) overall
Purchased with help from the Art Fund, 1965
Primary Collection
NPG 4448

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • George Romney (1734-1802), Portrait painter. Artist associated with 162 portraits, Sitter in 5 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith, Emma Hart had a spectacularly successful career as mistress to a succession of older men, finally marrying Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples. Romney met her when she was only seventeen and the mistress of Charles Greville. He was clearly besotted by her and painted her again and again, becoming her friend but probably not her lover, however much he might have liked to be. As she wrote to him on 20 December 1791, 'you was the first dear friend I open'd my heart to, you ought to know me, for you have seen and discoursed with me in my poorer days, you have known me in my poverty and prosperity'. This portrait is one of many that Romney kept back in his studio for his private delectation. It conveys something of his feeling for her doe-eyed beauty.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 40 Read entry

    Emma, Lady Hamilton (baptised 1765-1815), is celebrated as Lord Nelson’s mistress. She was also muse to George Romney, who painted her more than sixty times. From blacksmith stock, she rose to riches in an era not known for its social mobility. An irresistible beauty and one-time dancer at the Georgian venue the Temple of Health, she said (in 1791): ‘I wish … to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool.’ In 1791 she married Sir William Hamilton, British envoy in Naples, where, two years later, she met Horatio Nelson and found enduring love and some some sense of equality (since neither had been born wealthy, and both were elevated by talent). Her ‘Attitudes’, a new form of performance art based on the telling of ancient myths in which she struck classical poses using nothing but drapery and lighting to evoke moods and moments from literature, brought her international fame. She became a confidante to the Queen of Naples and the first woman awarded the Maltese Cross. In 1813, after the deaths of Nelson and Hamilton, her bankruptcy led to her arrest for debt (a pension codicil to Nelson’s will having been denied by the government). She died, destitute, two years later in Calais.

  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Colville, Quinton; Williams, Kate, Emma Hamilton : seduction & celebrity, 2016, p. 92
  • Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 93 Read entry

    'Emma is looking out for the softest pillows to repose the few wearied limbs you have left', said her husband Sir William Hamilton to Nelson, when the battered Admiral arrived in Naples in 1798, after the Battle of the Nile. As Emma hero-worshipped Nelson and nursed him back to health, they fell in love. Many patrician observers, both in Naples and after the lovers returned to Britain, found their unconventional social behaviour brash and unacceptable, and their contrasting sizes ridiculous. Posterity has been a kinder judge, relishing the human vulnerability of the courageous Admiral and the indomitable spirit of his lover.

  • Ingamells, John, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, 2004, p. 227
  • Jenkins, Susan, Compton Verney guidebook, 2004, p. 15
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 48
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 191
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 106
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 106 Read entry

    The daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith, Emma Hart had a spectacularly successful career as mistress to a succession of older men, finally marrying Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples. Romney met her when she was only seventeen and the mistress of Charles Greville. He was clearly besotted by her and painted her again and again, becoming her friend but probably not her lover, however much he might have liked to be. As she wrote to him on 20 December 1791, 'you was the first dear friend I open'd my heart to, you ought to know me, for you have seen and discoursed with me in my poorer days, you have known me in my poverty and prosperity'. This portrait is one of many that Romney kept back in his studio for his private delectation. It conveys something of his feeling for her doe-eyed beauty.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 274
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 315
  • Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantic Icons, 1999, p. 53

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1785back to top

Current affairs

George Prince of Wales secretly marries his mistress Maria Fitzherbert in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.
Prime Minister William Pitt introduces a bill proposing parliamentary reform and the abolition of 'rotten boroughs' but is defeated.

Art and science

William Cowper publishes his best -known poem The Task.
James Boswell publishes The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, narrating his travels with the late writer Samuel Johnson.
Physician and naturalist James Hutton presents his studies of local rocks to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, launching the era of scientific geology.

International

Warren Hastings resigns as Governor-General of Bengal and returns to England. His trial begins on charges of corruption in the administration of India.
French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon crosses the Atlantic to sculpt a statue of George Washington.
British government establishes a permanent land force in the Eastern Caribbean, based in Barbados.

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