Emma Hamilton

George Romney (1734-1802)

Emma Hamilton (c.1765-1815)
Mistress & Muse

Introducing Emma Hamilton
Emma Hamilton was born Amy Lyon on 26 April 1765, the daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith. Determined to usurp her humble origins she began by changing her name to Emma Hart. She was an attractive and ambitious girl who quickly learned to use her talents to her best advantage. In her early teens she escaped to London where she is thought to have worked as an actresses' maid in Drury Lane, the centre of the theatre district. Another suggestion is that she found employment performing as a 'living illustration' at the quack-Dr Graham's 'Temple of Health' in Pall Mall. Whether either of these rumours are true or not, their titillating nature reveals that Emma's shady courtesan-past was always part of her reputation as a popular figure. Moreover, either of these youthful positions would help explain her skills as a performer and her confidence in exploiting her sexual charms to further her goals.

From blacksmith's daughter to Lady Hamilton Emma's social assent was steep. A frequent figure in eighteenth-century romantic fiction, the socially aspirant woman was often portrayed falling victim to unprincipled rakes sent to ruin them. With a few minor exceptions, Emma was able to turn such adversity to her advantage. Her personal charms encouraged a triumvirate of powerful or creative men to grow addicted to her affection, her loyalty and her ability to mould to their fantasies -- whether esoteric or physical. Both successively and cumulatively George Romney, Sir William Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson launched Emma into society and ensured her a place in British history.

Study of Emma Hart as Circe George Romney, circa 1782-5 oil on canvas, - © Tate, London 2001 (cat. 98)

Study of Emma Hart as Circe
George Romney, circa 1782-5
oil on canvas
© Tate, London 2001 (cat. 98)

Emma & George Romney
Emma's first liaison with Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh, of Uppark in Sussex, was short lived. By 1781, she had fallen pregnant and had been abandoned by him. Soon after, the Hon. Charles Greville (1749-1809) took the 16 year-old Emma into his 'care'. Leaving her daughter with relatives, she became his mistress and was installed at a suburban house in Paddington Green in the name of Mrs. Emma Hart. In April 1782, Greville took his new mistress to George Romney to sit for her portrait. Though Greville hoped to commission a series of pictures of Emma as a commercial speculation it was Emma and Romney who had the most to gain from this artistic meeting.

Emma captured Romney's imagination to such an extent that he later described her as 'the divine lady ... superior to all womankind' (Letter, 19 June 1791). From their first meetings in 1782, Emma occupied the position of artist's muse. Romney was drawn to her ideal beauty, which combined the regular features of ancient Greek sculpture with the luxuriant chestnut hair of one of Rubens' voluptuous women. Emma also had an intense physical presence and the ability to hold poses and expressions like a professional model. Moreover she was vivacious, loving and innately able to please and flatter the men she became involved with either personally or professionally. Romney was so obsessed by Emma that it became increasingly hard for him to engage creatively with more routine commissions, decisively altering his portrait practice. Over the next nine years, he nurtured Emma's talent and capitalized on her beauty. In the four years between April 1782 and March 1786 alone, Emma sat to Romney well over 100 times. The outcome of their relationship was a sequence of fancy portraits and literary subjects with dramatic heroines -- over sixty paintings which take Emma as their inspiration or defining feature. Not just a passive model but evidently involved and engaged in the compositional process, images of Emma fall into four basic categories: real-life compositions; single-figure personifications of allegorical, mythological or religious types; the use of Emma as a model in more complex, multi-figure genre scenes and the many unfinished sketches and têtes d'expression which characterize the combined talents of the artist and Emma whose animated qualities would later manifest themselves in her theatrical 'Attitudes'.

The 1780s was a time when artists aspired to produce grand history paintings which would make an impact at the crowded Royal Academy exhibition. Even portrait painters hoped to elevate their portraits with something of this classicizing flavour in costume, pose and composition. Though Romney never exhibited at the Royal Academy, he was certainly influenced by the dominance of history painting in the hierarchy of genres. He may have first portrayed Emma, in modern dress, as Nature (Frick Collection, NY) but he conceived her next as the mythological sorceress Circe (circa 1782) and thereafter as Medea, a bacchante, Thetis and a host of other antique characters to appeal to the connoisseurial tastes of Emma's various patrons and their friends. Indeed, though Emma was eventually painted by Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, Gavin Hamilton, Angelica Kauffmann and Vigée le Brun she was always depicted playing a role. In that sense there are few paintings which can be described as portraits which reveal the real Emma. This mystique is no doubt part of her abiding allure.

Emma Hart in a Straw Hat George Romney, 1785 oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California (cat. 109)

Emma Hart in a Straw Hat
George Romney, 1785
oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California (cat. 109)

Emma, as 'The Spinstress' George Romney, circa 1784-5 oil on canvas, English Heritage (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood) English Heritage Photo Library (cat. 108)

Emma, as 'The Spinstress'
George Romney, circa 1784-5
oil on canvas, English Heritage (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood) English Heritage Photo Library (cat. 108)


Until 1786 Emma lived with her mother, Mrs Cadogan, in the house Charles Greville rented for them at Paddington Green on the semi-rural fringes of West London. Although portraits such as Emma Hart in a Straw Hat (1785) (Image 4) combine the latest fashions with poses 'slyly suggestive of sexual abandon', The Spinstress (1784-5) presents a contrasting picture of Emma's demure and contented domestic lifestyle. A note in Romney's diary for 21 April 1784, Mrs. Hart 10 Edgware Road', may mark the moment when Romney made the unique decision to paint Emma in her own home instead in the studio. Despite the elaborate white gown, the simple tranquillity of this domestic depiction is a counterpoint to the dramatic Emma as Bacchante then being painted by Reynolds for Greville's uncle, Sir William Hamilton. Indeed, the modesty of Emma's lifestyle may have been an attempt to insist upon her domestic virtue and thus overcome her questionable status as Greville's mistress. Unsurprisingly, The Spinstress typified the private Emma idealized by both Romney and Greville. It is however an indication of Greville's growing financial difficulties that the painting stayed in Romney's studio until it was eventually sold to another purchaser, to help reduce the debts Greville had incurred with all his portrait commissions.

Emma And Sir William Hamilton
Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait Sir William Hamilton (1776), the British Envoy at Naples, works as a visual statement of one man's intellectual passions. Painted in the year that Hamilton published Campi Phlegraei, Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies, Reynolds' distant view of Mount Vesuvius reminds us of Hamilton's position as the world's leading vulcanologist. Commissioned to accompany the gift of his collection of ancient gems, vases and other antiquities to the British Museum it is no coincidence that Reynolds also portrayed Hamilton as an enlightened connoisseur with a copy of Baron d'Hancarville's Antiquités Etrusques (1767-76), which catalogued his collection, on his knee.

In August 1783, William Hamilton returned from Naples with the remains of his first wife to be buried in England. He also brought the important antique glass vase from the Barberini collection, now known as the Portland Vase (BM), which got its name from the Duchess of Portland who paid him 1,800 guineas for it. During the year Hamilton stayed in England he often socialized with his nephew Charles Greville. Despite his reputation as a connoisseur and intellectual, he enjoyed the company of Greville's mistress Emma Hart who he named the 'fair tea maker of Edgware Row'. Young, vivacious and beautiful, Emma conjured up the embodiment of the ancient sculptures that the antiquarian Hamilton revered. Unable to erase Emma's classical features from his mind because, he said, they reminded him of a Greek goddess, Hamilton quickly commissioned Reynolds to paint a portrait of her as a bacchante (now in a private collection). Later that year he returned to Italy with Reynolds' portrait long before Greville dispatched the real-life Emma to visit his ageing and widowed uncle.

Emma Hart in a Cavern George Romney, circa 1782-5 oil on canvas, - © National Maritime Museum, London (cat. 121)

Emma Hart in a Cavern
George Romney, circa 1782-5
oil on canvas
© National Maritime Museum, London
(cat. 121)

In 1785, Sir William received a letter from his nephew complaining of his financial difficulties. He concluded that Greville needed to seek a bride worth £30,000 per year. Emma was no longer a suitable, or financially viable, consort. Greville slowly made his plan clear, offering Emma to his uncle as a mistress. No doubt Greville was concerned for Emma's maintenance, but his most underhand reason for this dispatch was the hope that the beautiful but unsuitable Emma would distract his uncle from remarrying. By these means, Greville hoped to ensure his inheritance as the childless Hamilton's closest heir.

After sitting to Romney fourteen times in 1786, Emma left London for a new life in Naples. Although Romney may have begun Emma Hart in a Cavern before her departure it his least recognizable portrait of Emma. Perhaps it is indicative that the composition visualizes his 'English rose' far away in the caverns of the Neapolitan coastline. Romney was deeply affected by Emma's departure and his sense of loss is evident in this composition which projects his vision of the muse pining for London and thus, by extrapolation, for the artist himself.

Emma in Morning Dress
George Romney , circa 1782-5
oil on canvas, private collection (cat. 110)

On her arrival in Naples, Sir William Hamilton quickly set to commissioning portraits of Emma by various local and passing artists. Emma, ever keen to please, wrote to Greville from Naples in 1786 asking him to send Romney's Emma in Morning Dress (Image 8) in order to form a pair with Reynolds's Bacchante. At that point, Emma thought of herself as a visitor and waited for Greville to join her. Three months after her arrival she described her feelings of confusion and insecurity:
I have a language master, a singing master ... but what is it for, if it was to amuse you I should be happy, but Greville ... I am poor, helpless & forlorn. I have lived with you 5 years & you have sent me to a strange place & no one prospect, me thinking you was coming to me; instead of which I was told I was to live ... with Sir W. No. I respect him, but no, never shall he perhaps live with me for a little while like you & send me to England, then what am I to do, what is to become of me. Within 6 months Emma had become Hamilton's mistress though she continued to yearn for Greville's return.

The decadence of Neapolitan court and social life can be assumed from the popularity of Emma's 'Attitudes'. An experienced model from her many sittings for George Romney, Emma's gift was the ability create and hold poses that evoked a range of emotions and scenarios. Under Sir William's guidance she developed a repertoire that related to a canon of famous Greek and Roman sculptures and performed these for a range of notable visitors. One such was the German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe who arrived in Naples, in 1787. He described life at Hamilton's Villa Sessa:
After many years of devotion to the arts and the study of nature, [Hamilton has] found the acme of these delights in the person of an English girl ... with a beautiful face and a perfect figure ... she lets down her hair and, with a few shawls, gives so much variety to her poses that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes.

While many men were enamoured with Emma's angelic beauty, her physical presence and her charisma, women visitors could be more critical. Despite commending her 'ravishing' auburn curls, the artist Elizabeth Vigée le Brun's commented that 'Lady Hamilton had very little wit, although she could be excessively sarcastic and critical'. This view did not stop Vigée le Brun producing several fine paintings of an exuberant Emma depicted as a bacchante and as a sibyl. She also choreographed one, memorable, presentation of Emma's 'Attitudes' turning the performance in honour of the Duc de Berry and the Duc de Bourbon into a living painting with the help of dramatically placed candles and the use of a large picture frame. Emma, of course, thrived on the attention. But Sir William was also quick to get the most out of his mistress and wife, whether in the flesh or on canvas. After convincing Vigée le Brun to paint her first canvas in 1790 he happily sold it for three times the amount he paid.

Emma Hamilton Richard Cosway, circa 1801 pencil, ink and watercolour, National Portrait Gallery (not in exhibition)

Emma Hamilton
Richard Cosway, circa 1801 pencil, ink and watercolour
National Portrait Gallery (not in exhibition)


Despite allegations to the contrary Hamilton was 'distractedly in love' with Emma who informed Greville that 'I love him tenderly'. So the unlikely marriage between a woman of 26 -- who was deemed too 'vulgar' to be received at British court -- and the 61 year old ambassador took place in London in 1791. With Emma's return, Romney was roused from his then habitual depression. He responded to his old subject with renewed vigour; he wrote excitedly to a friend 'The greatest part of this summer I shall be engaged on painting pictures from the divine lady.' In June and July, Romney commandeered her time for dozens of sittings, by August he had roughed in eight or nine further fancy pieces depicting Emma as a bacchante, as a Magdalen even as Joan of Arc. Romney's fervent output included this picture of her in a white turban which, with its sketchy, broad brush strokes and unresolved areas, reveals the speed at which he executed many of his portraits of Emma. In September 1791, two consecutive diary entries mark the transition of 'Mrs Hart [at] 9' to 'Lady Hamilton [at] 11' and after 12 October the newly married Lady Emma Hamilton never sat to Romney again. Although Emma's presence in Romney's life had been a defining feature of his creativity, her departure for Italy accentuated the chronic depression which he suffered from during the final, troubled and faltering, years of his career.

Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante Elizabeth Vigée le Brun, circa 1790-2 oil on canvas, Lady Lever Art Gallery, - © The Board of Trustees of National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside (not in exhibition)

Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante
Elizabeth Vigée le Brun, circa 1790-2
oil on canvas, Lady Lever Art Gallery,
© The Board of Trustees of National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside (not in exhibition)

Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a White Turban George Romney, circa 1791 oil on canvas, Courtesy The Huntington Library, At Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California (not in exhibition)

Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a White Turban
George Romney, circa 1791
oil on canvas
Courtesy The Huntington Library, At Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California (not in exhibition)

Emma And Nelson
Lady Emma Hamilton first met Admiral Nelson briefly in August 1793 when his ship The Agammemnon docked in the Bay of Naples. His arrival was due to the Anglo-Neapolitan treaty which had been negotiated by Sir William Hamilton to maintain the Kingdom of Naples's allegiance during Britain's war against France. It is reputed that Emma intervened in the discussions for Neapolitan support; she held great sway with the Queen of Naples who may have helped convince the King that political neutrality was not the best approach. Whether Emma was instrumental or not, Nelson and Sir William both believed her intercession had been influential.

The following months and years were a period of great anxiety for the Hamiltons and Naples. The Queen's sister Marie Antoinette was guillotined in October 1793 and this increased the local hatred of the French; Vesuvius experienced its most extreme eruption since A.D.79 and Sir William Hamilton fell ill. Emma continued with her 'Attitudes' and musical performances but depression and indulgence saw her grow immensely fat. She was perhaps already pining for Nelson, her hero. She did not see him again until 1798, after his defeat of the French at Aboukir Bay. The hospitality of Emma and Sir William had also made its impact on Nelson. Brutally injured, with an amputated arm and blind in one eye, he wrote to them, following the Battle of Aboukir, 'You and Sir William have spoiled me ... I trust my mutilations will not cause me to be less welcome.' For Emma, none of this caused concern. Nothing could have been more fulfilling than to welcome the Hero of the Nile. She immediately began working on a fitting celebration for his welcome.

Dido in Despair James Gillray, 1801 Hand coloured etching National Portrait Gallery Archive Engravings Collection (not in exhibition)

Dido in Despair
James Gillray, 1801
Hand coloured etching
National Portrait Gallery Archive Engravings Collection (not in exhibition)

The three-way bond between Sir William, Emma and Nelson was complicated and highly nuanced. A frail, injured and battle-weary Nelson was nursed back to health and joyfulness by an attentive Emma. First as his maid and then as his mistress, Emma nurtured and worshipped Nelson who was, at the same time, treated as a son and friend by Sir William.
For the next 18 months, Nelson lived in a ménage-à-trois with the Hamiltons while his ships were moored in the bay of Naples ready for occasional action. There were several excursions and a temporary flight to safety, when Nelson took the King and Queen of Naples and the Hamiltons to safety, in the even more decadent court of the King of Two Sicilies in Palermo. It was here, in 1798, that Sir William began to be concerned by Emma's drinking and her increasingly indiscreet behaviour with Nelson. The scandal surrounding the lovers grew, Emma was always at the gambling table with Nelson seated directly behind her -- egging her on. Always keen to be center of attention Emma now revealed in her own moment of glory by Nelson's side.
In June 1800, Nelson claimed to be too ill to carry out his duties and received permission to return to England to recuperate. Though his wife awaited him, Nelson continued to spend most of his time with the Hamiltons. But English society was far more judgmental than Naples had been. As Gilray's biting Dido in Despair (1801) indicates there was much scandal to be derived from their unconventional three-way relationship. Lady Hamilton is depicted in a classic 'attitude' of despair, watching as her lover's fleet sets sail. Scattered around her feet are satiric emblems of Hamilton's antiquarian interests in an ancient phallic cult, reminders of Emma's former beauty and of her 'Attitudes'. The elderly and frail Sir William can be detected asleep in the background, where he had been relegated. Though Emma's obesity was part of Gilray's barbed critique no one seems to have realized that in 1801 she was secretly carrying Nelson's child - Horatia.

Nelson appreciated Emma's discretion and depended upon her love. For the short remainder of his life (and following Sir William's death in 1803) Emma and Nelson lived together as husband and wife in a small house in Merton. In his will, Nelson entrusted Emma's care to the nation but this was ignored by George III and his government. With her working class roots, her questionable past and her penchant for self-display Emma was an embarrassment. Left unsupported, she fled to Calais, where she died of alcoholism. Ultimately, it is only Romney's many portraits of Emma's beauty and changing expressions which captures the vivacity, energy and malleability of the legendary Emma.