Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Extra Long Georgian Item of the Week

Emma, Lady Hamilton
c. 1765 - 1815

Study of Emma Hart as Circe
circa 1782-85
George Romney
Tate Gallery, London

One of the most scandalous relationships of Georgian England was the devoted alliance between Emma, Lady Hamilton and the hero of the nation, Horatio Nelson. Like any public and unconventional woman, an inordinate amount has been written about Lady Hamilton, much of it unflattering and most of it untrue. The daughter of a Blacksmith, Emma, born Amy Lyon in Cheshire circa 1761-5, at the age of sixteen or seventeen was a most ravishingly beautiful girl who had become the full time mistress of the Hon. Charles Greville in London after having been very lately abandoned pregnant by her former lover Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh. Before her entry into the demi-monde Lyon worked as nursemaid in two or three private houses. Greville set her and her widowed mother up in their own home and Amy Lyon thereafter went by the more upwardly mobile name of Mrs Emma Hart. Her daughter Emma Carew was brought up by her grandmother in Wales.

During the five years she lived with Greville, Emma sat more than 100 times for the painter George Romney. Though a majority of these sittings were by Romney's obsessive desir
e, many of them were commissioned by Greville and it was the cost of these portraits that helped contribute to the massive personal debts that forced Greville to give Emma up in 1786 in search of a wealthy bride. Greville sent her to Naples to be the guest of his uncle Sir William Hamilton, leading vulcanologist and British Envoy to Naples and a widower, with the expressed plan of following her shortly. In reality Greville intended to remain in England and marry an heiress, and that the fascinating, charismatic presence and angelic, Grecian beauty of Emma would prevent the already fond Sir William from remarrying elsewhere and thereby disinheriting him. After months of waiting faithfully for Greville, the reality of her situation dawned on her and Emma became instead Sir William's mistress, whom she admired and grew to love, and as such she was educated and 'finished', the benefits of elocution, foreign language and singing lessons added to her natural graces, and in 1791 he married her, much to the chagrin no doubt of Charles Greville.

As Lady Hamilton Emma was literally the toast of Naples society. She was a favourite at the Neapolitan court of Kind Ferdinand IV and the close friend and confident of the Queen, Maria
Carolina (sister of Marie Antoinette of France). In Naples she developed her Attitudes, a repetoire of tableaux vivant poses representing classical characters from Ancient Greek and
Roman history, that became famous and much admired in Europe by many, including writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe and composer Joseph Hadyn, other artists and academics and many of the members of parliament, of royal families and of aristocracies within Sir William's vast and
varied ambassadorial and scientific circles.

Emma Hamilton as the Goddess of Health (Vestina)
circa 1786-90
Robert Cosway

The National Maritime Museum London

Although Emma was very beautiful, it was the way she could embody a character as an ideal and her eye for the visually artistic, the skills of a good model and a muse, that made her prized by many painters as a subject, including Vigée le Brun, Marie Antoinette's friend and principal portrait artist. The Neoclassicism of the Enlightenment and the European Republican admiration for Ancient Greece and Rome were the driving forces behind the radical change of dress in the Georgian period and the simple, classical, Grecian costumes of Lady Hamilton's Attitudes were hugely influential on the Directoire and Empire styles of women's dress in Europe and Britain. Lady Hamilton was certainly not clever, she could be very critical and she had a healthy appetite for admiration, and for wine but she was also good company, warm, loyal, an excellent wife to Sir William and a widely respected society hostess.

Emma first met Admiral Nelson briefly in August 1793 when his ship The Agamemnon docked in the Bay of Naples but it was not until he returned after five years of war in 1798 that their unique relationship was solidified. The 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 nursemaid, with the skills and patience she'd learned in her pre-courtesan career and then as his mistress, Emma nurtured and worshiped Nelson who was, at the same time, treated as a son and friend by Sir William. For the next 18 months, Nelson, who was childless but married to a wife in England, lived in a ménage-à-trois with the Hamiltons while his ships were moored in the bay of Naples.

In 1800 the Hamiltons and Nelson returned to England, where society was far less forgiving and where Nelson, his estranged wife and family were adored and Emma was despised and ridiculed in the press. Nelson did spend some time with Fanny, Lady Nelson at first but eventually gave her up entirely and, between naval engagements, he was most often a guest in Sir William's house in London and openly continued his affair with Emma. The affair was an outrageous scandal, sympathy and solidarity for the abandoned and blameless Lady Nelson was intense and Emma, though the wife of the highly respected Neapolitan ambassador, was denied presentation at court and duly shunned by good society. But she was believed to have become a friend of the Prince Regent, naturally. In 1801 while in the late stages of pregnancy, she still went abroad in London, defying the accepted practice of gentlewomen to not socialize at large once they had began to show, and to remain confined entirely to their homes in late pregnancy. She was consequently lampooned in the press as hugely obese and, despite her education, charm and grace, as vulgar and irredeemably working class.

Their daughter Horatia was born in 1801. Sir William, quite elderly by this time, died in London in 1803 and Nelson purchased a house for Emma at Merton but he himself was assigned to the HMS Victory and would not return to England for two years. Their second child Emma was born not long after his departure and died early of chicken pox. Upon his return , he and Emma lived happily for a few short months as husband and wife at Merton before he was recalled to the war. Horatio Nelson was killed in action at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In his will, Nelson entrusted Emma's care to the nation, as his estate must fall to his brother, 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 Hamilton was an embarrassment. Struggling to keep up Merton as a monument to England's beloved Nelson, she swiftly burned through all she had within three years and after borrowing money she couldn't repay, she spent a year with Horatia in King's Bench debtor's prison, where the Prince Regent dined with her on occasion. She then left England permanently for France. Emma had always been a drinker and she died destitute of alcoholism ten years later in Calais in 1815. Emma Carew is believed to have died without issue, abroad or in Wales not long after her mother. Horatia Nelson was taken in by Nelson's mother's relations and later married the Reverend Phillip Ward at the age of 21. They were apparently very happy and had ten children together, eight of who survived to adulthood and whose descents still live in Norfolk.

I sometimes wonder if the very public and well publicized scandal of Emma and Nelson had an impact on the way Austen chose to portray the navy, sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct within in the navy in Mansfield Park.

Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton in a White Turban
George Romney
The Hunting Library, San Marino, California


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