Emma, Lady Hamilton

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Emma Hamilton nee Hart – (NPG 2941 Emma, Lady Hamilton by Richard Cosway pencil and watercolour, circa 1801 Primary Collection) SCS S5-2/5


‘Then there is the ‘Lord Nelson’ Stradivari, found in an officer’s state room on [the Victory] after the battle of Trafalgar….Nelson, didn’t care for violinists. Lady Hamilton….hired Paganini once for a musical soiree in Leghorn, and Lord Nelson had to sit quiet and listen. Perhaps it wasn’t such a sacrifice’  (P 158 ‘The Violin’ Joseph Wechsberg)

‘Talent’, even in its rawest form, can be the ultimate shibboleth, melting away the barriers of class, education, even those which prove invincible to beauty. In Emma’s case, until she met William Hamilton, beauty, and charisma, had proved enough. Perhaps she supplied him the ultimately classical model of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’, in her combination of magnetism, beauty, and apparent innocence. Seen from this light, she might even be read as precursor of Wassermann’s Casper Hauser, providing elliptical, apparently fascinating answers, an untutored take on a jaded world. But Hamilton gave her, or perhaps just stumbled across, a new language, a new light, the light of his revenant classicism, which coincided with the new-minted classicism of the early romantics, of Goethe, of Beethoven, even of Keats. Just occasionally, visitors to his salon caught sight of the ‘old Emma’, like Vigée-le Brun, and, appropriately enough, rendered all her freshness, all her light, Cinderella-like, in charcoal from the kitchen grate.

The ‘magician of the north’, the penniless Johann Georg Haman (1730-1788), understood this need:

‘Oh, let me have a muse like the fire of a goldsmith and the soap of the fullers! – who dares to purge the natural use of the senses of unnatural abstractions, though which are idea of things is as defaced as the Creator’s name is obscured and blasphemed.’

The Comtesse de Boigne gave an extensive description of Emma’s rise, and her talent:

 ‘This Lady Hamilton became so notorious that I think a few words should be devoted to her./ Mr Greville happened to enter his kitchen one day, and saw a young girl by the fireside with one foot bare, as she was mending the stocking of black wool which had covered it. Her angelic beauty attracted his notice, and he discovered that she was as sister of his groom. He found no difficulty in bringing her upstairs and installing her in his drawing room. The young man lived with her for some time, and had her taught to read and write. When his affairs became completely upset, he found himself obliged to leave London very suddenly. At that moment his uncle, Sit William Hamilton, the English Minister at Naples, happened to be at home on leave. His nephew told him that his chief vexation was the necessity of abandoning a beautiful young girl, who was in his house, and who was likely to be turned into the street. Sir William promised to look into the matter./ As a matter of fact, he went to look for her at the moment when the bailiffs were turning her out of Mr Greville’s house, and soon he fell desperately in love with her. He took her with him to Italy. What their connection was I cannot say, but at he end of some years he married her. Previously he had treated her with that paternal affection which was natural to      his age and allowed him to introduce her to Italian society, which is less strict that ours upon these matters./ The girl, who was as beautiful as an angel, thought she had never been able to learn to read or write with any fluency, had great artistic talent. She turned to full account the advantages offered by his stay in Italy and by the taste of Sir William Hamilton. She became a good musician, and developed a unique talent which may seem foolish in description, but which enchanted all spectators and drove artists to despair. I refer to what were known as the attitudes of Lady Hamilton./ IN conformity with her husband’s taste, she was generally dressed in a white tunic, with a belt round her waist, her hair down the back or turned up by a comb, but dressed in no special way. When she consented to give a performance, she would provide herself with two or three cashmere shawls, and urn, a scent-box, a lure, and a tambourine. With these few accessories and her classical costume, she took her position in the middle of the room. She threw a shawl over heard which reached the ground and covered her entirely, and thus hidden, draped herself with the other shawls. Then she suddenly raised the covering, either throwing it off entirely or half-raising it, making it form part of the drapery of the model which she represented. But she always appeared as a stature of most admirable design./ I have heard artists say that if ha perfect reproduction were possible, art would have found nothing to change in her. She often varied her attitude and her expression from grave to gay, from trivial to serve before dropping the shawl which concluded that part of the performance. /I have sometimes acted with her as a subordinate figure to form a group. She used to place me in the proper position, and arrange my draperies before raising the shawl, which served as the curtain enveloping us both. My Fair hair contrasted with her magnificent black hair, to which many her effects were due. / Apart from this artistic instinct, Lady Hamilton was entirely vulgar and common. When she exchanged her classical tunic for ordinary dress she lost all distinction. Her conversation showed no interest and little intelligence. Yet she must have had some power of intrigue to reinforce her incomparable beauty, for she completely dominated anyone whom she wished to govern. There was first her old husband, whom she overwhelmed with ridicule; then the Queen of Naples, whom she plundered and disgraced; and finally Lord Nelson, who tarnished his glory under the influence of this woman at a time when she had become prodigiously fat and had lost her beauty. / In spite of all that she had extracted from the Queen of Naples and from Sir William Hamilton, she died at length in distress and poverty, as well as in disgrace. Upon the whole, she was a bad woman, and had a low mind within a magnificent form.

She was far from alone in taking inspiration from classical forms. Elisabeth Vigée-le Brun, the Comtesse de Genlis and Madame de Staël, perhaps inspired by her example, all came up with their own notional ‘attitudes.  Goethe saw Emma perform in 1787:

 ‘Letting her hair fall loose, and taking a couple of shawls, she exhibits every variety of posture, expression and look’.


Emma’s impact on Goethe mirrored the effect her artistic descendant, the dancer Isadora Duncan had on Serge Diaghilev in 1905. Duncan eschewed the official, trained forms of dances, and ‘taking a couple’ of shawls, evoked the natural beauty of red-figured vases. Like Emma’s, for all her access to  high society, Duncan’s end was one of tragic exclusion, and personal loss. Both of them, however, had found liberation in the transgressive foot, flat on the floor.

Charles Greville later, wrote to Sir William Hamilton in Naples [about Caroline of Brunswick] ‘she was announced as fair and fat; we found her fair … and in private life would be thought a pretty woman.’ When Emma, Lady Hamilton replied, she asked ‘Is the Princess of Wales handsome? How can red hair be handsome?’

Richard Cosway’s drawing of Emma dates from the time of her return to London  in 1801. By now, she was 7 months pregnant, by Nelson. This was not public information, but many gossiped that that she had become ‘ungainly’ since her last London appearance 10 years earlier. A drawing which Elizabeth Vigée-le Brun made of Emma in Naples  is inscribed:

 ‘This drawing was made by Madame le-Brun, with a piece of charcoal from the kitchen,   on a door of a room at the Casino of Sir William Hamilton…and removed on orders of the  Chevalier  who was eager to own and conserve this piece my this lovable and sublime artist.’

The artist herself recorded:

 ‘One day I sketched two small heads upon one of the doors; I was very surprised to find the same sketches in England at the home of Lord Warwick. Sir William had had the surface of the door sawn off and sold my sketches; I do not remember the exact sum he obtained for them.’

In our times, the notion of the ‘casino’ has become crudified, as just a place for gambling. But in the 18th and 19th century, the ‘little room’ was a place for all the arts. The most misunderstood of these was the ‘Casino Paganini’, into which the great Genoan sank his money in the 1830’s. This had an extensive programme of music and performance, in an exclusive atmosphere, as opposed to the increasingly public fora  in which music was increasingly happening by that time. Hans Christian Andersen reported going to hear Joseph Joachim in the Copenhagen Casino thirty years later.

In April 1801, The Quarterly Review reported that Sir William Hamilton had just received “intelligence of the glorious victory obtained by the English fleet under Lord Nelson, before Copenhagen.” To celebrate her lover’s triumph, Emma decide that she wouls perform a Tarantella:

 “Sir William began it with her, and maintained the conflict, for such it might well be esteemed, for some minutes….the Duke de Noia succeeded to his place; but he too, though near forty years younger than Sir William, soon gave in., Lady Hamilton then sent for her own maid servant; who likewise exhausted, after a short time, another female attendant, a Copt, perfectly black, who Lord Nelson had presented her on his return from Egypt… It would be difficult to convey an adequate idea of this dance…that the two performers are supposed to be a Satyr and a Nymph; or rather, a Faun and a Bacchant.  It was certainly not of a nature to be performed, except before a select company; as the screams, attitudes, starts and embraces with which it was intermingled, gave it a peculiar character.”

Johann Georg Hamann; Schriften, ed F.Roth & G.Wiener, Berlin, 1824, Volume 2, Pp. 283-4

Memoires of the Comtesse de Boigne , Ed. Anka Muhlstei. Vol. 1, Helen Marx, New York, 2003,Pp.18-20

Dress in 18th Century Europe, Aileen Ribero, Yale, P.273

The Unruly Queen, Flora Fraser,Macmillan, London, 1996, P.56s

(Memoirs, pp.105-106)