EMMA HAMILTON: SEDUCTION AND CELEBRITY is an exhibition opening on November 4th, 2017 at National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
Emma Hamilton is most renowned for being Admiral Lord Nelson’s mistress but in fact was a muse and celebrity in her own right. From humble origins, Emma Hamilton rose to national and international fame as a model, performer and interpreter of neo-classical fashion. Within the public mind, however, she typically continues to occupy a passive and supporting role, and is often remembered simply as the mistress of Britain’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson. This landmark exhibition recovers Emma from myth and misrepresentation, and reveals her to be an active and influential historical actor in her own right: one of the greatest female lives of her era.
The child’s needle book is among the items in a new exhibition
Born into poverty in 1765, Emma’s talent and beauty brought her fame while still in her teens as muse to the great portrait artist George Romney. In her twenties she achieved still greater artistic prominence in Naples, the epicentre of the fashionable Grand Tour. Here, as the confidante of Queen Maria Carolina, she also came to wield considerable political power. Emma embarked on a passionate affair with Admiral Lord Nelson, but risked her security and social status in the process. Her fortunes never recovered from the tragedy of his death at Trafalgar and – following a period in debtor’s prison – she died in self-imposed exile in Calais in 1815.
The exhibition carries visitors through the arc of this remarkable story, revealing Emma’s driving ambition and her brilliance as a performer, and placing in sharp relief the social conventions ranged against her. In an age when people tended to remain fixed in the social categories in which they began their lives, she crossed boundaries of all kinds, broke through barriers and ultimately paid a heavy price.
After visiting Vienna on their way home to England, Nelson and his party travelled to Prague and then to Dresden where the court painter Schmidt produced this pastel drawing of Emma together with one of Nelson (see PAJ3939). Schmidt drew this pair of portraits of Nelson and Emma Hamilton from sittings taken there at the Hotel de Pologne early in October that year, where they stayed during their return to England from Naples, with Sir William Hamilton. Nelson subsequently hung it in his cabin when at sea, including in ‘Victory’ from 1802 to his death at Trafalgar and, according to Emma, called it his ‘Guardian Angel’.
Emma’s story will be told through over 200 objects from public and private lenders around a core from the Museum’s own collections. Emma’s compelling story will be explored through exceptional fine art; antiquities that inspired Emma’s famous ‘attitudes’; costumes that show her impact on contemporary fashions; prints and caricatures that carried her image to a mass audience; her personal letters and those of Nelson and William Hamilton; and finally the uniform coat that Nelson wore at Trafalgar, retained by Emma until destitution forced her to part with it.
Dates: 4 November 2016 – 17 April 2017 Opening times: every day, 10.00 – 17.00 Visitor enquiries: 020 8858 4422 / www.rmg.co.uk
The loose, draped clothes tied with a sash that Emma wore for her Attitudes inspired the fashionable elite to adopt her signature look of loose draped white muslin dress and ‘Grecian style’ pumps*. Think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
The artist George Romney’s obsession with Emma’s beauty resulted in a score of memorable paintings. He continued to paint her portrait even after she left England.
Emma’s time as Romney’s model had given her experience posing in various classical guises. She also had the dubious distinction earlier in her career in London, of having worked as a scantily clad model and dancer – or “Goddess of Health” – at Dr. Graham’s Temple of Health and Hymen, which claimed to cure the reproductive and sexual problems of couples. Emma used her “theatrical” experiences to develop her “Attitudes”.
For her “Attitudes”, Emma wore simple white-draped garments that fitted loosely and allowed her long hair to flow free. Her dresses were modeled on those worn by peasant women in the Bay of Naples.
Emma’s repertoire was large and made up of at least 200 poses. During a performance she moved from one silent tableau to the other with great rapidity, delicacy. and deliberateness in what one writer termed ‘bursts of stillness.’ The private and select audiences would attempt to guess the names of the classical characters and scenes from stage and literature that she pantomimed, and stare in awe at Emma’s ability to transform her moods and the scene in an instant.
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