Student is the fifth post in our series exploring the many fascinating identities Emma Hamilton held throughout her life. It explores Emma's lifelong thirst for learning and self-improvement.

Emma Hamilton is usually known as the lover of the great naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson. However, this reductive stereotype obscures the many other facets of her extraordinary and eventful life. In order to illuminate Emma’s path Dr Quintin Colville, curator of our major exhibition Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, threads together a sequence of the more important identities that Emma inhabited during her 49 years. Mistress is not one of them. The fifth in this remarkable progression is that of ‘student’.

Creative self-determination

As we have seen across the four preceding identities, the elements of a driven and creative self-determination can be traced throughout Emma’s life. For example, although her early years in London
 are often viewed as a victim’s journey from domestic servitude to sexual exploitation, a thread of ambition is usually visible (and all the more striking for the forces arrayed against it).

It was Emma’s choice to try her luck in the glittering but hazardous world of Covent Garden. The letters she wrote at this time to her lover Charles Greville reveal a girl hungry for self-improvement. When he set her the challenge of mastering a placid and respectable identity she responded with a thoroughgoing performance of virtue, in her words turning ‘the wild unthinking Emma’ into ‘a grave thoughtful phylosopher’. She seized the opportunity of her introduction to Romney in 1782, transforming what could have been a brief engagement for a busy artist into a long-standing creative collaboration and a multifaceted artistic education.

A Neapolitan education

Although the circumstances of her arrival in Naples in 1786 were, to say the least, disempowering, this same thirst for knowledge and experience marks her years in Italy. In short, she threw herself into Neapolitan life with her typical thirst for education and betterment. The palazzo of her new ‘protector’, Sir William Hamilton, was famously packed with all the accessories of a cultivated mind. But Emma’s eagerness to absorb them was not supplied by the host (although he provided for her with generosity). 

As Amber Ludwig puts it, she 

‘applied herself to learning and self-fashioning with a zealousness rarely seen outside of the eighteenth-century novel’.

Even Edmund d’Auvergne, one of Emma’s most vituperative 20th-century critics, could not sidestep Hamilton’s proud correspondence with his nephew Charles Greville concerning Emma’s rapid progress with languages, history and music. Instead, he took aim and let fly with both barrels, one loaded with disbelief and the other with condescension:

‘She seems to have learned Italian, the easiest of languages, very quickly.’

In truth, Emma’s achievements deserve a better press than that. Rapidly fluent in Italian and French, she also mastered the Neapolitan dialect, allowing her to engage with the everyday life of the city’s markets and thoroughfares. Moreover, she discovered a considerable talent for singing – coached and polished by the musicians and composers that Sir William engaged for her as tutors. Invitations to perform at major opera houses soon followed – accolades of real substance, though not ones that Hamilton would allow her to follow up given social stigma attached to the life of a paid performer.

In spite of – and perhaps because of – her precarious and problematic status as Sir William’s mistress, Emma grasped every thread that could lead to a more secure and fulfilling future. She did not have the luxury to see education as connoisseurial and reflective. The skills that she assembled in Naples were purposeful and targeted. Not least, it was here that she reshaped the feminine ideal she had constructed with Greville. Rather than a persona suiting his ‘retired stile’, she studied the more outgoing, convivial and urbane female identity of Hamilton’s elite Grand-Tourist milieu. But Emma would not be a student for much longer: her great artistic innovation, the ‘Attitudes’ saw to that.

Next: Performer

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity

Explore the extraordinary life of Emma Hamilton, illustrated by over 200 objects in our major exhibition.

Find out more