On 3 November the National Maritime Museum (NMM) opens a major exhibition focussing on the remarkable and ultimately tragic life of Emma Hamilton, who at the height of her fame, was one of the most famous international celebrities of her time.

National Maritime Museum | 3 November 2016–17 April 2017

Emma Hamilton will always be remembered as the mistress who captured the heart of the Nation’s hero, Horatio Nelson. However, this is only one part of her extraordinary life. Emma captivated Europe with her beauty and achievements and was feted by kings and queens. Yet in the end she was imprisoned for debt and died in exile in Calais.

Emma’s compelling story will be explored through over 200 objects, on loan from public and private lenders, many of which have never been on public display before, and from the National Maritime Museum’s own pre-eminent collections.

The exhibition brings together a wealth of paintings, personal letters, prints and caricatures, costume and jewellery that illuminate Emma’s extraordinary and dramatic tale. Highlights from the exhibition include exceptional fine art by George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence; key letters from Emma and her lovers; Emma’s personal possessions including one of the betrothal rings exchanged between her and Nelson; her songbooks and decorative objects that illustrate her celebrated attitudes. Given that Emma’s life ended when she was in a penniless state, objects that can be firmly attributed to her are rare, and the exhibition will showcase remaining personal effects that survived her.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity seeks to unearth the esoteric stories of Emma’s remarkable life and explore the obstacles and expectations encountered by a woman in the public eye; while questioning whether this is a story that still resonates in the fame-obsessed world we live in today.

Emma’s story

Born into poverty in 1765, Emma was the impoverished daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith. She made her way to London at the tender age of 12 and ambitious to a fault, she was drawn to Covent Garden where high culture and fashionable celebrity met a grimy underworld of sexual exploitation.

Emma became the lover of a young nobleman, but was rejected by him when – aged 16 – she became pregnant. The future looked bleak for her until a new ‘protector’, Charles Greville, made provision for the child and introduced Emma to the great portrait artist, George Romney. With her innate theatricality and striking good looks, Emma found fame while still in her teens as Romney’s muse. Over hundreds of sittings he completed dozens of canvases. Many artists would follow in his footsteps, and a number of these portraits as well as Romney’s, will be brought together for the exhibition, illustrating why Emma became one of the most painted women in British history.

Greville, however, longed for a wealthy wife, and Emma – however beautiful – was becoming a hindrance. A solution to his difficulties came in the form of his uncle: Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples. Unknown to Emma, Greville convinced Hamilton to take her on as his own mistress – passed from nephew to uncle like the paintings and sculptures that both men collected so avidly. Emma was sent to Naples, fully expecting Greville to join her. When the truth became clear, she was crushed, and wrote angry and pleading letters to him that all went unanswered.

By her 20s Emma had achieved even greater artistic prominence in Naples, the epicentre of the fashionable Grand Tour. Determined to make the best of her circumstances, and seizing any opportunity for self-improvement, she threw herself into the educational opportunities made available to her by Sir William Hamilton. She used this education and her experience of modelling for Romney to create her own astonishing performance art: the ‘attitudes’; bringing to life the paintings and sculptures that enraptured the Grand Tourists in Naples. Her poses and elegant use of costume and shawls became the must-see spectacle of the day, winning the admiration of an elite audience that were all too ready to criticize a girl of Emma’s humble origins.

Upon marrying Sir William in 1791, Emma made an incredible leap up the social ladder and of course became ‘Lady Hamilton’. As the wife of an envoy, Emma now had a political role to play in the Neapolitan Court. Moreover, she became the confidante and favourite of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily (the sister of Marie Antoinette), and came to wield considerable political power. Letters in Emma’s hand highlighting her political agency will be on display in the exhibition, and showcase that the girl from the Wirral had come a very long way indeed.

In 1798, following his great victory at the Battle of the Nile, Admiral Nelson arrived in Naples. Emma organized lavish celebrations in his honour, and Nelson turned to her as a vital guide to the Neapolitan situation. Later, with French forces approaching the city, Nelson arranged for the royal family to be taken on board his flagship and evacuated to Sicily. Emma played a pivotal role on the journey; even cradling Maria Carolina’s dying son in her arms during the terrible storm that followed.

Emma and Nelson’s mutual admiration turned to passion, and one of history’s greatest love affairs began. With her lover and her husband Emma travelled back to Britain, with Nelson’s victories and her ‘attitudes’ celebrated all the way. However, Emma’s adulterous relationship with the nation’s hero risked the security and social status she had struggled so long to possess. Damaging rumours about their infidelity began to circulate back in England, where Nelson’s wife Frances awaited. By now, Emma was also pregnant with Nelson’s child. Her future hung in the balance.

Emma and Nelson dreamed of happiness together, but the realities of life in England were always more complex. Their daughter Horatia was born in great secrecy and immediately given up to a nurse. Social convention dictated that Emma could not admit to being her mother. Emma found a country house, Merton Place, which she refurbished as her home with Nelson and filled with emblems of their joint fame. But Nelson’s duties kept him away at sea for years at a time, and they only had letters to sustain their romance.

However, tragedy struck and Nelson’s death at the moment of his victory at Trafalgar shattered Emma’s world. She was heartbroken, and perhaps never recovered. Emma was in Nelson’s thoughts even as he lay dying, and he directed that his pigtail should be sent to her. The famous uniform coat that he wore during the battle was later seen arranged on her bed next to her grief-stricken form.

Without the youthful beauty that had propelled her rise to fame, and without the security of marriage, Emma’s fortunes never recovered from the tragedy of his death. Her life became increasingly difficult, made worse by her own desperate and extravagant efforts to maintain her fashionable lifestyle. In 1813 she was arrested for debt and sent to King’s Bench Prison. Sufficient funds were found for her to be released, and she spent her final months of failing health far from her creditors in Calais. She died in January 1815, broken and destitute.

At every point of Emma’s journey, this dazzling woman fought through the barriers and conventions of a man’s world that she could never completely control.

Exhibition information for visitors:

Venue: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich | Dates: 3 November 2016–17 April 2017 | Opening times: Every day, 10.00–17.00 | Visitor enquiries: 020 8858 4422 | Admission: Adult £14, Child £7, Concession £6

Find out more about Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity [www.rmg.co.uk/emmahamilton]

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Notes to Editors:

Royal Museums Greenwich incorporates the National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 17th-century Queen’s House, and Cutty Sark. Royal Museums Greenwich works to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people. This unique collection of attractions, which form a key part of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, welcomes over 1.5 million British and international visitors a year and is also a major centre of education and research.

To accompany the exhibition, the NMM will be hosting a season of events for visitors to experience the sensational world of Emma Hamilton, including walks, talks, courses, film screenings and evening events.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is accompanied by a richly illustrated book edited by Quintin Colville. Published on 3 November 2016, this book provides a fresh evaluation of Emma Hamilton’s artistic undertakings, cultural achievements and legacy. Also entitled Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, it is published by Thames & Hudson and will retail at £29.95 for the hardback. For further information or to request review copies please contact: press@thameshudson.co.uk

For further information or images, please contact: Rhianon Davies, Royal Museums Greenwich Press Office | Tel: 020 8312 6545 | 07983 542 841 Email: rdavies@rmg.co.uk