Emma as Sensibility

A full-length portrait of Emma Hart (née Amy Lyon, later Lady Hamilton, 1765–1815) as a personification of ‘Sensibility’. Facing to right, she half kneels on a stone platform, upon which stands a mimosa plant in a stone urn. She reaches out with her left hand to touch the uppermost leaves of the plant, while her right hand is clasped to her breast, the thumb and index finger extended. She is dressed in pseudo-classical style, wearing a loose-fitting pink dress which is fastened at the shoulder with a small oval brooch and tied at the waist with a sash. A diaphanous blue shawl is draped over her left shoulder and her auburn hair is tied back with a white scarf, which loops under her chin. A crown of white flowers is woven around her head. The background features a loosely painted landscape with a tree and distant hills, framed on the left by two columns.

Part of the pea family, mimosa is also known as ‘sensitive plant’ because it rapidly droops and closes its leaves in response to touch. In eighteenth-century literature, it became a popular metaphor for human sensibility. Like the mimosa leaves shying away from touch, the experience of empathetic feelings was understood as a natural and spontaneous reaction to affecting stimuli. This metaphor is given visual form in Romney’s portrait, in which Emma is shown reciprocating the sensitivity of the plant. As its leaves droop away from her outstretched hand, she curls in upon herself, pressing her right hand to her heart, as if witnessing the plant’s delicacy has stimulated her own delicate sentiments.

The daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith, Emma Hart (born Amy Lyon) became famous as a gifted performer and beautiful model. After working for a time in domestic service, she became mistress to Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, 2nd Baronet, who dismissed her after she fell pregnant in 1781. She appealed for help to the Hon. Charles Francis Greville – a prominent figure in cultural and aristocratic circles whom she had met while living with Fetherstonhaugh. In response to her plea, Greville installed her in his house in Paddington Green, sent away her new-born daughter and offered her the prospect of a new life, suggesting that she “take another name, by degrees I would get you a new set of acquaintance”. Around this time, she began styling herself “Emma”, to which Greville added the new surname “Hart”.

Greville also introduced Emma to the portrait painter George Romney, with whom she developed a mutually beneficial creative relationship. Romney was an important portrait painter of the late eighteenth century, generally ranked alongside Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough at the top of his profession. The Cumbrian-born artist travelled to Paris in 1764 and lived between 1772 and 1775 in Italy, where he became interested in history painting and classical aesthetics. His best work demonstrates imagination, sensitivity and elegance, although his routine portraits can be repetitive and monotonous. As a society portraitist in London, he was exceptionally prolific. Undertaking a vast number of commissions, he relied heavily upon stylised pictorial formulas. By 1780, Romney's portraits were, according to Horace Walpole, “in great vogue” and he worked in an increasingly neo-classical style.

Over a nine-year period, Romney painted Emma more than seventy times, creating a diverse range of imaginative portraits, history paintings and ‘fancy’ pictures. Emma posed for many of these works, adopting a wide variety of different guises, from mythological heroines and Shakespearean characters to medieval saints and idealised personifications of femininity. Although on one level these pictures presented Emma as an object to be gazed at and consumed, they also allowed her to hone her considerable talent for performance. For Romney, meanwhile, painting Emma afforded an opportunity to indulge his creative fascination with classical aesthetics and emotional expression to a greater extent than he was able to do in his society portraits.

Romney introduced Emma to his circle of artistic, literary and theatrical friends, including the writer William Hayley, whose most famous work was The Triumphs of Temper, written and published in 1781. This mock-epic poem tells the story of Serena, whose sweet temper and good humour sustains her through a series of tribulations for which she is rewarded with a happy marriage. Romney painted a number of responses to the poem, including Serena in the Boat of Apathy (1784–85), for which Emma served as a model.

In the present portrait, Emma is personifying Sensibility, rather than portraying Hayley’s Serena, but her pose nevertheless recalls to an incident described in the poem’s fifth canto (221–230), when Serena encounters a mimosa plant: “Her fair left arm around a vase she flings, / From which the tender plant Mimosa springs: / Towards its leaves, o’er which she fondly bends, / The youthful Fair her vacant hand extends / With gentle motion, anxious to survey / How far the feeling fibres own her sway: / The leaves, as conscious of their queen’s command, / Successive fall at her approaching hand; / While her soft breast with pity seems to pant, / and shrink at every shrinking of the plant.”

Hayley enjoyed a close friendship with Romney and claimed to have actively encouraged the artist to realise the above-quoted lines in paint. In his Life of Romney (published in 1809, seven years after the artist’s death), Hayley wrote: “I happened to find [Romney] one morning contemplating by himself a recently coloured head on a small canvas. I expressed my admiration of his unfinished work in the following terms: – ‘This is a most happy beginning; you have never painted a female head with such exquisite expression: you have only to enlarge you canvas, introduce the shrub mimosa growing in a vase, with a hand of the figure approaching its leaves, and you may call your picture the personification of Sensibility’.”

Hayley goes on to describe how he sourced a mimosa plant for Romney to paint from the botanist James Smith (“an eminent nurseryman in Hammersmith”) and how he later acquired the finished painting for his own collection as part of a convoluted property deal. Hayley also relates how he lent the painting to the print-maker John Boydell for engraving. Published on 25 March 1789, Richard Earlom’s stipple engraving quoted the relevant lines from Hayley’s Triumphs of Temper, reinforcing the connection between the portrait and the poem.

Hayley’s account of the genesis of the painting demonstrates how Romney often developed his portraits of Emma in collaboration with his friends. The artist also valued Emma’s creative input, but the present painting was completed in her absence after her lover, Charles Francis Greville, sent her in March 1786 to live with his uncle Sir William Hamilton, who was the British Ambassador at the Court of Naples.

A noted scholar and collector of classical antiquities, Sir William had been seeking a beautiful and charming hostess for his salon since the death of his wife in 1782. With her warm and extravagant personality, Emma proved ideally suited to this role and embraced the opportunity her situation afforded to further her education. She also turned the performative talents that she had honed in Romney’s studio to a new purpose, developing a series of dramatic poses based on classical history and mythology, known as her “Attitudes”, which she performed to immense acclaim from Sir William’s friends and fellow connoisseurs. Eventually, Emma achieved a respectable social position through her marriage to Sir William in 1791. This development in her own life paralleled the story of Serena in The Triumphs of Temper, the character whom she had so often modelled for Romney. Unsurprisingly, Emma recognised the connection, writing to Romney shortly after her marriage: “Tell Hayly I am allways reading his Triumphs of the Temper; it was that that made me Lady H., for God knows, I had 5 years enough to try my temper, and I am affraid if it had not been for the good example Serena taught me, my girdle would have burst, and if it had I had been undone, for Sir W. minds more temper than beauty.”

As Lady Hamilton, Emma became an intimate of Queen Maria-Carolina, before entering into a passionate affair with the British naval commander Horatio Nelson after the Battle of the Nile in 1798. From then until Hamilton’s death in 1803, their almost inseparable ‘ménage à trois’ was sustained by Sir William's urbane refusal to acknowledge the real nature of his wife's relationship with their ‘dear friend’ Nelson. In 1801, shortly after they all returned together to England, Emma gave birth in secret to Nelson's daughter, Horatia, around whom they wove an elaborate charade that the child was in fact Nelson's adopted god-daughter. Emma’s grief following Nelson's death at Trafalgar in 1805 was inconsolable. Denied the living that Nelson had bequeathed to her, she ran into debt, for which she was briefly imprisoned, and died in straitened circumstances in Calais in 1815.

Object Details

ID: ZBA9404
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Romney, George
Date made: circa 1787
Exhibition: Seduction and Celebrity: The Spectacular Life of Emma Hamilton
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Jean Kislak Collection
Measurements: Frame: 1735 mm x 1422 mm x 96 mm; Painting: 1500 mm x 1215 mm

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