Muse: Emma Hamilton’s many identities

Muse is the third post in our series exploring the many fascinating identities Emma Hamilton held throughout her life. It explores Emma's rise to fame, in collaboration with the famous artist George Romney. 

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 exhibition – Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity – threads together a sequence of the more important identities that Emma inhabited during her forty-nine years. Mistress is not one of them. The third in this remarkable progression is that of ‘muse’.

A detail from 'Emma Hart as Circe' by George Romney ©Tate, London 2016
A detail from 'Emma Hart as Circe' by George Romney ©Tate, London 2016

Emma Hamilton - muse to the greatest artist of her age

Aged sixteen, and pregnant, Emma was abandoned by her lover, the young nobleman, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. Her only chance of security lay in finding another ‘protector’, and she wrote a desperate, pleading letter to one of Fetherstonhaugh’s friends, Charles Greville. Knowing that her fate lay entirely in his power, he set out the terms on which she would become his mistress:

‘If you mean to have my protection I must first know from you that you are clear of every connexion, & that you will never take them again without my consent. I shall then be free to dry up the tears of my lovely Emily…but remember I never will…continue my connexion one moment after my confidence is again betray’d.’

Greville provided for the child, but insisted that it could not remain under the same roof as Emma – sadly only the first of her fraught and tragic experiences of motherhood.

Concerned that her conduct should reflect well on his ‘patronage’, Greville set Emma the challenge of mastering a placid and respectable identity. Always ready to seize an opportunity for self-improvement, she responded with a thoroughgoing performance of virtue, in her words turning ‘the wild unthinking Emma’ into ‘a grave thoughtful phylosopher’.

Emma Hamilton by George Romney
Emma Hamilton as Absence, by George Romney

Emma’s skill and success in interpreting Greville’s wishes was matched by her conspicuous beauty – a valuable commodity in Greville’s connoisseurial and gentlemanly world, and one that he sought to exploit. In April 1782, he took her to be painted by George Romney, then London’s most fashionable portraitist. This could have been a brief engagement for a busy artist. Instead, between that year and 1791, Romney embarked on more than 70 paintings of a woman who became his greatest muse.

Emma Hamilton as Bacchante by George Romney
Emma Hamilton as Bacchante by George Romney, The Jean Kislak Collection

Emma’s importance for Romney operated on many levels. To begin with, she was unknown. Romney’s typical clients were members of the British elite: powerful and influential figures who were attracted by his status as a fashionable artist but nonetheless expected to be represented in conventional and respectable terms. A girl from a humble background, Emma could be the subject for unfettered painterly inspiration and experimentation. Anonymity, however, was only the start. Emma was not simply beautiful; she was also a natural and uninhibited performer with a gift for capturing dramatic expressions and personas. Through this powerful combination of qualities, Emma allowed Romney to realize his own artistic ambitions to an extent that perhaps no other sitter in his career was able to match. It is surely this catalyzing quality that made her so enduringly fascinating to him. Certainly she had soon graduated from being merely a model and it might be more accurate to view her as Romney’s creative collaborator.

Emma Hamilton by George Romney
Emma as Sensibility by George Romney, The Jean Kislak Collection

In the process, Emma and Romney formed a long, close and trusting friendship. They were united by humble and provincial backgrounds, and by the fact that neither was formally educated. Emma’s departure for Italy in 1786 was a severe blow for Romney, who was plunged into depression. Unlike Emma’s vibrant nature, he was defined by reflective melancholy. Often withdrawn and untrusting, his warm rapport with her is clear, and their collaboration was energizing and productive. His grief at her absence reflects the significant and inspiring role she played in his creative life.

Next: Possession

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity

See many of the paintings that turned Emma into one of the most famous faces in Europe. Our major exhibition explores her extraordinary life through over 200 fascinating objects. 

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You can also spend Valentine's Day celebrating the nation's greatest love affair, between Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. Our Seduction Late brings the story alive with talks and tours as well as an evening view of the exhibition. 

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