16 Mar 2017

Wife is the seventh post in our series exploring the many fascinating identities Emma Hamilton held throughout her life. It explores Emma's marriage to Sir William Hamilton, a marriage which defied the social conventions and snobberies of the age. 

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 seventh in this remarkable progression is 'Wife'.

The immense success of the Attitudes propelled Emma to a position of considerable social and cultural influence. Her place among Sir William Hamilton’s coterie of British aristocrats remained problematic and precarious, but she had nonetheless won acclaim and, albeit qualified, acceptance. She certainly could not be dismissed as a mere paid performer, and powerful friends were now on hand to advance her claims for respectability. Indeed, she was held up as a model of constancy and virtue from her arrival in Naples in 1786 to the start of her affair with Nelson in 1799.

Mutual affection

To some extent, these social gains also paved the way for her marriage to Sir William. Their relationship had become one of deep affection on both sides. Thirty-five years her senior, Sir William was a remarkable figure in his own right. Soldier, diplomat, connoisseur of antiquities and Old Master paintings, musician and pioneering volcanologist, Hamilton was an influential and cultivated man whose collections and publications had brought him international recognition. He was also a benevolent, sophisticated and worldly man who had watched Emma’s succession of cultural achievements with admiration (and perhaps a little self-congratulation too).

Few people would have exceeded Sir William’s long familiarity with the conventions and snobberies of the British elite. He understood full well that Emma would never meet the qualifications for entrance into their beau monde. She was, however, now a significant figure in Naples, and increasingly provided the motivation for Grand Tourists to make their way to his palazzo. Beyond that, she brought interest and lustre to his life. He was not a young man eager to make his reputation, and after playing by the rules of decorum throughout his career he seems to have enjoyed an opportunity to break them.

Emma and Sir William were married in September 1791 during a visit to London. Several years later he looked back on that decision in a letter to his niece:

"Look round your circle of prudent…matches in the great world and see how few turn out so well as our seemingly imprudent one"

‘It was not beauty alone that decided me to marry. All that I can assure you is that in this Country no body stands higher in public Esteem than Lady Hamilton…I am now come to that point as to care little about the great World – the marrying Emma was my own business, I knew what I was doing for as you know I had lived with her five years before I married and it is now five more since we married & I do not repent. Look round your circle of prudent…matches in the great world and see how few turn out so well as our seemingly imprudent one. To be sure I wax old, & she is young, but the misfortunes of her youth has taught her that a good reputation is the most precious ornament of her sex, & having recovered it by her prudence & good conduct will never wish the loss of it again by any imprudences.’


Naturally, not everyone viewed the match in the same terms. For one visiting gentleman, Heneage Legge, the harmony and happiness of Sir William’s relationship could not for a moment counterbalance its impropriety and unsuitability. Some months before the wedding took place, he wrote back to Emma’s former lover, Charles Greville (Hamilton’s nephew), in horror at the direction that events appeared to be taking. Emma’s evident artistic talents were no substitute for breeding:

"I have all along told her that she could never change her situation for the better, and that she was a happier Woman as Mrs H[art] than she would be as Ly[Lady] H"

‘The language of both Parties [Sir William and Emma], who always spoke in the plural number, we, us, and ours, staggered me at first, but soon made me determined to speak openly to him on the subject, when he assured me what I confess I was most happy to hear, that he was not married; but flung out some hints of doing justice to her good behaviour, if his public situation did not forbid him to consider himself an independent Man. Her influence over him exceeds all belief; his attachment exceeds admiration, it is perfect dotage; she gives everybody to understand that he is now going to England to solicit the K’s consent to marry her, and that on her return she shall appear as Lady H. She says it is impossible to continue in her present dubious state, which exposes her to frequent slight and mortification; and his whole thought, Happiness, and Comfort so centred in her presence, that if she should refuse to return on other terms, I am confident she will gain her point, against which it is the Duty of every friend to strengthen his mind  as much as possible, and she will be satisfied with no argument, but the King’s absolute refusal of his approbation; her talents and powers of amusing are very wonderful; her voice is very fine, but she does not sing with great taste, and Aprili says she has not a good Ear; her attitudes are beyond description beautiful, and striking, and I think you will find her figure much improved since you last saw her. They say they shall be in London by the latter end of May; that their stay in England will be as short as possible, and that having settled his affairs, he is determined never to return. She is much visited here by Ladies of the highest Rank, and many of the Corps Diplomatique; does the Honours of his House with great attention and desire to please, but wants a little refinement of manners, in which in the course of six years I wonder she has not made greater progress. I have all along told her that she could never change her situation for the better, and that she was a happier Woman as Mrs H[art] than she would be as Ly[Lady] H, when more reserved behaviour being necessary, she would be deprived of half her amusements, and must no longer sing those comic parts, which tend so much to the entertainment of herself and her friends. She does not accede to that doctrine, and unless great care is taken to prevent it, I am clear she will in some unguarded hour work upon his empassioned mind, and effect her design of becoming your Aunt.’

Sir William had simply decided to absorb the social sniping that he knew would come. He would also have been aware that Emma’s cultural status as the ‘Queen of Attitudes’ would challenge and disrupt the more conventional female role adopted by his first wife, Catherine. To outsiders the power relationship between husband and wife, man and woman, was threatened by Emma’s mercurial and very public talents.

La Penserosa: a portrait of Lady Emma Hamilton by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Photograph: © Bryan F. Rutledge B.A.© Duke of Abercorn

Shortly after their marriage, Emma and Sir William met with the fashionable portraitist Thomas Lawrence (who had, in fact, desired to paint Emma for some time). Entitled La Penserosa, the resulting grand picture of Emma is a long way from the bacchantes and sexualized playthings that comprise so many of her earlier representations. Instead, she is portrayed as noble, grave, authoritative and serious. Although not everyone was entirely convinced, the moment of marriage provided Emma with another key juncture for transformation and for re-framing her own identity. As always, she seized it, and moved swiftly and determinedly into her new world as Lady Hamilton, the envoy’s wife.

Next: Political Agent 

Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity

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

Find out more