Emma Hamilton: The Lady with Attitudes

Arriving in Naples aged just 21, Emma could not have imagined the turn her life would take. She was about to enter a golden period of admiration.

Previously: The many faces of Emma Hamilton

A love betrayed

In 1786, after 5 years together, Emma hoped that she had found security with her lover Charles Greville. She may even have thought that marriage was possible. Charles however needed to make his fortune via a suitable marriage and his association with Emma was not helpful. So, he hatched a plan to trade her to his wealthy uncle, William Hamilton who had met Emma previously and admired her so much that he had commissioned several paintings of her that hung in his palazzo in Naples.

Emma believed that she would be visiting William’s home in Naples as a tourist, and that Greville would soon travel to join her. The actual intention was however, that she would become William’s mistress and the truth only became clear to her after her arrival in Italy; she had been traded from nephew to uncle as a sexual possession, in return for a greater share of inheritance.

Emma was bereft and furious. Her ‘saviour’ had betrayed her. Hamilton for his part however behaved with kindness and made her part of his circle – or at least tried.

The Attitudes

In Hamilton’s Naples home, Emma was surrounded by a wealth of beautiful, classical artefacts that Hamilton had collected. She took lessons in languages, history, drawing, dancing and singing. She was quickly fluent in Italian and showed a talent for singing.

At Hamilton's side, Emma was present at regular dinners and events attended by the wealthy and influential, where should would sing, dance and entertain guests with her intelligent conversation and engaging character. It was during these dinners that Emma’s Attitudes were born.

These choreographed poses resembled those seen on classical artworks and Old Masters paintings, and represented famous mythical and historical stories and characters. Emma would melt into the form of one figure after another with great ease. These performances were known as the Attitudes and were so sensational that they became known across Europe.

"With a few shawls (she) gives so much variety to her poses, gestures, expressions etc., that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes... This much is certain: as a performance it is like nothing you ever saw before in your life…"


The loose fitting clothes she wore held the interest of the men in the audience. The delicate shawls enabled her to create, “Grecian, Turkish and other drapery as well as a variety of Turbans…” according to Melesina Trench. Along with her long hair they also provided screens enabling a series of dramatic reveals to the delight of her audiences.

Drawing from nature

Awareness of the Attitudes grew greatly after the artist Friedrich Rehberg visited Naples in 1791. He was able to capture Emma’s energy with a series of crisp and clear line drawings showing some of her most famous poses. A few years later, the drawings were published in Rome and along with the numerous other paintings of her, and many editions of prints that were sold across Europe, enabled her name, art and fashion to be celebrated across Europe.

A marriage proposal

Emma and Sir William’s relationship transformed into a warm and mutually supportive partnership and in 1791, with the permission of the King, she became Emma, Lady Hamilton. The nuptials at last granted Emma the legitimate status she had worked so hard for. The scandalous pairing also delighted the gossip writers of the day and so Emma’s celebrity status grew even more. 

Revolutionary days and nights

These were tumultuous times. The French Revolution had displaced aristocrats and sent Napoleon’s armies through Europe. British naval power was immense and Emma, now wife to Sir William - the envoy to Naples - and a close confidante of the Queen of Naples, had become a key player in the courts of Europe.

It’s in this context of political upheaval that Emma, European celebrity, artist and talk of the town would meet, charm and champion Britain’s most celebrated military hero, Horatio Nelson, and together they would become the most famous couple in the world.