In an age before tabloids and social media, British beauty Emma Hamilton (1765–1815) became the most famous female celebrity of her day. Hamilton's steamy affair with Britain's greatest naval commander and national hero, Lord Nelson, solidified her fame, although it sullied her reputation within British society.
An early style icon, Emma Hamilton rose from poverty to fame, becoming a sought-after model among Britain's esteemed fine-art painters. Hamilton served as a muse for English portraitist George Romney, appearing as a subject in many of his pictures, and Romney's obsession helped her become the most painted woman in European history. As Hamilton's likeness began appearing on cups and fans as well as other commodities, “her image was seared onto the public consciousness,” noted Kate Williams in her biography England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton. “She became a fantasy figure for thousands of men and a fashion leader for women. Even if she had never become as celebrated as she did, the loveliness of her portraits would have ensured her lasting fame.”
Emma Hamilton was born Amy Lyon, on April 26, 1765, the only child of Henry Lyon and Mary Kidd Lyon. Raised in the mining slums of Neston, Cheshire, England, she went by many names, including Emy, Emly, and Emily. Parish records indicate that Hamilton's parents were illiterate because they endorsed their 1764 marriage certificate with an “X” rather than a proper signature.
Henry Lyon worked as a blacksmith near the coal mines until he died in June of 1765, leaving behind his wife and their two-month-old daughter. Poor and destitute, Mary Lyon took the baby and moved in with her parents at Hawarden in northeastern Wales. After she found steady employment as a seamstress and maid, Mary supported the family and left the infant girl in the care of her mother.
When Hamilton was 12, she began working as a nursemaid for the family of a local doctor, and historians suggest that at this point she was first exposed to education and refinement. Within a year, she changed her name to Emma and followed her mother to London. Desperate for work, Hamilton danced in the brothels until she found suitable employment as a nursemaid. Though she had escaped from the slummy mining town of her birth, London did not offer many economic opportunities. There were few jobs available to women of Hamilton's class, and work options limited her to posts such as shop assistant, barmaid, and housekeeper.
In December 1781, Hamilton became pregnant, and Fetherstonhaugh quickly showed her the door. Desperate, she appealed to one of Sir Harry's friends, the cultivated 32-year-old bachelor Charles Francis Greville. The son of the earl of Warwick, Greville enjoyed financial stability and dealt in artwork and antiquities. As reproduced in Julie Peakman's Emma Hamilton, Hamilton's letters to Greville included the plea: “Believe me I am allmost distracktid I have never hard from Sir H … What shall I dow good god what shall I dow I have wrote 7 letters and no anser.”
Greville agreed to take in the pregnant Hamilton on the condition that her imminent offspring be put in foster care and never inhabit their home. In 1782, Hamilton moved into Greville's London townhouse; born months later, her infant daughter was taken to Hawarden, there to be raised by relatives. Historians speculate that Greville may have offered refuge for Hamilton because it gave him an attractive—and cheap—mistress to run his household. He also changed her name from Emma Lyon to Emma Hart.
Beginning in her teen years, Hamilton was a beauty and turned heads with her stunning good looks. Tall and curvy, she had an earnest, heart-shaped face as well as luxuriant auburn hair streaked with gold and blue-gray eyes. A savvy businessman, Greville quickly recognized the potential in his new “commodity,” and he sent Hamilton to pose for local artists, including English portrait painters Alexander Day, Joshua Reynolds, and Romney. Hamilton became famous through her association with Romney, sitting for him hundreds of times.
In 1782, Romney produced an oil painting of 17-yearold Hamilton posing as the Greek sorceress Circe from Homer's Odyssey. He also used her image as the basis of paintings featuring the Greek goddess Ariadne, the biblical figure Mary Magdalene, and Miranda from Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Hamilton's ability to express convincing emotions made her a natural artist's model. Romney's portraits showing Hamilton posing as leading ladies from the past sold well and helped him establish himself as a master artist of the classic subjects. Her work as an artist's model also allowed Hamilton to set the beauty standard of the day. It also padded Greville's bank account; whenever Romney sold a portrait that included Hamilton's likeness, Greville earned a commission.
In all, Romney painted more than 60 portraits using Hamilton—both nude and clothed—as a model for his work. His oil originals were sought after by wealthy patrons and black-and-white etchings of popular portraits were purchased by the general public. In this way, Hamilton's image was splashed all over London. After the young beauty left London, Romney continued to feature her in his work, relying on sketches.
By mid-1786, as Greville began to consider practical matters, he also began to tire of Hamilton. As a second-born son with no inheritance, he needed a wealthy wife, and to attract such a woman he needed to be unencumbered by a mistress. Greville saw a solution to his problem in his middle-aged uncle, Sir William Hamilton. A widow and diplomat, Sir William then served as the British ambassador to King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, at the time a kingdom independent of Italy.
Sent by Greville to Naples, Hamilton arrived in the spring of 1786, expecting that Greville would soon follow and escort her back to London. After several weeks, Sir William told her the truth. While initially upset, she soon rallied and began enjoying her new life at Sir William's grand estate, which was filled with servants, carriages, antiquities, and breathtaking views. She sat for portraits with local Naples artists and began entertaining the Neapolitan court and the English aristocrats who visited her elderly benefactor. Hamilton had always charmed company with her operatic singing and dancing, but under Sir William's guidance, she refined her skills.
In the late 1780s, Hamilton developed Attitudes, a one-woman show in which she dramatized distinctive figures from literature, the theater, and mythology. During the silent performance, in which she posed, pantomimed, and danced, she used several props, including shawls, urns, and a black box with a gold picture frame. Wearing plain white-draped garments, Hamilton would sit, stand, swoon, lean, kneel, and recline in various poses while depicting characters such as Medea or Cleopatra. During the performance, guests attempted to guess the character or scene she was acting out. Hamilton employed some 200 poses while performing Attitudes, and as her act became all the rage, other female actresses began to copy the show.
German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw Attitudes when he visited Naples in 1787, and in writing about the alluring and provocative show, he helped advance Hamilton's fame. Meanwhile, on September 6, 1791, she was married to Sir William and officially became Lady Emma Hamilton. She was 26; Sir William was 60. As Lady Hamilton, she became an ambassadress in her own right and was presented at the Neapolitan court. By 1792, Hamilton had become close to Queen Maria Carolina, serving as her adviser and confidante.
In the summer of 1798, Britain's famed naval commander Horatio Nelson and his Royal Navy fleet set anchor in the Bay of Naples. Entrenched in the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Nelson had just achieved a victory over the French in the Battle of the Nile. Because Great Britain had a treaty with the kingdom of Naples, Lord Nelson was under orders to protect it from Napoleon's forces. In her duties as the British ambassador's wife, Hamilton was among the first to greet Lord Nelson on his arrival. He was in bad shape from years of battle; he had been shot in the eye and had lost an arm. He also arrived in Naples with a serious head wound, and it was reported that Hamilton personally nursed the commander back to health at the villa she inhabited with Sir William. While the public learned about the parties Hamilton threw to celebrate Nelson's 40th birthday and his naval victories, a relationship also grew between the two in private.
When it became public knowledge, the affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton set off a scandal. Both were married. He was a national hero; she was a voluptuous diplomat's wife. With no regard to the scandal they created, or to their respective spouses, the lovers sustained an affair filled with romance. When Lord Nelson was out at sea, they exchanged passionate letters, some filled with erotic passages, and these letters would be published nine years after Lord Nelson's death. As revealed in Volume II of The Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton, the commander addressed many of his notes to “My own dear Beloved Emma” and signed them, “Ever, my dearest Emma, for ever, I am your most faithful, and affectionate.” In one 1804 letter, he wrote: “For ever I love you, and only you, my Emma; and, you may be assured, as long as you are the same to me, that you are never absent a moment from my thoughts.”
In an effort to deal with the situation, Sir William turned a blind eye to Hamilton's adultery and the three lived together at his estate. In fact, they referred to themselves as Tria juncta in uno: three joined as one. In 1800, when the British Crown relieved Sir William of his diplomatic post, he, Nelson, and a now-pregnant Lady Hamilton returned to London. On January 29, 1801, Emma gave birth to a daughter, Horatia Nelson Thomas. Although the child lived with them, the couple hired a nurse and told everyone that she was Lord Nelson's goddaughter, adopted while he was stationed in Italy. Later that year, during a three-month tour of Wales, Nelson and Lord and Lady Hamilton both fascinated and perplexed the public. Their unusual relationship ended on April 6, 1803, when Sir William died. Although Hamilton wanted to marry Lord Nelson, his long-suffering wife Fanny refused to grant him a divorce. The widowed Lady Hamilton now took a house in the London borough of Merton, where Lord Nelson would visit her and Horatia when he was not at sea. In 1804, Hamilton gave birth to another daughter, but the infant did not live long.
Hamilton's life took a tragic turn in the fall of 1805; Lord Nelson led 27 ships to victory against a French and Spanish fleet during the Battle of Trafalgar, but on October 21 he was struck by a musket ball and died hours later. Although Nelson was revered as a war hero, his affair with Hamilton had been an embarrassment to the Royal Navy, and Hamilton was forbidden from attending his state funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
On his deathbed, Lord Nelson amended his will and asked the British government to provide support for his mistress and their daughter. When Hamilton applied for a pension, in keeping with his wishes, her request was denied and her fortunes began to spiral downward. By 1813, she was incarcerated in a debtor's prison and the following year fled with Horatia to Calais, France, to avoid creditors. By now Hamilton had jaundice, the result of excessive drinking, and she died in France on January 15, 1815.
Although Hamilton was written out of history during her lifetime, her love affair with Nelson found its way into popular culture, becoming the subject of Alexandre Dumas, père's 1864 novel La Sanfelice as well as Alexander Korda's 1941 film That Hamilton Woman, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. In the 21st century, feminist historians embraced Hamilton as a historical actor in her own right. In Lewd & Notorious, Betsy Bolton offered an analysis of Hamilton's legacy, suggesting that she could be described as “the Marilyn Monroe of the late eighteenth century.” According to Bolton, “both women constituted for their times a symbol of sexuality and embodied some crucial ingredient of national or cultural identity.”
Kittredge, Katharine, editor, Lewd & Notorious: Female Transgression in the Eighteenth Century, University of Michigan Press, 2003.
The Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton, Volume II: With a Supplement of Interesting Letters by Distinguished Characters, Thomas Lovewell & Sons, 1814.
Peakman, Julie, Emma Hamilton, Haus Publishing, 2005.
Williams, Kate, England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, Ballantine Books, 2006.
Daily Post, June 20, 2005.
Guardian (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/04/gender.uk (November 4, 2002), “The Debt We Owe Lady Hamilton.”□