Object of the month: Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton

Published 2 September 2015

As the portrait goes on display for Simon Schama’s The Face of Britain, we look at the story behind its illusive subject.

Just like in 18th-century Britain, Lady Hamilton continues to capture people’s imagination. Her rags-to-riches story, coupled with some high-profile affairs, divides the public's opinion on whether she was an ambitious blacksmith’s daughter or an extremely skilful coquette.

Emma and George

By the time George Romney, the most fashionable artist of his day, met the 17-year-old Emma Hart she had a young daughter and was with her new lover, the Hon. Charles Greville.

She was raised by her mother with no formal education, but her ideal beauty, doeful eyes and mastery of poses fascinated Romney. From their first meeting, Emma became Romney’s muse and in the next four years alone, she sat for him over 100 times. In most portraits by Romney (and other artists, such as Joshua Reynolds and Angelica Kauffmann), she is depicted playing a role – such as Ariadne and Titania – and hence there are few paintings that reveal the real Emma. Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, is one of those few.

Emma and Sir William Hamilton

By 1783, Greville realized that he needed a rich wife to replenish his finances and so he persuaded his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, to take Emma into his care, suggesting that she would make a formidable mistress. It was a beneficial arrangement for both men and so Emma, unaware of the plan, left to stay with Hamilton. Before long, she began to suspect that her stay was not a temporary one and although she yearned for Greville, she became Hamilton’s mistress within six months.

The unlikely marriage between a 26-year-old woman and a 61-year-old ambassador to Naples took place in London in 1791 and led to the making of Lady Hamilton. During this time, she enjoyed great popularity with some members of the high-society to such an extent that some of her portraits sold for three times their original price (a situation that Sir Hamilton took full advantage of).

Emma and Nelson

Following Lord Nelson’s defeat of the French at Aboukir Bay in 1798, he stayed with Emma and Sir William at their Neapolitan home, Palazzo Sessa. He was brutally injured; Emma nurtured him so attentively that she not only became his nurse, but also his mistress. The three lived in a ménage-a-trois for 18 months, while the scandal around them grew. In June 1800, Nelson received permission to return to England to recuperate. Though his wife awaited him, Nelson continued to spend most of his time with the Hamiltons and Emma was soon secretly carrying his daughter, Horatia.

After Sir William’s death in 1803, Nelson and Emma lived together. In his will, Nelson entrusted Emma's care to the nation but this was ignored by George III's government. Left unsupported, she fled to Calais, where she died of alcoholism.

The portrait was bought by the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1965 with help from the Art Fund, and will be part of Simon Schama's The Face of Britain display from 16 September 2015 to 4 January 2016.

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