She was the Kim Kardashian of the early 18th Century. No, actually, Kim K wishes she was half the person that Emma, Lady Hamilton became. Rising from a penny-scraping existence on the wrong side of the law, she won the heart of national hero Lord Nelson (that’s where the allegory doesn’t quite match), became friends with Marie Antoinette, developed from a household chattel to a titled Lady, was a household celebrity mauled in the press, saved a Royal Family from danger, was a muse to artist George Romney and sadly died in penury despite her perceived services to the realm.
I’ve long been fascinated by this historical character whom I (and
about 15 people in my high school at any one time) shared a name with. After reading most of the books published about Emma Hamilton, when I heard that the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich were running an exhibition, I did a typical Londoner thing and made a mental note before forgetting entirely about visiting. Luckily, Twitter came to the rescue, and when the museum ran a special whereby Emma’s could visit the exhibit for free one weekend I managed to lure the lovely Claire into a spot of brunch and a wander through history.
Born Amy Lyon, to a Blacksmith and his wife in a small Cheshire village called Ness, Emma moved to the bright lights of London to work as a maid before being lured into the seedy world of prostitution. After a few service jobs (one notably in Drury Lane) Emma subsequently
works as a model, dancer, working girl, hostess and entertainer before
falling pregnant to Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh.
Cast aside because of the pregnancy, she falls in love with his friend Greville and becomes his mistress. Emma is educated, tamed and domesticated and begins to find
notoriety posing for the painter George Romney before being sent to Naples (effectively as a chattel) where
at the age of 26 she eventually marries Sir William Hamilton aged 60, the British Envoy to Naples.
Crazy, no? And that isn’t even the tip of her story.
As the sun began to set we ambled around the museum, two bloggers amidst hoards of excited kids and distracted parents, solving a few of the world’s problems (us, not the kids) whilst we admired a few of the beautiful displays of the ornate nautical history from the British Empire. Having not visited in years – the last time with my sea-faring Naval Dad – I was reminded just how much easily accessed culture there is in London. As a kid who was armed with a heavy encyclopaedia book set on the other side of the world to most historical happenings, the ability to literally touch history still boggles my mind.
Anyway, usual ramblings aside, we both loved the exhibition. Agreeing that it was just the right length – perfect for an Emma enthusiast (though honestly, who doesn’t love an Emma) like me as well as my lovely companion – her personal story is beautifully delivered through gorgeously arranged sets, original artworks hung in gilded frames and the brilliant use of video nooks draped with flowing chiffon that Emma definitely would have approved of.
Open until April, even at the full ticket price, the Emma, Lady Hamilton – Seduction and Celebrity Exhibition is really reasonable. Entry to the main National Maritime Museum exhibits is free – though they hope that donations are popped into the usual boxes where possible.