Lady Emma Hamilton and her Attitudes

Emma Hamilton as Circe by George Romney (flickr, CC 2.0, picture by Katharine B)
Emma Hamilton as Circe by George Romney (flickr, CC 2.0, picture by Katharine B)

Born poor as Emma (or Amy) Lyon in 1765, she went to London as governess where the famous painter George Romney marvelled at her beauty; dark long hair, symmetrical features, big eyes and a most versatile facial play. Becoming his muse she was model for many paintings showing her as bacchante, Circe, Cassandra or as the personification of nature.

Emma Hamilton's life was peppered with a rather unrestrained lifestyle, unconcerned about the moral concepts of her time. She had affairs and love-children, could hardly write, loved champagne and gambling, worked as "Goddess of Health" in the show of a "quack" doctor, is said to have danced naked on a table at a party with her lover and his friends and it is said she could swear like a sailor. One of her lovers urged her, considering her previous life, to change her name to Hart. Not too lady-like, altoghether. But she learned languages easily, was an accomplished musician with a bell-like voice as well as a good performer, receiter and entertainer. Miss Hart apparently exerted a powerful fascination and attraction on people, not alone by her striking looks but also by her wits, her readyness of mind and taste in both fashion and arts.


Thus, she caught the eye of Lord Hamilton, the English Ambassador in Naples. Ignoring her low social rank, her turbulent past life and the great age difference he married her, making her Lady Emma Hamilton, and presented her at Court to the King. Quite a comet-like rise. Hamilton took her to Naples where they lived lavishly between the Court and private festivities. There a strong friendship emerged between the lonely Queen Maria Carolina and Emma. Still, there were voices against "Emma Hart". Lady Hamilton adored great parties and social events where she was the centre of attention. On one of them she met the famous Admiral Horatio Nelson. They fell in love.


The affair became public, evoking a scandal which did not bother either Nelson or the old Lord Hamilton. Emma's and Nelson's daughter, Horatia Nelson, was born in 1801. They lived in a menage-à-trois until the death of Lord Hamilton in 1803. Of course the public was thrilled and the whole affair became a sensation. Emma was called "England's Mistress". Looking into celebrity gossip magazines today, not much has changed since then. At any rate, newspaper reports about them excited a wide public and Emma became a fashion trendsetterin.

But the happy days were over; Nelson tragically died in the Battle of Trafalger in October, 1805. He was wounded fatally in action but yet heard the great victory over France he had achieved. He left a desperate Emma behind.

She, either too used to the lavish lifestyle or strangely enough, she had never learnt it, was unable to hold house with her pension and money. Besides her general incapability as an economist, her love for parties, champagne and gambling made her spend large amounts. Consequently, she soon fell into depts and died poor in 1815.


So much to Emma Hamiltons remarkable life.

Her artistic talents were mentioned already and she invented a "new art": the Attitudes. Emma started with performing antique saga figures, Saints and historical characters as pantomimic/frozen living images, statues or paintings. Her incredibly versatile face (one thing that the painter Romney admired very much) and her ability to switch her emotional expression within the blink of an eye were gold. Using only a Cashmere shawl, an antique vase or a pillar and perhaps a few children as requisites and statists she could portrait a celebrating bacchante but in the next moment change into repentant Maria Magdalene. Her mimic was capable of every emotion from exuberance over thoughtfulness to rage or mourning. She was very skillful in using her requisites, with one fluent movement, it is said, she could change her stola into a turban. Those admired performances of her Attitudes, toghether with (or fuelled by) her exceptional beauty and her voice brought her international fame. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was struck with her when he saw her perform in 1787.


Lady Emma Hamilton by George Romney(flickr, picture by cubby_t_bear)
Lady Emma Hamilton by George Romney (flickr, picture by cubby_t_bear)

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