Review: Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum

"I wish... to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool." - Emma Hamilton, 1791
"I wish... to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool." - Emma Hamilton, 1791

At the moment I spend a lot more time sending emails about museums than I do getting out to visit them. But I was determined to get to the Emma Hamilton exhibition at the National Maritime Museum.

It sounded so promising: a major exhibition about an individual woman! At a prestigious institution! And, as a bonus, in a field in which women generally appear bare-breasted on the prow of a ship.

I braced myself for disappointment, but this time it never came. In fact I'd like to applaud the team behind the exhibition - especially curators Quintin Colville and Sarah Wood - for delivering a sumptuous, sensitive, intelligent exhibition which aims itself squarely at balancing the history books while still telling an enthralling story.

Emma Hamilton as survivor

It's an enthralling but painful story. Emma's early treatment at the hands of Harry Fetherstonhaugh and Charles Frances Greville is particularly unpleasant. The former took her as a mistress aged just 15 and abandoned her within a year when she fell pregnant.

Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Circe by George Romney
Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Circe by George Romney

The latter agreed to take her under his protection as his mistress but only if she agreed to give up the baby, change her name, cut ties with all her former friends, and live according to rules which he issued to her.

After a couple of years Greville also abandoned her, sending her to his uncle Sir William Hamilton in Naples to be his mistress, although she was half his age.

However he didn't let Emma in on the plan, and instead pretended he would soon be joining her. When Emma discovered the truth she was heartbroken and furious at the idea she should simply transfer her affections from nephew to uncle.

Often cast as a gentle rescuer who generously 'educated' Emma, in this exhibition we see another side of Greville: a cowardly, controlling hypocrite. And although her relationship with Hamilton - a famed connoisseur of art and antiquities - eventually developed into a genuine affection, it's clear he initially viewed her as another object in his collection.

One of the great strengths of the exhibition is that it even-handedly shows both Emma's vulnerability and her agency. She is passed from man to man, and each seems to have a different idea of what kind of woman he wants her to be. But rather than presenting her simply as a victim of sexual exploitation locked in a ruthless double standard, the exhibition shows Emma as a survivor.

Emma Hamilton as artist

Feminist books in the Emma Hamilton exhibition gift shop
Feminist books in the Emma Hamilton exhibition gift shop

She seized every opportunity to educate and express herself.  We see how she used her intelligence, experience, and talent as well as her beauty to live her life as fully as possible, and to expand the edges of her freedom.

For example the exhibition talks about her early experience working behind the scenes in the theatre, and connects it to her remarkable ability to adapt to and embody different roles.

This is apparent in her work with George Romney - more than a model, she was a collaborator in the creative process which resulted in the extraordinary portraits at the heart of the exhibition* - but also in her famous Attitudes.

In her Attitudes Emma Hamilton effectively invented a new form of performance art combining theatre, dance, and tableaux which is brought to life in the exhibition through video. She sparked a new craze, and her performance became a key ingredient of the Grand Tour (a kind of aristocratic gap year). On display is a tea set decorated with Emma in her Attitudes: a sure sign that you've made it.

Emma Hamilton as political agent

A section of the exhibition is devoted to the critical diplomatic role she played in the wake of the French Revolution. After developing a close friendship with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (the sister of Marie Antoinette) Emma effectively became the chief liaison between the Neapolitan royal family and the British government.

As well as securing vital assistance for the British navy in the region, Emma personally managed the evacuation of Queen Maria and her family, and arranged for food to be delivered to Malta when its people were being starved by French blockades. For this she became the first woman to be awarded the Maltese Cross.

But sure, let's keep describing her as Nelson's mistress.

Out of the shadows

The exhibition has some flaws, of course. For instance 'Seductress' is an awkward choice of title for the section about the time a 14 year old Emma probably spent working in a Covent Garden brothel.

And the last object in the exhibition is Nelson's famous bullet-torn jacket, which is so detached from the narrative it seems to have been included just to keep the naval history fans happy.

But overall I found it a fascinating, moving, feminist representation of Emma Hamilton's incredible story, a story which has been overshadowed for so long by the men in her life. This is the big, rich, beautiful exhibition that she deserves, and I hope it places her firmly back in the spotlight.

* The exhibition also includes a striking portrait of Emma by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun among many other representations.