Exhibition | Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity
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Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 3 November 2016 — 17 April 2016
From humble origins, Emma Hamilton rose to national and international fame as a model, performer, and interpreter of neo-classical fashion. Within the public mind, however, she typically continues to occupy a passive and supporting role and is often remembered simply as the mistress of Britain’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson. This landmark exhibition recovers Emma from myth and misrepresentation and reveals her to be an active and influential historical actor in her own right: one of the greatest female lives of her era.
Born into poverty in 1765, Emma’s talent and beauty brought her fame while still in her teens as muse to the great portrait artist George Romney. In her twenties she achieved still greater artistic prominence in Naples, the epicentre of the fashionable Grand Tour. Here, as the confidante of Queen Maria Carolina, she also came to wield considerable political power. Emma embarked on a passionate affair with Admiral Lord Nelson but risked her security and social status in the process. Her fortunes never recovered from the tragedy of his death at Trafalgar, and—following a period in debtor’s prison—she died in self-imposed exile in Calais in 1815.
The exhibition carries visitors through the arc of this remarkable story, revealing Emma’s driving ambition and her brilliance as a performer and placing in sharp relief the social conventions ranged against her. In an age when people tended to remain fixed in the social categories in which they began their lives, she crossed boundaries of all kinds, broke through barriers, and ultimately paid a heavy price.
Emma’s story will be told through over 200 objects from public and private lenders around a core from the Museum’s own collections. Emma’s compelling story will be explored through exceptional fine art, antiquities that inspired Emma’s famous ‘attitudes’, costumes that show her impact on contemporary fashions, prints and caricatures that carried her image to a mass audience, her personal letters and those of Nelson and William Hamilton, and finally the uniform coat that Nelson wore at Trafalgar, retained by Emma until destitution forced her to part with it.
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From Thames & Hudson:
Quintin Colville and Kate Williams, with contributions by Vic Gatrell, Hannah Greig, Jason Kelly, Margarette Lincoln, Christine Riding, and Gillian Russell, Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), 280 pages, ISBN: 978-0500252208, £30 / $50.
Emma Hamilton (1765–1815) is widely known as a temptress who ensnared the naval hero Horatio Nelson and paid the price by dying in poverty in Calais. But this epic love affair, and the judgments surrounding it, have obscured a spectacular life story. This book, published to coincide with a major exhibition on Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, explores her remarkable life and recovers Emma from myth and misrepresentation. Distinguished contributors provide a fresh evaluation of her artistic undertakings, cultural achievements, and legacy, as well as of the momentous years of her association with Nelson and the unravelling of her fortunes after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Illustrated with paintings, prints, and drawings capturing the beauty that propelled her to celebrity status, Emma Hamilton tells the story of an extraordinary woman who broke through barriers of class and privilege to win her own unique place in British history.
Quintin Colville is Curator of Naval History at the National Maritime Museum. He edited Nelson, Navy & Nation and is the author of The British Sailor of the First World War.
Kate Williams is Professor of History at the University of Reading. Her biography England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton was published in 2006.
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Note (added 28 October 2016) — The original version of this posting used an earlier working title, Seduction and Celebrity: The Spectacular Life of Emma Hamilton. Other changes have been made to reflect updated information.