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art, culture and ideas

21: Urban Ghosts


Imagining Emma Hamilton

Arlene Leis talks to Dr Amber Ludwig Otero about the self-made, seductive celebrity that was Lady Emma Hamilton

George Romney, Head study of Emma Hamilton as Miranda, © The Jean Kislak Collection
George Romney, Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, 1784-91, © The Jean Kislak Collection

During her lifetime, Emma Hamilton (1765-1815) was considered one of the world’s great beauties. Men were fascinated by her charm and good looks, and throughout her lifetime, she formed several important, romantic attachments with prominent men, including Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, George Romney, Charles Francis Greville, Sir William Hamilton and Horatio Nelson. These alliances helped establish her position in various social circles, in London and on the Continent, but they also caused her downfall. While her life echoes the typical rags to aristocracy tale and the artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, once claimed that ‘The Life of Lady Hamilton reads like a romantic fiction,’ she was never fully accepted into London society. Emma’s own tragic end - debt, prison and death in Calais at 49 - reaffirms her reliance on the men in her life, and it also reveals the restrictions placed on women. Women could use their beauty to create new opportunities and careers, and in some cases even influence governance, but they were still chastised. 

I spoke with Emma Hamilton scholar Dr Amber Ludwig Otero about the exhibition Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. 


Tell us a bit about your research on Emma Hamilton. 

My doctoral dissertation, ‘Becoming Emma Hamilton: Portraiture and Self-Fashioning in Late Enlightenment Europe’, centred on the ways in which Emma Hamilton came to control and manipulate, with varying levels of success throughout her life, the public’s perception of her through the analysis of portraits, letters, caricatures, architectural spaces and other forms of visual culture. She began her education in social mores under the informal tutelage of George Romney and Sir William Hamilton and continued it through her associations with the Neapolitan royal family and Horatio Nelson.


Exhibitions like this demonstrate the current preoccupation with constructing a narrative around historic figures; perhaps this is a way of reaching out to a wider public? What are your thoughts on this trend and how well did it work for the exhibition?

I think most museums do this out of necessity. As entertainment options, museums are competing against Hollywood blockbusters, sporting championships, best-selling books, professional musicians, etc. Celebrities are an easy way to catch the general audience’s attention and get them in the door. Maybe they’ll like what they see and return for more of what the museum has to offer.
Emma Hamilton was an obvious choice for a show like this. She was famous in her day for her beauty and performative ability and maintained a certain notoriety in death for her adulterous association with Nelson. It fits easily into a dramatic narrative that captures people’s imaginations. The best of these ‘celebrity’ exhibitions, in my opinion, do something to complicate or enhance historical narrative, rather than simply following a staid formula. The last third of Seduction and Celebrity, the section that focused on Emma’s life with Nelson after her return from Naples in 1801, did just this. It focused on how complicated her role was as Nelson’s lover and how she was essentially omitted from the Victorian narrative of Nelson’s heroism.


One of the first things that struck me about the exhibition was the curator’s desire to draw parallels between Emma Hamilton and more recent popular culture and how the rewriting of history is then accepted as fact. For example, when walking into the exhibition, the viewer is immediately confronted with an image that shows actress Michèle Mercier as Emma in Christian-Jaque’s 1968 historical drama ‘Emma Hamilton’. Do you think this makes history more exciting?

I’m not sure about ‘exciting’, but I think it aims to make history more accessible to modern audiences. Though the film is still dated (I don’t think anyone would think it was from a modern adaptation of Emma’s life) it provides an entry point for the viewer’s imagination to think about what Emma would have looked like in life. Photography is pervasive in 21st century life, and painted portraits can seem staid or old fashioned. The film stills bring a sense of modernity to the subject at hand.
If I had to associate Emma with a particular, modern-day celebrity, I would choose Anna Nicole Smith. Both grew up with little formal education, were praised for their beauty, used sexuality to their advantage, married significantly older men, and died infamous rather than celebrated, with a child of uncertain parentage.
Historical dramas are a tricky genre. They can be incredibly successful at embedding a myth into the popular imagination. Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) about Vincent van Gogh or Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) about Michelangelo, for example, form many people’s ideas of artistic genius. Historians, curators, and educators must be careful not to allow these well-known tropes to be accepted without challenge or explanation.


As very little evidence relating to Emma’s early life exists, the exhibition relies on a wide range of material culture like letters, furniture, costume, film, prints, artworks, amongst other items, to try to recreate specific periods in her life. Do you think that by presenting artefacts from the past, the audience can get a physical feel for Emma n’s life? How important is factual evidence? Is a constructed virtual reality more important? Or is the main goal of the museum to get spectators to think about the past and ask questions?

Visual and material culture are growing academic fields, and I think they help paint a clearer picture of life in a particular time. In focusing on more than just the fine arts, like Romney’s stunning portraits of Emma Hamilton, the exhibition shows how difficult Emma’s life was at its start and makes the point that many other women were not nearly as fortunate as her. She was certainly an exception at the time. I hope that visitors take away how little is actually represented when history focuses on masterworks. Of course, the presentation of a time period’s visual and material culture should always be rooted in fact and not conjecture.


What object on display most triggered a sense of ‘presence’ for you and why? 

The embroidered panel of a dress that belonged to Emma Hamilton is particularly wonderful. Fashion was so much a part of Emma’s performance of feminine virtue and English royalist patriotism, but so little of the actual textiles survive. This swatch of embroidery with its oak leaves, anchors, and acorns is not only beautifully executed and preserved, it also gives a clear idea of how Emma would’ve communicated her allegiances at the turn of the 19th century. Women were often denied a voice in public affairs, and fashion, then as now, acted as a powerful tool for of communication.


Dress flounce, © National Maritime Museum, London


Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10,
3 November 2016 – 17 April 2017


This is a corrected version of the text published in Garageland 21: Urban Ghosts which erroneously stated that Dr Amber Ludwig Otero was the curator of Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity. We apologise for any offence caused by this.