Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity

Things to do, Exhibitions
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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When Horatio Nelson died, he left his mistress, Emma Hamilton, £2,000, his house and his pigtail. It’s a perfect metaphor for Emma’s life: romantic, precarious and ultimately determined by others. Within a few years she’d spent the money, been forced to sell the house and wound up in debtor’s prison (presumably she hung on to the pigtail, since it appears in this show). The daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith, Emma rose, thanks to her looks, wit and charm, to become an artist’s muse, then the wife of an aristocrat and then the lover of England’s greatest military hero. But as the men who protected her died or distanced themselves, and she was no longer a society beauty, there was nowhere for her to go but down.

This show traces Emma’s remarkable story through a combination of paintings, letters, contemporary accounts and artefacts. We see the young Emma, painted again and again by George Romney. His works are in the style of the age: delicate, English-rose perfection, but this roomful of the same face over and over speaks of obsession. We see her as a proto-celebrity, her face filling the windows of popular-print shops. We see her literally gifted by one member of the gentry – Charles Greville – to another, his uncle Sir William Hamilton. We see her as a political confidante at the Naples court. We see her – finally – in the role she is known for: Nelson’s mistress, the perfect gossip-fodder, the provider of society’s titillating frisson. In each stage of her career, there is the sense that for all the images and words devoted to her, Emma is absent: a void at the centre of a whirl of desires, needs, fears and ambitions. 

This is a lovely, immersive show, full of dappled light and intimate spaces, but it tells a brutal story of a brutal age. An age which craved and rewarded beauty to disguise its ugliness, and which was merciless if that ugliness was reflected back at it, whether through scandal or fading looks. Unless you were a man: then you were golden.

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