Introducing Emma Hamilton

Half-length portrait painting of a young woman leaning forward

Emma, Lady Hamilton, c. 1786
oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery 294

Emma Hamilton was born Amy Lyon on 26 April 1765, the daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith. Determined to usurp her humble origins she began by changing her name to Emma Hart. She was an attractive and ambitious girl who quickly learned to use her talents to her best advantage. In her early teens she escaped to London where she is thought to have worked as an actresses' maid in Drury Lane, the centre of the theatre district.

Another suggestion is that she found employment performing as a 'living illustration' at the quack-Dr Graham's 'Temple of Health' in Pall Mall. Whether either of these rumors are true or not, their titillating nature reveals that Emma's shady courtesan-past was always part of her reputation as a popular figure. Moreover, either of these youthful positions would help explain her skills as a performer and her confidence in exploiting her sexual charms to further her goals.

From blacksmith's daughter to Lady Hamilton Emma's social ascent was steep. A frequent figure in eighteenth-century romantic fiction, the socially aspirant woman was often portrayed falling victim to unprincipled rakes sent to ruin them. With a few minor exceptions, Emma was able to turn such adversity to her advantage. Her personal charms encouraged a triumvirate of powerful or creative men to grow addicted to her affection, her loyalty and her ability to mould to their fantasies - whether esoteric or physical. Both successively and cumulatively George Romney, Sir William Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson launched Emma into society and ensured her a place in British history.