Emma Hamilton and George Romney

Half-length portrait painting of a young woman with white headdress

Emma, Lady Hamilton
oil on canvas, © National Portrait Gallery 4448
(not in exhibition)

Emma's first liaison with Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh, of Uppark in Sussex, was short lived. By 1781, she had fallen pregnant and had been abandoned by him. Soon after, the Hon. Charles Greville (1749-1809) took the 16 year-old Emma into his 'care'. Leaving her daughter with relatives, she became his mistress and was installed at a suburban house in Paddington Green in the name of Mrs. Emma Hart. In April 1782, Greville took his new mistress to George Romney to sit for her portrait. Though Greville hoped to commission a series of pictures of Emma as a commercial speculation it was Emma and Romney who had the most to gain from this artistic meeting.

Portrait painting of a young woman

Study of Emma Hart as Circe, c. 1782-6
oil on canvas, © Tate, London 2001

Emma captured Romney's imagination to such an extent that he later described her as 'the divine lady ... superior to all womankind' (Letter, 19 June 1791). From their first meetings in 1782, Emma occupied the position of artist's muse. Romney was drawn to her ideal beauty, which combined the regular features of ancient Greek sculpture with the luxuriant chestnut hair of one of Rubens' voluptuous women. Emma also had an intense physical presence and the ability to hold poses and expressions like a professional model. Moreover she was vivacious, loving and innately able to please and flatter the men she became involved with either personally or professionally. Romney was so obssessed by Emma that it became increasingly hard for him to engage creatively with more routine commissions, decisively altering his portrait practice.

Over the next nine years, he nurtured Emma's talent and capitalized on her beauty. In the four years between April 1782 and March 1786 alone, Emma sat to Romney well over 100 times. The outcome of their relationship was a sequence of fancy portraits and literary subjects with dramatic heroines - over sixty paintings which take Emma as their inspiration or definining feature. Not just a passive model but evidently involved and engaged in the compositional process, images of Emma fall into four basic categories: real-life compositions; single-figure personifications of allegorical, mythological or religious types; the use of Emma as a model in more complex, multi-figure genre scenes and the many unfinished sketches and ttes d'expression which characterize the combined talents of the artist and Emma whose animated qualities would later manifest themselves in her theatrical 'Attitudes'.

The 1780s was a time when artists aspired to produce grand history paintings which would make an impact at the crowded Royal Academy exhibition. Even portrait painters hoped to elevate their portraits with something of this classicizing flavour in costume, pose and composition. Though Romney rarely exhibited at the Royal Academy, he was certainly influenced by the dominance of history painting in the hierarchy of genres. He may have first portrayed Emma, in modern dress, as Nature (Frick Collection, NY) but he conceived her next as the mythological sorceress Circe (circa 1782) and thereafter as Medea, a bacchante, Thetis and a host of other antique characters to appeal to the connoisseurial tastes of Emma's various patrons and their friends. Indeed, though Emma was eventually painted by Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, Gavin Hamilton, Angelica Kauffmann and Vige le Brun she was always depicted playing a role. In that sense there are few paintings which can be described as portraits which reveal the real Emma. This mystique is no doubt part of her abiding allure.

Portrait painting of a young woman seated in a cream dress and hat

Emma Hart in a Straw Hat, 1785
oil on canvas, courtesy of the Huntingdon Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California

Until 1786 Emma lived with her mother, Mrs Cadogan, in the house Charles Greville rented for them at Paddington Green on the semi-rural fringes of West London. Although portraits such as Emma Hart in a Straw Hat (1785) combine the latest fashions with poses 'slyly suggestive of sexual abandon', 'The Spinstress '(1784-5) presents a contrasting picture of Emma's demure and contented domestic lifestyle. A note in Romney's diary for 21 April 1784, Mrs. Hart 10 Edgware Road', may mark the moment when Romney made the unique decision to paint Emma in her own home instead in the studio.

Despite the elaborate white gown, the simple tranquility of this domestic depiction is a counterpoint to the dramatic Emma as Bacchante then being painted by Reynolds for Greville's uncle, Sir William Hamilton. Indeed, the modesty of Emma's lifestyle may have been an attempt to insist upon her domestic virtue and thus overcome her questionable status as Greville's mistress.

Unsurprisingly, 'The Spinstress' typified the private Emma idealized by both Romney and Greville. It is however an indication of Greville's growing financial difficulties that the painting stayed in Romney's studio until it was eventually sold to another purchaser, to help reduce the debts Greville had incurred with all his portrait commissions.