Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson

Formal portrait of a man in military dress with medals

Horatio Lord Nelson
Sir William Beechey, 1800
oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery 5798 (not in exhibition)

Lady Emma Hamilton first met Admiral Nelson briefly in August 1793 when his ship The Agammemnon docked in the Bay of Naples. His arrival was due to the Anglo-Neapolitan treaty which had been negotiated by Sir William Hamilton to maintain the Kingdom of Naples's allegiance during Britain's war against France. It is reputed that Emma intervened in the discussions for Neapolitan support; she held great sway with the Queen of Naples who may have helped convince the King that political neutrality was not the best approach. Whether Emma was instrumental or not, Nelson and Sir William both believed her intercession had been influential.

The following months and years were a period of great anxiety for the Hamiltons and Naples. The Queen's sister Marie Antoinette was guillotined in October 1793 and this increased the local hatred of the French; Vesuvius experienced its most extreme eruption since A.D.79 and Sir William Hamilton fell ill. Emma continued with her 'Attitudes' and musical performances but depression and indulgence saw her grow immensely fat. She was perhaps already pining for Nelson, her hero. She did not see him again until 1798, after his defeat of the French at Aboukir Bay.

The hospitality of Emma and Sir William had also made its impact on Nelson. Brutally injured, with an amputated arm and blind in one eye, he wrote to them, following the Battle of Aboukir, 'You and Sir William have spoiled me ... I trust my mutilations will not cause me to be less welcome.' For Emma, none of this caused concern. Nothing could have been more fulfilling than to welcome the Hero of the Nile. She immediately began working on a fitting celebration for his welcome.

Cartoon of a large woman in white dress holding her arms and legs out wide with a fleet of ships visible through an open window

Dido in Despair
James Gilray, 1801
hand coloured etching, National Portrait Gallery Archive Engravings Collection (not in exhibition)

The three-way bond between Sir William, Emma and Nelson was complicated and highly nuanced. A frail, injured and battle-weary Nelson was nursed back to health and joyfulness by an attentive Emma. First as his maid and then as his mistress, Emma nurtured and worshipped Nelson who was, at the same time, treated as a son and friend by Sir William. For the next 18 months, Nelson lived in a mnage--trois with the Hamiltons while his ships were moored in the bay of Naples ready for occasional action.

There were several excursions and a temporary flight to safety, when Nelson took the King and Queen of Naples and the Hamiltons to safety, in the even more decadent court of the King of Two Sicilies in Palermo. It was here, in 1798, that Sir William began to be concerned by Emma's drinking and her increasingly indiscreet behaviour with Nelson. The scandal surrounding the lovers grew, Emma was always at the gambling table with Nelson seated directly behind her - egging her on. Always keen to be center of attention Emma now reveled in her own moment of glory by Nelson's side.

In June 1800, Nelson claimed to be too ill to carry out his duties and received permission to return to England to recuperate. Though his wife awaited him, Nelson continued to spend most of his time with the Hamiltons. But English society was far more judgmental than Naples had been. As Gilray's biting 'Dido in Despair' (1801) indicates there was much scandal to be derived from their unconventional three-way relationship. Lady Hamilton is depicted in a classic 'attitude' of despair, watching as her lover's fleet sets sail. Scattered around her feet are satiric emblems of Hamilton's antiquarian interests in an ancient phallic cult, reminders of Emma's former beauty and of her 'Attitudes'. The elderly and frail Sir William can be detected asleep in the background, where he had been relegated. Though Emma's obesity was part of Gilray's barbed critique no one seems to have realized that in 1801 she was secretly carrying Nelson's child - Horatia.

Nelson appreciated Emma's discretion and depended upon her love. For the short remainder of his life (and following Sir William's death in 1803) Emma and Nelson lived together as husband and wife in a small house in Merton. In his will, Nelson entrusted Emma's care to the nation but this was ignored by George III and his government. With her working class roots, her questionable past and her penchant for self-display Emma was an embarrassment. Left unsupported, she fled to Calais, where she died of alcoholism. Ultimately, it is only Romney's many portraits of Emma's beauty and changing expressions which captures the vivacity, energy and malleability of the legendary Emma.