Emma and Sir William Hamilton

Portrait painting of a young woman seated with a black hat

Emma in Morning Dress, c. 1782-5
oil on canvas, private collection

Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait 'Sir William Hamilton' (1776), the British Envoy at Naples, works as a visual statement of one man's intellectual passions. Painted in the year that Hamilton published Campi Phlegraei, Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies , Reynolds' distant view of Mount Vesuvius reminds us of Hamilton's position as the world's leading vulcanologist. Commissioned to accompany the gift of his collection of ancient gems, vases and other antiquities to the British Museum it is no coincidence that Reynolds also portrayed Hamilton as an enlightened connoisseur with a copy of Baron d'Hancarville's Antiquits Etrusques (1767-76), which catalogued his collection, on his knee.

Portrait painting of a seated man with papers on his knee

Sir William Hamilton
Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776-7
oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery 680

In August 1783, William Hamilton returned from Naples with the remains of his first wife to be buried in England. He also brought the important antique glass vase from the Barberini collection, now known as the Portland Vase (BM), which got its name from the Duchess of Portland who paid him 1,800 guineas for it. During the year Hamilton stayed in England he often socialized with his nephew Charles Greville. Despite his reputation as a connoisseur and intellectual, he enjoyed the company of Greville's mistress Emma Hart who he named the 'fair tea maker of Edgware Row'. Young, vivacious and beautiful, Emma conjured up the embodiment of the ancient sculptures that the antiquarian Hamilton revered. Unable to erase Emma's classical features from his mind because, he said, they reminded him of a Greek goddess, Hamilton quickly commissioned Reynolds to paint a portrait of her as a bacchante (now in a private collection). Later that year he returned to Italy with Reynolds' portrait long before Greville dispatched the real-life Emma to visit his ageing and widowed uncle.

In 1785, Sir William received a letter from his nephew complaining of his financial difficulties. He concluded that Greville needed to seek a bride worth 30,000 per year. Emma was no longer a suitable, or financially viable, consort. Greville slowly made his plan clear, offering Emma to his uncle as a mistress. No doubt Greville was concerned for Emma's maintenance, but his most underhand reason for this dispatch was the hope that the beautiful but unsuitable Emma would distract his uncle from remarrying. By these means, Greville hoped to ensure his inheritance as the childless Hamilton's closest heir.

Portrait painting of a young woman in light-coloured dress sitting in a cave with the sea and a sunset in the background

Emma Hart in a Cavern, c. 1782-5
oil on canvas, © National Maritime Museum, London

After sitting to Romney fourteen times in 1786, Emma left London for a new life in Naples. Although Romney may have begun' Emma Hart in a Cavern' before her departure it his least recognizable portrait of Emma. Perhaps it is indicative that the composition visualizes his 'English rose' far away in the caverns of the Neapolitan coastline. Romney was deeply affected by Emma's departure and his sense of loss is evident in this composition which projects his vision of the muse pining for London and thus, by extrapolation, for the artist himself.

On her arrival in Naples, Sir William Hamilton quickly set to commissioning portraits of Emma by various local and passing artists. Emma, ever keen to please, wrote to Greville from Naples in 1786 asking him to send Romney's 'Emma in Morning Dress' in order to form a pair with Reynolds's 'Bacchante'. At that point, Emma thought of herself as a visitor and waited for Greville to join her. Three months after her arrival she described her feelings of confusion and insecurity:

I have a language master, a singing master ... but what is it for, if it was to amuse you I should be happy, but Greville ... I am poor, helpless & forlorn. I have lived with you 5 years & you have sent me to a strange place & no one prospect, me thinking you was coming to me; instead of which I was told I was to live ... with Sir W. No. I respect him, but no, never shall he perhaps live with me for a little while like you & send me to England, then what am I to do, what is to become of me.

Within 6 months Emma had become Hamilton's mistress though she continued to yearn for Greville's return.

Portrait painting of a young woman

Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a White Turban, c. 1791
oil on canvas, courtesy The Huntingdon Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California
(not in exhibition)

The decadence of Neapolitan court and social life can be assumed from the popularity of Emma's 'Attitudes'. An experienced model from her many sittings for George Romney, Emma's gift was the ability create and hold poses that evoked a range of emotions and scenarios. Under Sir William's guidance she developed a repertoire that related to a canon of famous Greek and Roman sculptures and performed these for a range of notable visitors. One such was the German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe who arrived in Naples, in 1787. He described life at Hamilton's Villa Sessa:

After many years of devotion to the arts and the study of nature, [Hamilton has] found the acme of these delights in the person of an English girl ... with a beautiful face and a perfect figure ... she lets down her hair and, with a few shawls, gives so much variety to her poses that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes.

Incomplete sketch of a full length portrait of a young woman in classical dress

Emma Hamilton
Richard Cosway, c. 1801
pencil, ink and watercolour, National Portrait Gallery 2491
(not in exhibition)

While many men were enamored with Emma's angelic beauty, her physical presence and her charisma, women visitors could be more critical. Despite commending her 'ravishing' auburn curls, the artist Elizabeth Vige le Brun's commented that 'Lady Hamilton had very little wit, although she could be excessively sarcastic and critical'. This view did not stop Vige le Brun producing several fine paintings of an exuberant Emma depicted as a bacchante and as a sibyl. She also choreographed one, memorable, presentation of Emma's 'Attitudes' turning the performance in honor of the Duc de Berry and the Duc de Bourbon into a living painting with the help of dramatically placed candles and the use of a large picture frame. Emma, of course, thrived on the attention. But Sir William was also quick to get the most out of his mistress and wife, whether in the flesh or on canvas. After convincing Vige le Brun to paint her first canvas in 1790 he happily sold it for three times the amount he paid.

Portrait painting of a young woman in a dark dress holding a cymbal with a volcano in the background

Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante Elizabeth Vige le Brun, circa 1790-2
oil on canvas, Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool
(not in the exhibition)

Despite allegations to the contrary Hamilton was 'distractedly in love' with Emma who informed Greville that 'I love him tenderly'. So the unlikely marriage between a woman of 26 - who was deemed too 'vulgar' to be received at British court - and the 61 year old ambassador took place in London in 1791. With Emma's return, Romney was roused from his then habitual depression. He responded to his old subject with renewed vigor; he wrote excitedly to a friend 'The greatest part of this summer I shall be engaged on painting pictures from the divine lady.'

In June and July, Romney commandeered her time for dozens of sittings, by August he had roughed in eight or nine further fancy pieces depicting Emma as a bacchante, as a Magdalen even as Joan of Arc. Romney's fervent output included this picture of her in a white turban which, with its sketchy, broad brush strokes and unresolved areas, reveals the speed at which he executed many of his portraits of Emma. In September 1791, two consecutive diary entries mark the transition of 'Mrs Hart [at] 9' to 'Lady Hamilton [at] 11' and after 12 October the newly married Lady Emma Hamilton never sat to Romney again. Although Emma's presence in Romney's life had been a defining feature of his creativity, her departure for Italy accentuated the chronic depression which he suffered from during the final, troubled and faltering, years of his career.