1782. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Read Note.
Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765-1815) was born Amy Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith. Her father died when she was only two months old, and she was raised by her mother until the age of twelve in Hawarden, England.
She started out working as a maid, first in the home of a local doctor and later in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. However, by the age of fifteen she had abandoned this occupation and instead signed on to work as a model and dancer for a Scottish quack, James Graham, who operated an establishment called the "Temple of Health" and was then somewhat famous in London.
Around this time Emma met Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, at whose estate she worked for the next several months as an entertainer, while he held a lengthy bachelor party. This “entertainment” is reported to have mostly involved dancing naked on the dining table for Sir Harry and his guests. Though in the course of this experience Emma became Harry's mistress and even bore him an illegitimate child, his preoccupation with drinking and hunting led to her giving up on him in favor of one of his guests, Charles Greville.
Emma's child was taken away and placed in foster care, while she officially changed her name to Emma Hart, both at Greville's behest. It was while staying with Greville, who was quite infatuated with her and wanted to have a portrait of her made, that Emma met and became the subject of many of artist George Romney's paintings. The popularity of Romney's art at the time helped popularize her name in society circles.
However, in 1783, Greville, set to marry a rich heiress in order to help his financial situation, conspired with his uncle Sir William Hamilton, British envoy to Naples, to take Emma off his hands. Emma's fame had made her relationship with Greville apparent, and the woman he wished to marry would not tolerate their openly living together in the same house. This entire scheme was unbeknownst to Emma, so Greville convinced both her to go on a "holiday" trip to Naples with Sir Hamilton, promising to retrieve her once it was over.
Upon learning of Greville's marriage, which she had been told was going to be simply a business trip to Scotland, Emma was furious, and upon realizing that he would not be coming back for her, began an affair with Sir Hamilton even though he was more than twice her age. In 1791 they were married, which is how Emma became Lady Hamilton.
As the wife of the British envoy, it fell upon her to welcome Sir Horatio Nelson in 1793 when he arrived in Naples seeking reinforcements against the French Republic. Nelson returned five years later, now extremely famous following his victory at the Battle of the Nile, though his expedition across the Mediterranean had cost him an arm and most of his teeth. Emma was reportedly very taken with him. She and Sir William took Nelson back to their house, where she nursed him back to health, and where he soon after celebrated his 40th birthday in a grand party which she helped arrange. By now, Emma and Nelson were among the most celebrated Britons in the world, and they fell in love with one another, and to some degree one another's fame. Their affair was tolerated by the elderly Sir Hamilton, whose own health was in decline and who by then simply wished to retire.
Hamilton's retirement coincided with Nelson's recall to Britain, so all three travelled back together, with Nelson arriving to a hero's welcome. This quickly turned to scandal, when Emma openly moved in with the Admiral, resulting in Nelson being sent away to sea. Shortly thereafter, in 1801, Emma gave birth to Nelson's child, Horatia, though the couple remained unmarried. Nelson, though he wished to legitimize his daughter, already had an estranged wife, and wanted to save face in the public eye by divorcing her only after another impressive victory at sea. Likewise, Emma did not want to taint her and Sir Hamilton's image, even though by this time her popularity was beginning to ebb.
Hamilton died two years later in 1803. A year later, Emma gave birth to a second girl, who died after only several weeks, while Nelson was recalled to duty in order to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. He achieved his sought-after victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where the British fleet defeated a combined Franco-Spanish armada, but was mortally wounded as a result and did not live to return to Britain. Emma was devastated by his death. Although, being a national hero, Nelson had left instructions for the government to provide for her and the child, these wishes were largely ignored and Emma was soon deep in debt. She eventually fled to France to escape her creditors, where she and Horatia lived in poverty.
Emma died in 1815, of amoebic dysentery