Exhibition: Emma Hamilton Seduction and Celebrity

The exhibition about Nelson's mistress Emma Hamilton, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, is a fascinating insight into the obstacles and expectations facing a woman living in the public eye. And her story still resonates in today's fame-obsessed world, says writer Anne-Claire Heels

by Psychologies

Emma Hamilton – like Lillie Langtry or Nell Gywn – is one of those names that sometimes crops up at a pub quiz, and you think: 'oh yeah, who was she again? That's right, Nelson's mistress' and then she's promptly forgotten about the second you've ticked the answer sheet.

But a new exhibition at the National Martime Museum in Greenwich, London, is set to make sure we discover a lot more about Emma Hamilton than just being a short footnote to history.

'Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity' tells the tale of a remarkable woman who, from humble beginnings and dire poverty, turned her life around and was, at various times, an artist's muse, a celebrated performer, wife to a British envoy abroad, a political player in the Neapolitan court, the confidant of a European queen, and yes, eventually, one half of a famous 18th-century couple, as mistress to the naval hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson, and mother to his daughter Horatia.

Horatio Nelson, copyright National Maritime Museum 

It's a fascinating insight into the life of a famous woman in the late 1700s – in what was undoubtedly a man's world, and all the more so if you were poor and uneducated, which is how her early life panned out. But Emma was vivacious, and had great beauty (which brought her attention both good and bad) and intelligence which, given half a chance at an education, allowed her to flourish.

In many ways, her life was a series of events that befell her, over which she had little control, yet she fought her way through whatever she was faced with charm and resilience. She learned something from every situation and used it to better her circumstances whenever she could. She won admiration in some quarters and was mocked in others, loved fiercely and was loved fiercely in return, and ultimately died penniless and heartbroken in Calais after Nelson's death, the conventions of the times catching up with her in the end.

Themes such as class, gender and celebrity loom large, and you'll come away from this thought-provoking exhibition having discovered someone whose real life was stranger than fiction. Her story is told through dozens of contemporary paintings and various objects such as letters and jewellery, and if you're interested in history from a woman's perspective then you cannot fail to be absorbed by it.


Gold 'fede' or betrothal ring, one of a pair exchanged by Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson, National Maritime Museum, London

For someone largely forgotten by history, she's anything but forgettable when you know the full story.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity runs until 17 April, tickets from £12.60, free to members. For more information and to book, click here 

Main photograph: Tate London

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