"Her features, like the language of Shakespeare, could exhibit all the feelings of nature and the gradation of every passion with a most fascinating truth and felicity of expression."
William Hayley, 1809

Hugh Douglas Hamilton | Triple portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765–1815), as the three Muses

A celebrated model, entertainer and artist’s muse; famous for her ‘Attitudes’ and her creative collaboration with international artists, particularly George Romney; her marriage to the great diplomat, antiquarian and collector Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples; and her relationship with Admiral Lord Nelson, the ‘Nation’s Hero’; Emma, Lady Hamilton was a cultural icon and European celebrity in the early nineteenth century.

Born Amy Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith from Cheshire, and later changing her name to Emma Hart, the young girl who was to become Lady Hamilton began her ascent as an actresses’ maid at the Drury Lane Theatre. A talented model and dancer, she first came to prominence at the age of fifteen when she was employed for several months as a hostess and entertainer at Uppark Hall by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. In the early 1780s she became the mistress of the Hon. Charles Greville, younger son of the Earl of Warwick and a noted patron of the arts, who introduced her to his friend, the painter George Romney. Emma was sixteen years old at the time and captivated the artist, quickly becoming his artistic muse – his ‘Divine Emma’ as Romney referred to her. Over and above her physical attraction and youthful beauty, Emma’s early training at Drury Lane had awakened a flair for assuming theatrical poses and expressions. Romney, who had recently returned from Italy where he had re-kindled his desire to create a more elevated genre of portraiture, infused with literary and classical metaphor, found in Emma the perfect model – the physical manifestation of all his conceptions of ideal beauty, with the versatility and emotional range to explore the possibilities of figural representation to a far greater degree that any of his other models. Roney encouraged and nurtured Emma’s talents, introduced her to the artistic milieu of close friends and patrons that made up his inner circle and exposed her to the cosmopolitan world of a successful London artist.

Fig. 1 George Romney, Portrait of Emma Hamilton a Circe, c.1782. Tate Britain, London © Wikimedia

Beautiful, witty, possessed of a lively intelligence and keen to discard her humble origins, Emma proved a willing and able pupil. Romney produced over seventy paintings of Emma, over a nine-year period. Remarkable for their breadth, ambition and diversity, they propelled Emma to international fame and stardom. As Christine Riding, Gillian Russell and others explored so comprehensively in the catalogue to the recent 2016–17 exhibition Emma Hamilton. Seduction & Celebrity, they also provided a basis from which she would develop, to such dramatic effect, her famous Attitudes.1

On 26 April 1786, her twenty-first birthday, Emma arrived in Naples. She had been sent there by her lover, Greville, to stay with his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy Extraordinary to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, on the pretext that Greville would join her there shortly. In reality Greville had found himself a rich heiress to marry and was looking to be rid of Emma. He had secretly persuaded his uncle, who had already met and admired Emma in London, to take her off his hands and by the time Emma realised she had been duped it was too late. Realising that she was left with few options and that returning to England would leave her in a precarious situation, Emma remained in Italy and became Sir William’s mistress. Despite this inauspicious start, she would eventually marry Hamilton in 1791 and become immortalised to history as Lady Hamilton.

In Naples, in the highly cultured environs of the Palazzo Sessa, Sir William’s official residence, Emma learned to speak French and Italian, took drawing, singing and dancing lessons from the leading teachers, as well as studying history. It was also here, in a house through which an international assortment of royalty, aristocrats, artists, scholars, collectors and connoisseurs flowed, that she learned the skills of a hostess and a diplomat. Emma was a keen hostess and, whilst Hamilton’s residence had always been a centre of social life, she infused it with a new vitality – Hamilton writing to his nephew Greville that ‘no Princess could do the honours of her Palace with more care & dignity than she does those of my house’.2 She became a close confidant of Queen Maria Carolina, the wife of King Ferdinand of Naples and sister of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and established herself as a leading salonnière, highly praised for her charm and her singing voice.

Fig 2 Elisabeth Vigée le Brun, Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, c. 1792. National Museums Liverpool. © Bridgeman Images

Herself possessing a strong theatrical disposition, and in an effort to maintain a festive and convivial atmosphere at Sir William’s soirees, Emma invited performers and singers to entertain her guests, often joining in the performances herself, singing, dancing and performing her famous Attitudes. A sophisticated form of performance art that, as Gillian Russell has commented, anticipated the work of artists such as Marina Abramović and Sindy Sherman by over two centuries, Emma’s Attitudes were essentially a form of tableaux vivants, inspired by Romney’s idea of combining classical poses with modern allure, mimicking poses from ancient sculpture or Old Master paintings. In a series of fluid and soundless performances, usually dressed à la grecque in sheer fabric that revealed the contours of her body, she produced a performance that was at once both erotic and learned. This was a unique intervention in the world of connoisseurship and classicism that fitted into a wider contemporary discussion about antiquity, beauty and nature in late eighteenth century Naples. As the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum were bringing the material culture of antiquity out of the ground, Emma’s Attitudes brough that world to life.

"All Nature, and yet all Art"
Sir Gilbert Elliot

Emma’s Attitudes were nothing short of a sensation, attracting visitors from across Europe, and only increased the celebrity that had already been generated through the paintings of George Romney. Using large shawls or veils, draping herself in the folds of cloth, they often evolved into a highly erudite form of charade, with the audience guessing the names of the classical characters and scenes Emma portrayed. She fêted and was fêted by aristocrats and artists alike and the portraits that the latter produced built up an iconography around her that was simple, pure and natural, often portrayed as an ancient bacchante and setting off a new fashion for a draped Grecian style of dress across Europe. As the more often critical Sir Gilbert Elliot, later 1st Earl of Minto admitted he found Emma ‘all Nature, and yet all Art’.3 Her popularity with artists, as well as the pride Hamilton clearly felt for his protégé, is revealed in a letter Emma wrote to her ex-lover Greville in August 1787: ‘there is now five painters and 2 modlers at work on me for Sir William, and there is a picture going of me to the Empress of Russia’.4 International artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Gavin Hamilton, Elizabeth Louise Vigée le Brun, Richard Westall and Angelica Kauffman all vied to capture her celebrated charms.

Fig. 3 Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Portrait of Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton Collection © Private Collection

Painted in Italy for Sir William by the Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton, circa 1788–90, here Emma is depicted in the guise of the three classical Muses – Terpsichore (the Muse of choral dance and song), Polymnia (the Muse of sublime hymn), and Calliope (the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry). It is recorded in a manuscript inventory of Sir William’s paintings at the Palazzo Sessa, hanging in the room next to the Library: ‘Lady H. in 3 different views in the same picture – by Hamilton’.5 H. D. Hamilton was born and trained in Dublin and was already well known in London as a portraitist, mainly in pastel, before he travelled to Italy in 1779. Whilst in Italy he expanded his practise to increasingly include oils, traditionally considered a more important medium, thus enabling him to increase the scale of his work and develop his repertoire of history painting – in which he was encouraged by the artist John Flaxman. Primarily based in Rome, he may have visited Naples several times, but he was certainly there in 1788, when he visited Pompeii, and Count di Rezzonico records him being there at a performance of Emma’s Attitudes between 1789 and 1790. Hamilton was well established in the international artistic milieu that existed in Rome at the time. The gem-engraver Nathaniel Marchant, the sculptor Antonio Canova and the antiquary James Byres were among his closest associates in the city; as was Henry Tresham, his fellow Irish artist come dealer who was based in Rome for fourteen years in Rome and acted as an intermediary between Canova and the celebrated antiquarian and collector John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. Hamilton’s pastel depicting Canova and Tresham deliberating a model of the sculptors famous Cupid and Psyche (Musée du Louvre, Paris), which was originally commissioned by Lord Cawdor, is one of the great masterpieces of the artist’s work in that medium (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

H.D. Hamilton owned the first few volumes of Le Antichità di Ercolano (published between 1757 and 1792), containing drawings of the finds at around the Gulf of Naples at Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae, and he is known to have employed motifs from sculpture studied in Florence and Rome, particularly on the Capitol. The figure of Emma on the left, with her head and hands resting on a kithara (the ancient Greek seven stringed lyre) is very similar to Hamilton’s pastel portrait of Lady Cowper, painted in Florence (Firle Place, Sussex). Both Lady Cowper and the Countess of Erne (National Trust, Ickworth) are depicted by Hamilton in similar scarves wrapped around their heads – possibly referencing the fashion that Emma had herself established through her performances.

Fig. 4 Pietro Antonio Novelli, The Attitudes of Lady Hamilton. Pen and brown ink on paper. National Gallery of Art, Washington © Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

Traditionally associated with Dionysus and dramatic poetry, the Muses were said to have been worshiped first by the people of Thespiae at the foot of Mount Helicon. In Homer’s poetry they ‘sing the festive songs at the repasts of the immortals and they bring before the mind of the mortal poet the events which he has to relate and they confer upon him the gift of song’.6 Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville, in his publication of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of vases, argued that the Muses were responsible for man’s ability to recall his own history and later, as nine muses, they became known more generally as the goddesses credited with inspiration of poetry song. The small and intimate scale, as well as the informality, of this jewel-like cabinet picture clearly shows that it was a work for private contemplation rather than public display, and the depiction of Emma in this way would have been an entirely appropriate complement for Sir William’s own muse.

Fig. 5 Lemuel Francis Abbott, Portrait of Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. © Wikimedia

Emma’s international fame would only increase later when, with the aged Sir William Hamilton in his late sixties. She began a public love affair with Horatio Nelson. Emma first met Nelson when she entertained him upon his arrival in the Bay of Naples to pick up reinforcements in 1793 and captivated the young naval officer with her beauty and charm. Five years later Nelson returned to Naples a living legend and the most famous Englishman in the world, following his victory at the Battle of the Nile. Emma is said to have flung herself upon him in admiration, calling out 'Oh God, is it possible' as she fainted upon his chest. Nelson's adventures had severely affected his health, however, not least in the loss of his right arm. Emma nursed him under her husband's roof and the two soon after began their passionate affair. In 1799 the Hamilton's were recalled to England and were escorted across Europe by Nelson, travelling via Vienna, before finally being welcomed home by celebratory crowds. The affair, which had been tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, by her husband in Naples, bloomed and in January 1801 Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter, Horatia. By the autumn of the same year, Nelson bought Merton Place, a small ramshackle house on the outskirts of modern-day Wimbledon. There he lived openly with Emma, Sir William, and Emma's mother, in a ménage à trois that both fascinated and scandalised the public. The newspapers reported on their every move, eventually inducing the Admiralty to send Nelson back to sea, if only to get him away from Emma. When he died, at the very moment of his greatest achievement aboard H.M.S. Victory at Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson's last request was to have his pigtail sent home to Emma and he left instruction in his will to the British Government that she and Horatia were to be provided for – instructions that were duly ignored.

Note on Provenance

Emma’s husband, Sir William, had died two years earlier in 1803. This painting almost certainly passed, together with a large part of his collection, to his kinsman and close supporter, William Beckford. Beckford's mother, Maria Hamilton was a cousin of Sir William’s, and the two shared a mutual love of art and antiques. Beckford visited Sir William in Naples in 1780 and again in 1782 and was inspired and aided in his own collecting by his elder relative. In 1791 Sir William and Emma, by then Lady Hamilton, stayed at Fonthill with Beckford during a visit to England and when the Ambassador and his wife retired to England in 1799 they lived for at time at 22 Grosvenor Square, Beckford’s London residence which he lent them.

Fig. 6 Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of William Beckford, 1782. National Portrait Gallery, London. © Wikimedia

In December 1800 Emma gave the last significant performance of her Attitudes at William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, where she, Sir William and Nelson were staying as guests for Christmas. Her chief personification on this occasion was that of Agrippina returning to Rome with the ashes of her murdered husband, Germanicus – regarded in the eighteenth century as an exemplary model of the Roman matron and a classical model of fidelity. The Gentleman’s magazine gave a contemporary eyewitness account of the festivities, describing the grand reception that Lord Nelson and the Hamiltons received upon their arrival:

"As soon as they reached the lodge of the park, the Fonthill volunteers, already waiting, drew up in a double line. Their band of music consisting of thirty performers, playing ‘Rule Britannia’, the corps presented their arms, and marched on either side of the carriages in slow procession up to the house. Here Mr. Beckford, with a large company of gentlemen and ladies, received Lord Nelson and his party on the landing of the grand flight of steps in the portico before the marble hall. The volunteers now formed into a line upon the lawn in front of the house, and fired a feu de joye, whilst the band played ‘God save the King’. The day which had been thick and foggy, cleared up just before Lord Nelson's arrival; so that the military parade and salute, under the command of Capt. Williams, were performed with admirable effect. The company now entered the house, and about six o'clock sat down to dinner. After coffee, a variety of local pieces were finely executed by Lady Hamilton in her expressive and triumphant manner, and by Banti [Brigida Banti, the famous Italian soprano] with all her charms of voice and Italian sensibility."

The correspondent went on to describe Emma’s performance that evening and the effect it had upon the assembled guests:

"Lady Hamilton displayed, with truth and energy, every gesture, attitude, and expression of countenance, which could be conceived in Agrippina herself, best calculated to have moved the passions of the Romans in behalf of their favourite general. The action of her head, of her hands and arms in the various positions of the urn, in her manner of presenting it before the Romans, or of holding it up to the gods in the act of supplication, was most classically graceful. Every change of dress, principally of the head, to suit the different situations in which she successively presented herself, was performed instantaneously with the most perfect ease, and without retiring or scarcely turning aside a moment from the spectators. In the last scene of this beautiful piece of pantomime, she appeared with a young lady of the company, who was to personate a daughter. Her action in this part was so perfectly just and natural, and so pathetically addressed to the spectators, as to draw tears from several of the company. It may be questioned whether this scene, without theatrical assistance of other characters and appropriate circumstances, could possibly be represented with more effect."
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 28 December 1800

Accurate inventories of the notoriously reclusive and private Beckford’s famous collection are scant, and the present work does not appear to be listed in the known records of his collection either at Fonthill or Lansdowne Tower, selective as they are. Nor does it appear in any of the sale catalogues of items sold from Beckford’s collection to pay off debts towards the end of his life. However, when Beckford died in 1844 a large proportion of his collection, including his celebrated library, were inherited by his favourite daughter Susan, the wife of Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767–1852) and transferred to Hamilton Palace, in Scotland, where this painting is recorded in the collection by the early 1850s.

Fig. 7 Hamilton Palace, South Lanarkshire, Scotland in the 19th century. © Wikimedia

However, it is also possible that the painting was transferred directly from Sir William’s collection to Hamilton Palace. Both the future 10th Duke and his father, the future 9th Duke of Hamilton, spent time with Sir William Hamilton in Naples. A distant cousin of Sir William’s the future 10th Duke, who was then simply Mr Alexander Hamilton, stayed at Palazzo Sessa in 1792 and developed an enormous, life-long respect for his relative. In March that year he wrote to his father, who was then just Lord Archibald Hamilton: ‘[Sir William] is the best man in the world, & I declare next to yourself I do not know where I could find so good a friend’. Alexander prevailed upon his father to join him in Naples, and the visit was a great success. The future 10th Duke regarded Sir William as a model, both as a man and a collector, and he went on to acquire some of the key works from his collection – notably Rubens's The Loves of the Centaurs (now in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon) in 1810 and the ‘Leonardo’ Laughing Boy (now attributed to Bernardino Luini, at Elton Hall) in 1822.

Fig. 8 Sir Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton and 7th Duke of Brandon. Hamilton Collection. © Wikimedia

Two further surviving versions exist of this triple portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, both similar in size. An oil, formerly in the collection of John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick, a close associate of Sir William Hamilton’s (Private collection, England); and a pastel, formerly in the collection of the Earl of Ilchester, a descendent of Lady Holland, who spent a long period in Naples in the early 1790s (present whereabouts unknown). John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick visited Italy in 1790 and became friends with Sir William Hamilton, Emma and Lord Nelson, as well as many other eminent connoisseurs and men of learning Edward Gibbon, Richard Payne Knight, and the Italian artists Antonio Canova and Vincenzo Camuccini. In 1798 he was living at the Bay of Palermo when HMS Vanguard, under the command of Captain Edward Berry, became stranded there and, as a result, was the first man in Europe to receive news of the victory of the Battle of the Nile – receiving the news from Nelson himself.

Fig. 9 Front cover of the catalogue for the 2008 exhibition Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740–1808): A Life in Pictures at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, illustrating the present lot

The painting has remained in the great Hamilton Palace Collection ever since. Following the sale and eventual demolition of the Palace itself in 1921, in the 13th Duke’s time, the picture hung at the family’s London residence, Cleveland House in St James’s Square, where it laboured under a misattribution to Angelica Kauffman and the identification of the sitter as Lady Hamilton was lost. During the course of the twentieth century alternative attributions to Gavin Hamilton and the Austrian painter Ludwig Guttenbrunn were both suggested, until its true attribution and identity were finally rediscovered in the mid-1990s, when the picture was exhibited in the seminal Vases & Volcanoes exhibition at the British Museum, dedicated to Sir William Hamilton’s great collection and activities as an antiquarian. In the catalogue Kim Sloan correctly identified it as being by Hugh Douglas Hamilton and associated it with the entry in the inventory of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of paintings at the Palazzo Sessa in the British Library. It was later exhibited in the major retrospective of Hamilton’s work held at the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin, in 2008–09, for which this painting was used as the cover illustration to the catalogue.

1 See Q. Colville and K. Williams (eds), Emma Hamilton. Seduction & Celebrity, exh. cat., London 2016.

2 Sir William Hamilton to Charles Greville, 26 May 1786, in Morrison, Hamilton and Nelson Papers, vol. 1, p. 140.

3 Quoted in Q. Colville and K. Williams (eds.), Emma Hamilton. Seduction & Celebrity, exh. cat., London 2016, p. 137.

4 Emma to Charles Greville, 4 August 1787, in Morrison, Hamilton and Nelson Papers, vol. 1, p. 132.

5 British Library. Add. MS 41,200, f. 122.

6 W. Smith, Classical Dictionary, 1877.