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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Emma, Lady Hamilton

Emma, Lady Hamilton was born Amy Lyon, at Ness, near Neston in Cheshire, England on April 26, 1765. The cottage where she was born still survives.

She was the daughter of Henry Lyon, a blacksmith who died when she was two months old.

Amy was raised by her mother, the former Mary Kidd, at Hawarden, Flintshire and received no formal education.

By the age of 12, Amy was working as a maid at the Hawarden home of Doctor Honoratus Leigh Thomas, a surgeon working in Chester.

At 16 Amy Lyon was an assistant to an immensely fat quack named James Graham, who advertised a mud bath as a beauty aid. At each performance to prove this, Amy, attired as a Goddess of Love, would be immersed up to her neck in the mud bath.

Emma Hamilton as a young woman c. 1782, by George Romney

By her early twenties Amy was living in Naples and had changed her name to Emma Hart. She began there an affair with Sir William Hamilton, a British diplomat and envoy to the court of Naples, who was more than twice her age.

In 1787 she developed there what she called her "Attitudes" or Mimoplastic art, combining classical poses with modern allure as the basis for her act. With the aid of her shawls, Emma posed as various classical figures from Medea to Queen Cleopatra. The performance was a sensation with visitors from across Europe, and she became the idol of society.

George Romney, an English portrait painter was so obsessed with Lady Hamilton that he painted about 50 portraits of her.

Lady Hamilton as Titania with Puck and Changeling, by George Romney, 1793

Emma was also a talented amateur singer and often entertained guests at her home. At one point, the Royal Opera in Madrid tried to engage her for a season,  but that offer was turned down.

When Sir William Hamilton obtained leave of three months in Britain, he took the opportunity to marry Emma. The ceremony was a quiet one in St Marylebone parish church, Middlesex, taking place on September 6, 1791, two days before the couple's return to Naples.

Sir William Hamilton by David Allan

Obliged to use her legal name of Amy Lyons on the marriage register, the wedding gave her the title Lady Hamilton which she would use for the rest of her life.

Emma, Lady Hamilton first met Horatio Nelson in Naples in 1793, but it was only when he returned five years later that their affair began. A fervid admirer of his exploits, she reportedly threw herself at him, shouting ‘Oh God, is it possible?’ before fainting.

Nelson, meanwhile was besotted by her. He was so helpless in Lady Hamilton's company that he was reprimanded by the Admiralty for idling in port with her instead of taking the British sea against Napoleon.

Horatio Nelson

Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter Horatia at Sir William's rented home in Clarges Street, 23 Piccadilly, London.

Sir William Hamilton, died in 1803. He breathed his last in Emma's arms holding Nelson by the hand. He left Nelson a favourite portrait of Emma done in enamel.

Of the moment she heard of Lord Nelson's death at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Lady Hamilton wrote: "I gave a scream and fell back, and for ten hours I could neither speak nor shed a tear."

Pastel by Johann Heinrich Schmidt, c. 1800, owned by Nelson

In 1811, Lady Hamilton was present at the performance of the opera The Americans. During the performance the famous song "Death of Nelson" was sung by the opera singer John Braham. Lady Hamilton was reported to have been so overcome that she suffered a fit of hysterics and had to leave the theater.

After Nelson died,  Lady Hamilton recklessly spent the healthy annuities left her by her lover and her husband and fell into poverty. She spent a year in a virtual debtors' prison, in the company of Horatia, until a London Alderman helped Emma which enabled her release.

She fled to Calais, France to try to escape her creditors, where she lived for 18 months before dying in poverty. Lady Hamilton died on January 15, 1815, aged 49, of amoebic dysentery – an illness she probably contracted during her years in Naples.

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