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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

More than a pretty woman: Emma Hamilton at the NMM

We have been wanting to make it down to Greenwich to see the National Maritime Museum's Emma Hamilton exhibition for aaaages. I mean, the Guardian gave it a five star review, and we hear some of its text panels are being used as best practice examples at MA workshops. This is besides the fact that its an exhibition about a woman, a rare beast for a museum, and certainly for a maritime museum at that. That the NMM took up the cause of a woman who is famous for being Nelson's mistress is interesting, and one imagines a concerted move on their part to be a bit more innovative with their maritime history remit. Well, it worked. Emma is engaging and intimate, drawing you through the museum's beautiful new exhibition space with ease. Her journey through the political turbulence of the late eighteenth century is fascinating, you certainly leave having a better appreciation for the life of an extraordinary woman.

The exhibition opens with a quote from Lady Hamilton herself, 'I wish to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool'. That Emma was beautiful is abundantly clear throughout the exhibition. Indeed, her beauty was the source of her fame and meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the society. It was her nymph-like face which led her to become the muse of George Romney and ultimately a household name in Georgian Britain. Her beauty also got her into much of the trouble in her life. An affair with a gentleman which began in a brothel ended in her being pregnant. She struck a bargain with another aristocrat, Charles Greville, to look after herself and her child. When Greville tired of her, he literally passed her over to his uncle (if you were here I'd murder you and myself both- she wrote to Greville in a rage). Emma spent much of her life being treated as a commodity. But there is absolutely no doubt that she was a woman making the best of her circumstances. 

The exhibition has to toe a rather fine line as it tried to exonerate the historic impression that Emma was nothing more than a harlot who seduced Admiral Nelson into an adulterous relationship. While it is abundantly clear that Emma was charismatic and artistically challenging, late eighteenth century women simply didn't have the independence to be the kind of kick ass feminist hero museum-goers might like to hear about. Emma didn't really have a choice but to be 'looked after' by wealthy men, to give up her illegitimate children, to turn to prostitution when times were hard. The extent to which Emma had genuine feelings for some of the men in her life is a bit confusing- did she truly fall head over heels each time? Or was she more interested in looking after her position? The exhibition seems to suggest she was a passionate woman who truly did love her conquests. Her love letters with Nelson are particularly touching and sincere. 

Personally I was the most interested in the part of the exhibition related to Emma's time in the Neapolitan court during the Napoleonic wars. Having married the British Envoy to Naples, Emma became a close confident of the Royal Family, and in particular Queen Maria Carolina, who was also sister to Marie Antoinette. Emma's role as an intermediary between the Neapolitan Queen and the British Navy was crucial to the success of Nelson's battle of the Nile. Emma's political acumen is more difficult to communicate in an exhibition and its perhaps less enticing than her home making with Nelson, or her portraits by Romney. But to me, this is really the heart of the exhibition. Emma was beautiful yes, but she was also courageous and wanted to prove her worth to the highest levels of society. As Amanda Vickery comments in the exhibition, Emma was a woman who refused to be defined by class. 

The exhibition design I also have to say was flawless. Throughout it is full of thoughtful touches which recall the importance of the theatre to Emma's career. Indeed, it feels like walking through a luxurious theatre-set of Emma's life, and in one instance literally becomes that. I absolutely loved the rooms made to evoke her 'Paradise Merton', her home with Nelson, complete with flickering candle effects. Emma becomes much more than just an artistic muse, but a really living breathing person who was looking for love and some sense of stability. The display of Romney paintings is equally awe inspiring. 

The NMM's exhibition is nuanced and empathetic, and will leave you even more intrigued by the life and times of Emma Hamilton. While this isn't really the focus of the exhibition, I think Emma provides a fascinating sense of late eighteenth century society, weaving quack medicine, salon society, music halls, and political turbulence. She might not be quite a feminist icon by 21st century standards, but the exhibition certainly does her justice as an ambitious and determined woman in a complex world. This is Emma on Emma's terms. 

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is on at the National Maritime Museum until the 17th of April. 

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