Lady Emma Hamilton: Biography Of This English Muse And Actress


More than seventy portraits were made by the painter George Romney (1734-1802) of Emma Hamilton, formerly Emma Hart and, even earlier, Emy Lyon, a humble young woman from the provinces, daughter of a blacksmith. The fascination that the artist felt for the girl (whom he captured in a multitude of poses and attitudes) was such that, when Emma left for Italy, Romney was devastated, and his melancholic nature was even more accentuated.

What did that creature have to be able to trap the painter like that? Emma Hamilton was not only pretty, but she exuded joy and vivacity and, in addition, she had a classic beauty very consistent with the prevailing Neoclassicism. She climbed from the lowest origins (in her most tender adolescence it seems that she had to work as a prostitute) to the heights of fame, especially after her marriage to Lord Hamilton and, especially, through her famous romance with Admiral Lord Nelson. .

If you would like to know more about this fascinating woman, read on. Today we tell you about the life of this English muse and actress, famous for her recreations of classical Greece: Lady Emma Hamilton.

Brief biography of Emma Hamilton, the most coveted English muse

Emma Hamilton’s life seems straight out of a novel. Our character has gone down in history as an intriguing seductress (a common topic in the biography of many women), and, Although it is true that Emma rose in society through her relationships, it is no less true that she had an alert and intelligent character and that she had an indisputable talent for the dramatic arts.

Her marble beauty, similar to the beauty of a Greek statue, attracted numerous artists who made her their muse, especially the aforementioned George Romney, who was absolutely captivated by her charms (although there is no evidence of a romantic relationship between them). .

England’s “Cinderella”

She was born Emy Lyon (or Amy, as she never knew how to spell her baptismal name exactly) into a poor and illiterate family on April 26, 1765 (or 1763). Two months later she was orphaned by her father (Henry Lyon, a modest blacksmith from Nesse, Cheshire). Little else is known about the first years of her life, which remain in the most absolute mist of her.

At the age of twelve we find her working as a maid in Chester and, later still, when Emma is already a teenager, she moves to London and enters the service of a family in the Blackfriars neighborhood. His steps in these years are not very clear; It seems that she worked at Covent Garden as an actress’s maid, and that this inspired her desire to one day become a lady of the theater.

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However, other sources mention that she was a dancer in a place of dubious reputation, and that she also worked as a prostitute to survive. The writer and fencing teacher Henry Angelo (1765-1835), an acquaintance of Emma from those years, acknowledged that one day he had found her walking with two other girls and that she had confessed to him that she lived in a famous and flirtatious brothel in King’s. Place…

At fifteen, Emy Lyon had already lived an eternity and had been through many men. It seemed that his future was doomed; a woman “of a bad life” (prostitute or actress, it didn’t matter, because at that time they were considered the same), immersed in the blackness of the most miserable neighborhoods of London. However, her destiny had a very different role in store for her.


Emma Hart, the muse among muses

It was then that her first supporter emerged, Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, who took her with him to his country estate and made her, of course, his lover. But, in addition to providing pleasure to the aristocrat, Emma participated and acted as absolute hostess of the gallant parties that were celebrated there. She was soon admired for her beauty, her grace and her indisputable power of seduction.

Precisely at one of these parties, Emy Lyon met another aristocrat, Charles Greville (1749-1809), who, in the not too distant future, would save Emma from shame and misery. For Sir Featherstonhaugh soon tired of her; When he found out that the girl had become pregnant, he denied her help. It was then that the young woman, desperate, sent her friend Charles a letter in which she asked for help; Greville agreed to become her protector, but on one condition: he had to give up the daughter he had with Featherstonhaugh.

Emma accepted the pact (it was either that or a return to the brothel, surely) and moved to Charles’s house. Her new supporter then tried to change the “promiscuous” Emy for a woman of impeccable virtue; To do this, the first thing she did was change his first and last name. From now on, Emy Lyon would become Emma Hart, and she would become a respected and worthy matron.

New life in Naples

There was, however, a small obstacle. And the only way to appear respectable in the eyes of the corseted English society of the time was to go through the marriage procedure. But Greville did not marry Emma. In 1782, Charles Greville had introduced Emma to the painter George Romney, who was fascinated by her and made countless portraits where the young woman was represented as an authentic Greek heroine.

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These portraits soon became so popular that his face could be found in many print shops in the capital, which Greville evidently did not like. In short, if he wanted to get married, Emma was not the right woman for it. When Greville’s financial situation became unsustainable, he decided that his only way out was to marry a young heiress. Emma had become an obstacle, so the aristocrat sent her to Naples, telling a series of lies to get rid of her.


At first, Emma believed him. She thought that Greville would join her in Italy and that together they would make that Grand Tour so famous in the noble circles of the time. Of course, it wasn’t like that. During her stay in Naples, the young woman learned of the engagement of her former supporter and, therefore, she realized that she had been betrayed.

Heartbroken, she sent a letter to Greville, conveying the deep pain she felt at her former supporter’s suggestion that she go to bed with Charles’s uncle, Sir William Hamilton. In other words, Emma was already in his way and wanted someone else to support her. Emma was once again an object of pure entertainment, which men got rid of when they were no longer interested in her.

Lady Hamilton

The fact is that Emma was not Sir William Hamilton’s mistress, but rather became his wife. Poor Emy Lyon, alias Emma Hart, the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith, had become the wife of a Lord. She then begins her new life in Naples, where Sir William Hamilton has her domicile.

Her husband introduced her to Neapolitan society and, more importantly, to Greek and Roman culture, which in those years caused a real sensation, due, in part, to the discovery of the ruins of Herculaneum. Emma soon learns to pose with undeniable grace for her famous performances, evenings where the young woman appears dressed in flowing robes and represents poses of classical statues and characters from Greek mythology.

Soon, Lady Hamilton became the most famous personage in Naples. Among her friends was none other than Queen Maria Carolina, the wife of Ferdinand I of Naples (and sister, by the way, of the guillotined Marie Antoinette). On the other hand, among the spectators amazed by her dramatizations was Goethe himself, who left in writing a detailed description of Lady Hamilton’s attitudes, in which he mentions her Greek costume made expressly for her and the ease with which Emma reproduced hundreds of expressions.

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A beautiful testimony of these poses were the drawings that the painter Friedrich Rehberg made of them, which soberly show the actress in black and white, without any props to distract the vision, dressed in tunics and veils. In the purest Neoclassical style.


One last (and true) love

Although the marriage got along well, the considerable age difference (Lord Hamilton was sixty-one years old and Emma was twenty-six) made it evident that what united them was only a deep respect and endearing affection. Sir William had made her little Emma his own Pygmalion story, and turned her into a great lady.

Soon, love in capital letters would cross the young woman’s life. And that love would be none other than Lord Nelson, the famous admiral, the hero of Trafalgar whom all of England revered. In 1798, Nelson met the couple again in Naples, and even stayed with them. The admiration he felt for Emma is reflected in the letters he sent to his wife, Lady Fanny, in which he told her about the young woman’s virtues.

It was evident that the elderly admiral, one-armed and almost toothless, was falling in love with her. It seems that the affair was spurred by Lord Hamilton himself who, aware of his age, was more than permissive with his wife’s affairs. The fact is that a strange coexistence was formed that included husband, wife and lover, which produced true astonishment in strict English society. In 1801, Emma gave birth to Horatia, Nelson’s illegitimate daughter, and, in 1804, another stillborn daughter. The following year the hero of Trafalgar died.

Emma Hamilton was left alone. William had died in turn in 1803; Thus ended the strange ménage a trois they had formed. Burdened with debt, unable to support her daughter, Emma flees to Calais, where she spends her final years. In 1815 Lady Hamilton died in France, affected by amoebiasis, a condition caused by dysentery. With it died the most genuine personalization of the classical era of the Enlightenment. For posterity there remain the beautiful portraits that George Romney made of her and the charming painting that the artist Élisabeth Vigeé Lebrun executed, where she represents her as a bacchante, as if she had frozen on her canvas one of her immortal Neapolitan attitudes. .