There’s something hugely beguiling about the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s exhibition on Emma Hamilton, Seduction and Celebrity – appropriately enough, as Emma herself seemed to inveigle her way into hearts and minds with ease.
In a way, hers is the Cinderella story we all yearn for – a penniless servant, seduced by her master’s son, falls on her feet, works hard to ‘improve’ herself, becomes a painter’s muse, is betrayed by the man she loves and passed on to his own uncle, she makes a success of her new life, attracts the attention of the great and good, marries well, becomes a feted performer in her own right – but then we get the tragic side of the arc. She becomes embroiled in a scandalous menage a trois with national hero Lord Nelson and, when he is killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, is left penniless, imprisoned for her debts, eventually dying alone at the age of 49. All this was carried out in the full glare of publicity, as Emma was followed by the media of the day as slavishly as any icon is today.
It’s a fascinating tale, brooded over by numerous portraits of the beautiful Emma painted by Romney, who was obsessed by her. The saddest thing is that it is hard to see it ending any better for Emma, even if it were all played out today. Go and see it if you can.