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The Attitudes of Lady Hamilton

by Sophie Buckman | 1 November 2021

Recalling Lady Emma Hamilton’s ‘Attitudes’, a series of tableaux vivants performed in Naples in the last decades of the 18th century, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun states: “Nothing was more curious than the faculty that Lady Hamilton, had acquired of suddenly imparting to all her features the expression of sorrow or joy, and of posing in a wonderful manner to represent different characters. Her eye alight with animation, her hair strewn about her, she displayed to you a delicious bacchante, then all at once her face expressed sadness, and you saw an admirable repentant Magdalene.”[1] Emma’s evanescent poses cast her at once as risqué reveller and holy woman. She goes on to describe the Attitudes as ‘çe talent d’un nouveau genre.’ Anthony Howell proposes: ‘the new genre was performance art.’[2] Emma Hamilton, more widely known as mistress to a series of high-profile men, including Horatio Nelson, can be read as the progenitor of performance art. She transformed the tableau vivant from a plastic to a theatrical visual art. Whilst the extent of Emma’s impact in the art world is usually confined to her role as ‘muse’ to portraitist George Romney, she embodied the spirit of the modern performance artist nearly 200 years before the ‘happenings’ of the 1960s.

Vigée-Lebrun’s choice of Magdalene makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to Emma’s role as courtesan and sex-worker, one which propelled her out of a cottage and into the stratospheres of Georgian society. Emma Hamilton was born Amy Lyon in Ness, Cheshire, in 1765. Receiving no formal education, by 1777 she found herself living in London, working variously as a household servant, an actress at Drury Lane, and modelling for a quack medicine man. She had her first child to a baronet at age 15, before being made the official mistress of Charles Francis Greville, who prompted her to change her name to Emma Hart so as to distance themselves from her London reputation. Emma was installed in Greville’s house in Paddington Green, with her mother soon joining them. It was through him that Emma was introduced to Romney, and reportedly, her beauty captivated the artist to such an extent that he eschewed Greville as his subject, and immediately started the first of more than 60 of portraits of her made over 4 years. Essential to Romney’s Emma was her consistent portrayal in mythological or theatrical dress. None of his portraits are of Emma Hamilton, they are ‘Lady Hamilton as Circe’ or ‘Lady Hamilton as Titania’. Romney delighted in capturing Emma’s demure beauty, palpable in the deliciously profane Lady Hamilton at Prayer (c.1782-86), to such an extent that some suggest he became obsessive.[3]

George Romney, Lady Hamilton at Prayer, oil on canvas (c.1782-1786). Kenwood House, The Iveagh Bequest.

Eventually, the pressures of aristocracy compelled Greville to cast Emma off in an unsuccessful attempt to secure an appropriate wife. In a stage-worthy scheme, he devised to send her to Naples with the promise that he would join her later. Of course, he never came. Emma was palmed off on Greville’s uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who was the British envoy to Naples and an antiquarian and vulcanologist. She was received as a work of art. Greville sent her portrait ahead to his uncle, stating: ‘Her picture shall be sent by the first ship – I wish Romney yet to mend the dog.’[4] After a few months of anger and denial, Emma settled into life at Hamilton’s palazzo, taking him as a lover, and the portrait joined his collection of Wedgwood vases and samples of obsidian glass. The pair married a few years later, and appeared to maintain a relationship of mutual respect at the very least. It was in Naples that Emma became enmeshed in the upper echelons of society, becoming friends with the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina of Austria, and performing her ‘Attitudes’ for audiences including Goethe and Vigée-Lebrun. The Attitudes were a series of moving tableaux vivants, wherein Emma would quickly transform between mythological figures, using props and mime to signal her changing roles. In 1798, the Hamiltons welcomed a wounded Nelson into their home. Emma nursed him back to health, and an indescribable menage-à-trois was formed. The three lived together sporadically in both Naples and London for the rest of Hamilton and Nelson’s lives. Emma and Nelson formed a sustained attachment, and she gave birth to his daughter Horatia in 1801.

​Tommaso Piroli, after Friedrich Rehberg, Emma Hamilton, etching (1794). National Portrait Gallery.

Biographies of Emma are inexorably divided and structured by the names of her lovers. This pattern, however, undoubtably formed the fabric of her life. Indeed, the famous Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, would not have existed without Greville, Hamilton, Nelson, and the rest. ‘Amy Lyon’ (or indeed ‘Emily Lyon’ depending on who you believe) would most likely have been a name consigned to history. Emma’s name rings in the public consciousness most prominently for her relationship with the Vice-Admiral; her most common epithet is ‘Mistress of Lord Nelson’. In one of a series of promotional posts for their 2016 exhibition, Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, the National Maritime Museum writes: ‘In order to illuminate Emma’s path Dr Quintin Colville, curator of our major exhibition ‘Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity,’ threads together a sequence of the more important identities that Emma inhabited during her 49 years. Mistress is not one of them’.[5] Emma’s identity is divided into tidy blogposts, ‘Performer’, ‘Muse’, ‘Wife’, ‘Possession’, etc, all charitably acknowledging her simultaneous power and impotence, and the paradox of a woman consigned to ‘possession’ being in the centre of the European political maelstrom. However, the puritanical if well-meaning urge to erase all evidence of Emma’s role as ‘Mistress’, a role that hinged to various degrees on the selling of her body, erases too her symbiotic statuses as performance artist, sex worker, and muse.

Thomas Rowlandson, Caricature of Emma Hamilton performing her Attitudes, pen and ink, 1790s

The relationship between performance art and prostitution is one that has been explored thoroughly in the last 50 years. Famously, Marina Abramović’s Role Exchange (1975), saw her and a sex-worker from Amsterdam’s red-light district trade places for a series of performances. Abramović drew out comparison between the roles in the visual signification of the windows of the brothel and gallery, leaving both artist and sex-worker susceptible to voyeuristic gazes. Cosey Fanni Tutti and the members of art collective and band COUM Transmissions (soon to become Throbbing Gristle) took this exploration of the identities of artist and prostitute further in their 1976 installation Prostitution. The group’s multimedia performance art installation was a frenzy of sex, violence, and bodily fluids, and predictably set the media ablaze with moralistic fury. The carnage was visceral, with Genesis P-Orridge exclaiming: ‘Everything in the show is for sale at a price, even the people’.[6] In a consideration of the commodification of the body of the artist, in the two years leading up to the installation, Cosey Fanni Tutti (the group’s only female member) had worked as model for up to 40 pornographic magazines. This extreme act of performance art sought to examine ‘that point where Life and Art touch and fuse, dispersing Art and Enhancing Life’.[7] The photographs were displayed at the installation, often alongside Cosey’s writhing form in positions far more extreme than could be printed in a bog-standard skin-rag. For COUM, the context of the installation and Cosey’s artistic self-awareness transfigured sex-work into art.

Marina Abramovic, Role Exchange, photograph (1975.) Private Collection.

Emma’s art and work converge and diverge in similar ways. Like Cosey, her image often circulated devoid of the context of her own artistic output, whilst her Attitudes were received in the press with the same respect as Prostitution, if less vitriol. Emma’s life and art are elusive to the last, with her image preceding her character just as Romney’s portrait preceded her to Naples. It is said Greville kept his house in Paddington Green adorned with her portraits for the rest of his life. Images of Emma circulated as she did; the plethora of Romneys, the caricatures in newspapers, the Friedrich Rehberg engravings of her Attitudes. She looks different in each impression, consistently obscured by the costumes of Romney’s fancies, or the scarves that decorated her performances.

Emma died near destitute in Calais, with only Horatia at her side. The exact whereabouts of her grave are unknown. It would be gauche to suggest that Emma’s life, one underpinned by twisted sexual politics and commodification, was a form of performance art. However, it would be equally reductive to dismiss her role in the world of sex-work. Her social mobility, both in its upwards and downwards turns, necessitated various forms of sex-work. The spectrum from prostitute to kept mistress is broad and oblique, however these roles, along with those of ‘artist’s muse’ and ‘performance artist’, are all underpinned by a defining feature: the commodification of the body and self. It is here that Emma’s ‘Life and Art touch and fuse’.

[1] Quoted in Anthony Howell, The analysis of performance art: a guide to its theory and practice (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See for example Emma’s biography provided at the National Portrait Gallery’s 2002 exhibition of Romney’s portraits: ‘Romney was so obsessed by Emma that it became increasingly hard for him to engage creatively with more routine commissions’

[4] Walter Sydney Sichel, Memoirs of Emma, Lady Hamilton, the friend of Lord Nelson and the court of Naples; with a special introduction (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 60.

[5] ‘Performer: Emma Hamilton’s many identities.’ Royal Museums Greenwich, 2017.

[6] Quoted from the original Prostitution poster. Institute of Contemporary Art Archive

[7] 1976 ICA Exhibition Programme. ICA Archive


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