Emma, Lady Hamilton (born 1761; baptised 26 April 1765 – 15 January 1815) is best remembered as the mistress of Lord Nelson and as the muse of George Romney. She was born Amy Lyon in Neston, Cheshire, England, the daughter of a blacksmith, Henry Lyons, who died when she was two months old. She was brought up by her mother, formerly Mary Kidd, at Hawarden, with no formal education. She later changed her name to Emma Hart.
Details of Emma's early life are unclear, but at age 12 she was known to be working as a maid at the Hawarden home of Doctor Honoratus Leigh Thomas, a surgeon working in Chester. Although this employment provided an escape from abject poverty, she was sacked after just a few months, presumably for poor work. She headed for London. There she worked for the Budd family in Chatham Place, Blackfriars. There she met a maid called Jane Powell, who wanted to be an actress. Emma joined in with Jane's rehearsals for various tragic roles - Jane is known to have played parts in local theatres. Emma and Jane enjoyed city life, but their excursions into London's unsavoury nightlife, and particularly their likely liaisons with young men, soon led Mrs Budd to sack the pair.
Emma went back to her mother, who was at this time living in comparative squalor near Oxford Street. Inspired by Jane's enthusiasm for the theatre, Emma started work at the Drury Lane theatre in Covent Garden, as maid to various actresses, among them Mary Robinson (poet) (see below). However, this paid little, and she supplemented her income by working Drury Lane as a prostitute. She soon gained employ in a local tavern/brothel. It was here that she became a strip tease artiste, a performance that involved striking lewd poses for the viewers. This act she would later refine by removing the nudity and lewdness, and developing it into what would become her Attitudes.
At about this time, Emma also began to pose for the artists George Romney and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Many hundreds of works were painted of Emma, particularly by Romney. The Royal Academy had great difficulty in finding models, as the work was considered unbecoming. Emma therefore undertook such work under various pseudonyms, such as "Emma Potts", "Emily Potts", "Miss Emily", "Warren", "Bertie" and "Coventry". One of the most famous of these is "Thais", by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which hangs in the drawing room at Waddesdon Manor, in Buckinghamshire, England. It shows Emma as Thais, mistress of Alexander the Great, holding aloft a flaming torch and encouraging Alexander to burn down the Temple of Persepolis.
Emma next worked as a model and dancer at the "Goddess of Health" (also known as the "Temple of Health") for James Graham, a Scottish "quack" doctor. The establishment's greatest attraction was a bed through which electricity was passed, giving paying patrons mild shocks. This supposedly aided conception, and many infertile couples paid high prices to try it. One patron (for pleasure rather than conception) was the 18-year-old Prince of Wales (later George IV), who sampled the bed with his mistress, Mary Robinson.
From there Emma moved to "Madame Kelly's", which was an exclusive brothel beside the Ritz Hotel. A woman looking very like Emma was reported in Town and Country Magazine to have set up there - the magazine referred to the establishment coyly as "Santa Carlotta's Nunnery". There, Emma began refining her lewd postures for the more refined clients she would have received.
One customer at this brothel was Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh. Emma, then still only fifteen years old, was hired from Kelly's for several months by Sir Harry, as host and entertainer at a lengthy stag party at Sir Harry's Uppark country estate in the South Downs. Sir Harry took Emma there as mistress, but frequently ignored her in favour of drinking and hunting with his friends. Emma soon formed a friendship with one of the guests, the dull but sincere Honourable Charles Francis Greville (1749–1809) - second son of the first Earl of Warwick, and an MP for Warwick. It was about this time (late June-early July 1781) that she is thought to have conceived a child by Sir Harry.
Sir Harry was furious at the unwanted pregnancy, but is thought to have accommodated Emma in one of his many houses in London. Emma tried to secure a relationship with Sir Harry, but he chose to ignore her advances. Instead she turned to Greville. Desperate for an income but spurned by Sir Harry, Emma became Greville's mistress. When the child (Emma Carew) was born, it was removed to be raised by her grandmother in Wales. Emma was at Greville's mercy, and agreed to change her name to "Emma Hart", so that her sordid past from London would not follow her to taint Greville's reputation.
As a young woman, Emma Carew saw her mother reasonably frequently, but later when her mother fell into debt, Emma Carew was forced to leave the country to work abroad as a companion or governess (and probably died not long after her mother).
Greville kept Emma well away from her past associates, in the backwater of Edgeware Row, but he was in love with her and, wanting a painting of her, sent her to sit for his friend, the painter, George Romney. Romney painted many of his most famous portraits of Emma at this time. Indeed, Romney maintained a lifelong obsession with her, sketching her nude and clothed, in many poses that he used in paintings he made in her absence. Through the popularity of Romney's work, and particularly of his striking-looking young model, Emma became well-known in society circles, under the name of "Emma Hart".
In 1783, Greville needed to find a rich wife to replenish his finances (in the form of eighteen-year-old heiress Henrietta Willoughby). Emma would be a problem, as he disliked being known as her lover (this having become apparent to all through her fame in Romney's artworks), and his prospective wife would not like it.
To be rid of Emma, Greville persuaded his very wealthy uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples (since 1764), to take her off his hands. Greville's marriage would be useful to Sir William, as it relieved him of having Greville as poor relation. To promote his plan, Greville suggested to Sir William that Emma would make a very pleasing mistress, assuring him that, once married to Henrietta Willoughby, he would come and fetch Emma back. Emma's famous beauty was by then well-known to Sir William, so much so that he even agreed to pay the expenses for her journey to ensure her speedy arrival.
Greville did not inform Emma of his plan, instead suggesting the trip as a prolonged holiday in Naples while he (Greville) was away in Scotland on business. Emma was thus sent to Naples, supposedly for six to eight months, little realising that she was going as the mistress of her host.
Sir William was smitten with Emma and, to Greville's shock, married her on 6 September 1791 at St. George's, Hanover Square, London. Before this, as Sir William's mistress, Emma developed what she called her "Attitudes". This seems to have evolved through Sir William discovering her lewd abilities during their relationship, with Emma using Romney's idea of combining classical poses with modern allure as the basis for her act. This eventual cross between postures, dance, and acting, was first revealed in Spring 1787 by Sir William to a large group of European guests at his home in Naples, who quickly took to this new form of entertainment - guessing the names of the classical characters and scenes which Emma portrayed.
For her "Attitudes", Emma had her dressmaker make dresses modelled on those worn by peasant islanders in the Bay of Naples, and on loose-fitting garments such as she wore when modelling for Romney. The performance was a sensation across Europe. Using a few shawls, she posed as various classical figures from Medea to Queen Cleopatra, and her performances charmed aristocrats, artists such as Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, writers — including the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — and kings and queens alike, setting off new dance trends across Europe and starting a fashion for a draped Grecian style of dress.
It is interesting to note that gossip publications at the time suggested that Emma might have learnt her posing abilities from a brothel. Indeed, the term "Attitudes" was used at the time to refer to lewd poses struck by courtesans. Whether they had made the connection between Emma and her past is debatable, but Sir William seems to have been ignorant of, or oblivious to, such suggestions.
Emma nursed Nelson under her husband's roof, and arranged a party with 1,800 guests to celebrate his 40th birthday. They soon fell in love and their affair seems to have been tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the elderly Sir William, who showed nothing but admiration and respect for Nelson, and vice-versa. On Nelson's recall to Britain shortly afterwards, Nelson, Emma and William meandered back to Britain via Central Europe (hearing the Missa in Angustiis by Joseph Haydn that now bears Nelson's name in Vienna in 1800), and eventually arrived in Britain later in 1800 to a hero's welcome. The three then lived together openly, and the affair became public knowledge, which eventually induced the Admiralty to send Nelson back to sea, if only to get him away from Emma.
Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter Horatia, on 31 January 1801 at Sir William's rented home in Clarges Street, 23 Piccadilly, London. By the autumn of the same year, Nelson bought Merton Place, a small ramshackle house on the outskirts of modern day Wimbledon. There he lived openly with Emma, and Sir William (along with Emma's mother) in a ménage à trois that fascinated the public. The newspapers reported on their every move, looking to Emma to set fashions in dress, home decoration and even dinner party menus.
Sir William died in 1803 and Nelson returned to sea soon after, leaving Emma pregnant with their second child. She was desperately lonely, preoccupied with attempting to turn Merton Place into the grand home Nelson desired, and frantic for his return. The child, a girl, died a few weeks after her birth in early 1804. Emma reportedly distracted herself by gambling, and spending lavishly.
After Nelson's death in 1805, Emma quickly exhausted the small pension Sir William had left her, and fell deeply into debt. Nelson had willed his estate to his brother; he gave Merton Place to Emma, but she depleted her finances by trying to keep it up as a monument to him. In spite of Nelson's status as a national hero, the instructions he left to the government to provide for Emma and Horatia were ignored. They showered honours on Nelson's brother instead.
Emma was to spend a year in debtor's prison, in the company of Horatia, before moving to France to try to escape her creditors. Turning to drink, she died in poverty of liver failure, in Calais, in January 1815.
Horatia subsequently married the Rev. Philip Ward, and lived until 1881. She had ten children: Horatio Nelson (born 8 December 1822); Eleanor Phillipa (born April 1824); Marmaduke Philip Smyth (born 27 May 1825); John James Stephen (13 February 1827–1829); Nelson (born 8 May 1828); William George (born 8 April 1830); Edmund Nelson (1831); Horatia Nelson (born 24 November 1833), Philip (born May 1834) and Caroline (born January 1836).