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Emma as Ariadne

Fri May 26, 2017

By Martyn Downer, author of 'Nelson’s Purse' (Bantam Press, 2004) and 'Nelson’s Lost Jewel '(History Press, forthcoming October 2017)

The recent exhibition about Emma Hamilton (bap.1765-1815) at the National Maritime Museum sought to dispel the stereotype of Emma as the straightforward seductress of Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805) and to re-assess her political activity as wife of the British Ambassador at Naples and her contribution to the culture of her day as artist muse and performer. The exhibition drew on a wealth of material as Emma’s six-year relationship with Nelson was simply one chapter of a long life in the public eye which had begun when she was a teenager in the studio of George Romney (1734-1802). The love-struck Romney painted Emma obsessively in many Classical guises including as the tragic figure of Ariadne (otherwise known as Emma as Absence ) [fig.1] : a painting which remained in his studio at his death (now National Maritime Museum, London).

Fig.1. A preliminary work for George Romney's portrait of Emma as Absence, previously with Philip Mould & Co. The prime version is now at the National Maritime Museum, London.

Fig.1. A preliminary work, previously with Philip Mould & Co., for George Romney's portrait of Emma as Absence. The prime version is now at the National Maritime Museum, London.

As companion then wife to Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803), a noted scholar and avid collector, Emma’s beautiful form became loaded with Classical allusions in a series of specially commissioned paintings and artworks. A favourite representation was a portrait of Emma as Ariadne by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842). This was a more fleshy and sexually-charged interpretation than Romney’s more wistful guise and showed Emma reclining coquettishly on a leopard skin as the ship carrying Theseus departs in the background. The painting was hung over the bed at the Palazzo Sessa in Naples later occupied by Nelson who fell quickly under its spell. Indeed, it is not too fanciful to suppose that Nelson and Emma first made love beneath it. When Sir William was forced to sell the painting in London to pay debts, Nelson bought it back in secret. Following Sir William’s death in 1803, the admiral also received as a bequest a miniature version in enamels of the painting completed to Sir William’s order by Henry Bone (1755-1834), now in the Wallace Collection, London. If any single artwork could represent the complex relationships between the Hamiltons and Nelson it would be Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Emma as Ariadne. Indeed, it is the only significant work of art closely associated with Nelson and reveals the obvious fascination the story of Ariadne had for him with its erotic connotations.

Fig.2. Portrait miniature of Emma (née Lyon), Lady Hamilton, in the guise of Ariadne, c.1800, English School

It is in the guise of her lover’s favourite goddess that this new image of Emma [fig.2] should perhaps be seen. This portrait miniature offers an intimate insight into the private world she occupied with Nelson and given the tragic ending to their relationship with his death at sea, it carries an almost preternatural sense of foreboding.