Emma, Lady Hamilton
As we noted in our discussion of Countess Ekaterina Skavronskaia, only one living goddess rivalled this legendary beauty for the title of "the most desirable woman in the world" in the late 1700s, and that was the celebrated English rose, Emma, Lady Hamilton.
Today, Lady Hamilton is chiefly remembered as the lover of Horatio Nelson--the heroic British admiral who crushed the French navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, thus saving England from invasion, and ensuring Napoleon's downfall. But Emma was also the greatest artistic muse of her time. She was revered as the perfect embodiment of Classical beauty, and inspired the creation of countless artistic masterpieces.
Lady Hamilton was also a media celebrity before the mass media even existed, "always . . . surrounded by a crowd of admirers" (Sherrard 90). Wherever she went, "Emma was the centre of town gossip, with her every outing the subject of conversation," and perpetually had "all the world following her and talking of her" (Peakman 60), just as today's Hollywood starlets monopolize public attention.
Emma first attracted notice through a dalliance with an English nobleman, and even as an early age, it was apparent to everyone who saw her that she had been blessed with the "beauty that nature bestows but once or twice in a century" (Barrington 31).
Nothing could be more beautiful than her countenance or more commanding than her figure at this time; the first had an unusual mixture of angelic softness . . . the other . . . would equally have served for the splendour of an Imperial throne, or the couch of voluptuous sensuality. (Sherrard 232)
Her peaches-and-cream complexion, a "velvet skin of lilies and roses" (Barrington 375), endowed her with the fair features that have been revered as the epitome of feminine loveliness throughout history. In her letters, Emma herself marvelled: "I am remarkably fair, that every body says; I put on red and white" (Sherrard 93). She also possessed "long auburn hair (with a hint of gold) and blue-grey eyes" (Peakman 7). Society raved about her "rounded arms" (Barrington 96).
Emma's allure was so extraordinary that the noted portraitist George Romney was commissioned to capture her beauty on canvas. The moment that he laid eyes on her, Romney was spellbound--so much so, that he spent the rest of his career immortalizing her beauty in one painting after another. The artist "was patently in love with his model," Romney's biographer records, but "it was a worshipful obsession on Romney's part, with Emma, like Dante's Beatrice, as the focus of his inspiration" (Cross 121).
For many years, Romney continued to work on pictures of Emma even after she had left England. In all she sat for him almost 300 times and he made over 50 pictures of her. It was Romney's paintings of her which preserved her image and helped establish her enduring fame. Emma was Romney's muse, stirring him to greater art. (Peakman 22-23)
However, Emma was no lifeless mannequin. Her natural flair for dramatic expression made her "a collaborator, rather than a passive model" (Cross 121), a co-creator of her own artistic legacy. Significantly, Romney's attentions also increased her awareness of her own allure: "His interest flattered her vanity, especially as it was exciting for her to see her beauty appearing on canvas" (Cross 121).
Emma's vanity was considerable--as is that of any true goddess--and over time, her vanity grew in proportion with her beauty, making her even more desirable. History records that "she was perfectly well aware of her own beauty" (Sherrard 33); furthermore, that "flattery was as necessary to her as the air she breathed" (Russell 66), and that she had "an incessant need to . . . be admired" (Simpson 80).
"He does nothing but entertains her with my beauty, the accounts of it" (Sherrard 93)
This bewitching vanity never abated throughout her life. A contemporary report describing the relationship between Emma and Nelson asserts that "Lord Nelson thinks of nothing but Lady Hamilton, who is totally occupied by the same subject" (Fraser 236). Another observer perceived that
there is something of the imperial air [about Lady Hamilton] . . . So a Roman lady might sit, indolently watching the sufferings of the amphitheatre, basking in the beams of her own beauty. (Barrington 331)
Another characteristic that Emma shared with every true goddess was a delight in being pampered and spoiled, and a craving for "living the good life"--the life that she knew she deserved. She found the means to do so in the person of Sir William Hamilton, the English Ambassador to Naples--and the man who would ultimately marry her, giving her the title of Lady Hamilton.
He welcomed Emma the next day with open arms and treated her like a princess. A suite of four rooms had been prepared for her overlooking the bay, and carriages, servants and boats placed at her disposal. Every day there was some entertainment or amusement--dinners, operas, plays--a whirl of distraction and gaiety, with Sir William hovering round, anticipating her least wish. (Sherrard 83-84)
After becoming Lady Hamilton, Emma grew deliciously "capricious, spoilt and extravagant" (Sherrard 12), relishing a lifestyle that allowed her to be "petted and spoilt, living in magnificence and careless of money" (Sherrard 321).
Emma shared one other characteristic with the most beautiful women in history: an abiding love of self-indulgence. One contemporary said of Emma that "Her ruling passions seem to me vanity, avarice, and love for the pleasures of the table" (Hudson 165), and modern biographers state simply, "She ate and drank what she liked; she was a big girl" (Russell 23). One of Lady Hamilton's biographers, having catalogued her receipts, notes the extraordinarily sums that she spent on sundry delicacies: "wherefrom we can deduce . . . a healthy appetite for bread and butter" (Barrington 50). And Emma's own letters refer more often to her delight in self-indulgence than to any other passions:
"I stopt one hour with them and had all the good things to eat . . ." (Barrington 175)
In fact, Emma's diaries suggest that her life as Lady Hamilton oriented itself more around self-indulgence than around any other activity. She describes
going twice a week to town to give dinners, balls, etc. etc. returning here at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning after the fatigue of a dinner of fifty, and ball and supper of 3 hundred, then to dress early in the morning to go to Court to dinner at twelve o'clock as the Royal Family dine early . . . (Sherrard 162)
This passion, too, continued throughout Emma's life. In preparation for a visit from Emma, Nelson left the following instructions with his household: "See to it, Fanny, that there is a good table for Lady Hamilton is used to the best of everything, and especially good food" (Hardwick 161).
Inevitably, Lady Hamilton became more curvaceous by virtue of her self-indulgence: "Emma expanded daily in the atmosphere of warm caressing admiration which was her soul's delight" (Barrington 101). Visitors noted that she "appeared to be growing every day--in all directions at once" (Simpson 80).
Far from diminishing her allure, her sumptuous curves won her renown as the living embodiment of Classical beauty. Long before plus-size models brought the Classical ideal back to life in our own day and age, Lady Hamilton revived the feminine aesthetic of Antiquity for her own time. She was revered as "a Roman beauty, opulent, luxuriant, dominating, the perfect classic re-animated for the rapture of the eighteenth century" (Barrington 101).
the most amazing beauty that ever my eyes lit on . . . Contemplating her from the point of view of a student of the perfect standard of the antique I know no alteration I could have recommended either in face or figure . . . Her masses of hair spring from a brow as low and broad as the Clytie's, the length and roundness of her throat suggest our Roman Venus, the moulding of back and bosom the Venus [de Medici] . . . (Barrington 43-44)
A famous nun visiting with Emma told her, "Your figure and features are rare, for you are like the marble statues I saw, when I was in the world" (Sherrard 114). Some contemporary observers even considered her beauty superior to the Classical past. According to William Locke, "all the statues and pictures he had seen were in grace so inferior to her, as scarce to deserve a look" (Sherrard 136).
No one revered her Classical qualities more than did her besotted husband, Sir William Hamilton. A collector of Greek antiquities, and a scholar of some note, Hamilton conceived of Emma as Helen of Troy for the 1790s. "She was Hamilton's living embodiment of ideal Greek beauty," history tells us, "the Galatea to his Pygmalion, whom he regarded with the eyes of a connoisseur and who became his own living work of art" (Jenkins 84).
You do not know how good Sr. Wm. is to me. he is doing every thing he can to make me happy. He has never dined out since I came here and indeed to speak the truth he is never out of my sight. He breakfasts, dines, sups, and is constantly by me, looking at my face. I can't stir a hand, a leg, or foot but he is marking it as graceful and fine. (Sherrard 85)
Emma's increasingly curvaceous figure was particularly adored by Hamilton. As Emma notes in another letter: "He thinks I am grown much more handsome than I was, he does nothing all day but look at me and sigh" (Sherrard 86).
Although Emma had an insatiably sensual nature, and a Classically voluptuous figure, her soft, angelic facial features simultaneously gave her beauty a spiritual quality. In this, she belonged more to the Renaissance than to Antiquity--a harmonious blending of Christian and Classical principles.
Emma merited her reputation as a "living work of art" not only by virtue of her Classical beauty, but also because she devised a unique form of performance art, one involving brief scenes of acting and dancing, which became famous throughout Europe as "Lady Hamilton's Attitudes."
series of theatrical mimes and poses in which she represented various figures from classical literature, myth and history . . . While performing her 'attitudes', Emma created a living gallery of statues and paintings by clever manipulation of her long shawl, her pose and facial expression, and the use of props, such as a vase. She acted a succession of characters, for example from a Roman maiden making an offering, to a devotional saint, to the classical figure Medea slaying her child. The audiences - connoisseurs and Grand Tourists - for whom Emma performed her poses, would all have recognised the various characters familiar to them in the form of classical sculptures and in depictions in Old Master paintings. Her audiences were profoundly impressed both by how she seemed able to bring to life the characters shown in famous works of art and the emotional intensity she conveyed in a performance.
No less a luminary than the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the supreme poet of the day, attended one of Lady Hamilton's performances. In his Italian Journey, Goethe describes the impression that Emma made upon him:
She is very lovely, and has a good figure. [Sir Hamilton] has had a Grecian costume made for her that suits her to perfection, and she lets down her hair, takes a few shawls, and varies her postures, gestures, expressions, etc., until at last the onlooker really thinks he is dreaming. In her movements and surprising variety one sees perfected what so many thousands of artists would have liked to achieve. Standing, kneeling, sitting, lying, grave, sad, roguish, wanton, penitent, enticing, menacing, fearful, etc.., one follows upon the other and from the other. She knows how to choose and change the folds of her veil to set off each expression, and makes herself a hundred different headdresses with the same cloths. (Goethe 171)
With this deft use of poses and facial expressions, and the manipulation of her wardrobe, what Lady Hamilton was actually doing while performing her Attitudes was . . . modelling (long before fashion modelling even existed). In a very real sense, then, she deserves to be regarded as the world's first plus-size model.
Not only was Emma the predecessor of today's plus-size models in the fact that her figure exhibited Classical proportions, and that she employed modelling techniques in performing her "Attitudes," but also because "Emma's pictures had a bearing on the trend of fashion" in her time (Sherrard 33), and effectively became the Vogue magazine of the day.
The ladies of Emma's youth wore head-dresses of anything up to three feet in height and stiff, long-waisted stays. Romney always preferred nature and truth; he allowed Emma's hair to fall free, and clothed her in simple drapery, after the manner of ancient Greece. (Sherrard 33)
Anticipating elements of today's "New Femininity" in fashion, Emma popularized longer hairstyles possessing "voluptuous volume," and an avoidance of any body-constricting "shapewear" ("stiff, long-waisted stays"), instead preferring gowns that were body-conscious, and closely embraced her generous curves. One infatuated observer enthused how "the thin white shirt clung to her opulent figure" (Hardwick 54). And Emma herself recorded that during one soirée, "though I was in an undress, only having on a muslin chemise very thin, yet the admiration I met with was surprising . . . all allowed they never had seen such a belissima creatura in all their life" (Sherrard 120-21).
Sir W. Has given me a camel's shawl like my old one. I know you will be pleased to hear that and he has given me a beautiful gown, cost 25 guineas, India painting on white satin . . . and is going to buy me some muslin dresses loose to tie with a sash for the hot weather, made like the Turkish dresses, the sleeves tied in folds with ribbon and trimmed with lace, in short he is always contriving what he shall get for me. (Sherrard 86)
Even while Nelson was at sea, leading the British navy in its life-or-death struggle against Napoleon's fleet, his letters reveal that he devoted as much thought to the fashions and accessories that he could obtain for Emma as he did to naval strategies:
I have sent to Naples, to try and get some shawls from the King's manufactory: and have requested Mr. Falconet to ask his wife to choose some for you, and also some fine Venetian chains. I only wish, my dear Emma, that I knew what you would like, and I would order them with real pleasure; therefore, pray tell me. (Nelson 85)
In his Encomium of Helen, the Roman orator Isocrates describes how the beauty of Helen of Troy was the genesis of Greek civilization, in both its artistic and martial aspects. On the one hand, "she stood over Homer at night and directed him to write about those who had campaigned against Troy," thus giving birth to Classical literature and art, and on the other, "it is owing to Helen that we are not the slaves of the barbarians. For we shall find that it was because of her that the Greeks became united in harmonious accord." Helen was the ideal that gave Classical civilization form and purpose.
Re: Emma, Lady Hamilton
Yes, Lady Hamilton was the equivalent of a paparazzi darling in her time. But how different her example was, from the example provided by the tanorexic celebrities of our own day and age! Whereas modern celebrities encourage women to punish themselves with starvation and exercise-torture, the celebrities of past centuries showed women that they could embrace their natural figures, and eat whatever they liked -- and as much as they liked.
How remarkable (and wonderful) to experience the attitude towards the female body that prevailed in another time -- a saner and better time than ours, a time when a woman's beauty was considered "much improved" when her figure became fuller.
In addition to the Helen of Troy comparison, I think one could also liken Lady Hamilton to Venus, the goddess of beauty. Venus was romantically involved with both Vulcan, the artificer, and Mars, the god of war. Those two neatly parallel the roles that Sir William Hamilton, the classicist, and Nelson, the warrior, played in Emma's life.
Re: Emma, Lady Hamilton
We have discussed how Lady Hamilton influenced the arts of painting and sculpture, and even created an art form of her own--her "Attitudes," which merged acting, dance, and posing into a unique form of aesthetic performance, similar to present-day fashion modelling.
What is less widely known, at least in English-speaking countries, is the extent of her influence on literature.
Lady Hamilton was the prototype for the title character of Madame de Staël's Romantic novel, Corinne. (De Staël describes Corinne as having a "tall, slightly plump figure, in the style of a Greek statue.") And, as we have already noted, she features prominently in Goethe's Italian Journey.
If ever a human being arrived at the perfection of beauty, then it was Emma, Lady Hamilton. If you looked long at her—and who could wrest the eye away?—the goddess appeared where the woman stood. (11)
Dumas also records that, like present-day goddesses such as Christina Schmidt, Lady Hamilton enjoyed lounging in bed throughout the morning and long past noon, noting that Emma was supremely
indolent, so that often half the day was gone before she began her day . . . (241)
Dumas also gives us the most complete extant description of Emma's "Attitudes." In the following passage, he describes her performance on one of the most significant evenings of her life--the moment when she seduced Admiral Nelson:
Only those who participated in the queen [of Sicily]'s private evening parties, in which "Emma Lyonna" was the great charm and principal ornament, could relate to what height the modern Armida lifted her beholders in delirium and enthusiasm. If her magical poses and voluptuous pantomime had deep influence on northerners, how much more must they have electrified the violent southern imagination impassioned with song, music and poetry, and knowing Cimarosa and Metastasio by heart?
Dumas concludes his ardent account by describing the almost hypnotic trance in which the seductive moves of her voluptuous body held her audience:
When the queen retook her place, Emma Lyonna, wound in an Indian shawl fringed with gold, amid enthusiastic applause from her audience, was concluding a step by falling on a sofa with the reckless affectation of ease of a prima ballerina; no professional dancer had ever lifted her beholders to that seventh heaven; the ring around her when she began had, by insensible attraction, contracted, as if every one wished to feel the whirls of air and perfume which she sent forth. (102)
The sheer, overwhelming allure of Lady Hamilton's well-fed beauty and self-indulgent nature compelled the luminaries of her day to devote their energies to gratifying her limitless desires. She was a muse in the truest sense of the word, a goddess who inspired artisans to hone their talents to the highest, to immortalize her intoxicating presence for all eternity.
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