1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hamilton, Emma, Lady

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20165881911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12 — Hamilton, Emma, Lady

HAMILTON, EMMA, Lady (c. 1765–1815), wife of Sir William Hamilton (q.v.), the British envoy at Naples, and famous as the mistress of Nelson, was the daughter of Henry Lyon, a blacksmith of Great Neston in Cheshire. The date of her birth cannot be fixed with certainty, but she was baptized at Great Neston on the 12th of May 1765, and it is not improbable that she was born in that year. Her baptismal name was Emily. As her father died soon after her birth, the mother, who was dependent on parish relief, had to remove to her native village, Hawarden in Flintshire. Emma’s early life is very obscure. She was certainly illiterate, and it appears that she had a child in 1780, a fact which has led some of her biographers to place her birth before 1765. It has been said that she was first the mistress of Captain Willet Payne, an officer in the navy, and that she was employed in some doubtful capacity by a notorious quack of the time, Dr Graham. In 1781 she was the mistress of a country gentleman, Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, who turned her out in December of that year. She was then pregnant, and in her distress she applied to the Hon. Charles Greville, to whom she was already known. At this time she called herself Emily Hart. Greville, a gentleman of artistic tastes and well known in society, entertained her as his mistress, her mother, known as Mrs Cadogan, acting as housekeeper and partly as servant. Under the protection of Greville, whose means were narrowed by debt, she acquired some education, and was taught to sing, dance and act with professional skill. In 1782 he introduced her to his friend Romney the portrait painter, who had been established for several years in London, and who admired her beauty with enthusiasm. The numerous famous portraits of her from his brush may have somewhat idealised her apparently robust and brilliantly coloured beauty, but her vivacity and powers of fascination cannot be doubted. She had the temperament of an artist, and seems to have been sincerely attached to Greville. In 1784 she was seen by his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who admired her greatly. Two years later she was sent on a visit to him at Naples, as the result of an understanding between Hamilton and Greville—the uncle paying his nephew’s debts and the nephew ceding his mistress. Emma at first resented, but then submitted to the arrangement. Her beauty, her artistic capacity, and her high spirits soon made her a great favourite in the easy-going society of Naples, and Queen Maria Carolina became closely attached to her. She became famous for her “attitudes,” a series of poses plastiques in which she represented classical and other figures. On the 6th of September 1791, during a visit to England, she was married to Sir W. Hamilton. The ceremony was required in order to justify her public reception at the court of Naples, where Lady Hamilton played an important part as the agent through whom the queen communicated with the British minister—sometimes in opposition to the will and the policy of the king. The revolutionary wars and disturbances which began after 1792 made the services of Lady Hamilton always useful and sometimes necessary to the British government. It was claimed by her, and on her behalf, that she secured valuable information in 1796, and was of essential service to the British fleet in 1798 during the Nile campaign, by enabling it to obtain stores and water in Sicily. These claims have been denied on the rather irrelevant ground that they are wanting in official confirmation, which was only to be expected since they were ex hypothesi unofficial and secret, but it is not improbable that they were considerably exaggerated, and it is certain that her stories cannot always be reconciled with one another or with the accepted facts. When Nelson returned from the Nile in September 1798 Lady Hamilton made him her hero, and he became entirely devoted to her. Her influence over him indeed became notorious, and brought him much official displeasure. Lady Hamilton undoubtedly used her influence to draw Nelson into a most unhappy participation in the domestic troubles of Naples, and when Sir W. Hamilton was recalled in 1800 she travelled with him and Nelson ostentatiously across Europe. In England Lady Hamilton insisted on making a parade of her hold over Nelson. Their child, Horatia Nelson Thompson, was born on the 30th of January 1801. The profuse habits which Emma Hamilton had contracted in Naples, together with a passion for gambling which grew on her, led her into debt, and also into extravagant ways of living, against which her husband feebly protested. On his death in 1803 she received by his will a life rent of £800, and the furniture of his house in Piccadilly. She then lived openly with Nelson at his house at Merton. Nelson tried repeatedly to secure her a pension for the services rendered at Naples, but did not succeed. On his death she received Merton, and an annuity of £500, as well as the control of the interest of the £4000 he left to his daughter. But gambling and extravagance kept her poor. In 1808 her friends endeavoured to arrange her affairs, but in 1813 she was put in prison for debt and remained there for a year. A certain Alderman Smith having aided her to get out, she went over to Calais for refuge from her creditors, and she died there in distress if not in want on the 15th of January 1815.

Authorities.—The Memoirs of Lady Hamilton (London, 1815) were the work of an ill-disposed but well-informed and shrewd observer whose name is not given. Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, by J. C. Jefferson (London, 1888) is based on authentic papers. It is corrected in some particulars by the detailed recent life written by Walter Sichel, Emma, Lady Hamilton (London, 1905). See also the authorities given in the article Nelson.  (D. H.)