Emma Hamilton: Seductress or Victim of Sex Trafficking?

Emma Hamilton – some facts about her life and sex trafficking

When you look into the alluring eyes and the pursing lips of Emma Hamilton, what do you imagine? A come hither? A seductress? Or do we have the face of a young innocent, of vulnerability, of sexual exploitation?

Emma Hamilton by George Romney

Emma Hamilton left her widowed mother in Cheshire for the golden streets of London at age 12. Or was she sold?

A spell as a theatre dresser then records disappear to resurface when she becomes the 15-year-old mistress of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh and the model of George Romney.

At one of Fetherstonhaugh’s debaucheries at Uppark in Sussex, where she was known to dance nude, Emma became the mistress of Charles Greville. Greville soon after married a rich woman and so had to give up Emma ‘services’ to his uncle Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples, a collector of antiques and items of beauty.

He married Emma. In Naples Emma rose in the social ranks and became friends with the Savoy Royal family and helped with charity work. With her ‘Attitudes’ dancing, Emma became a feature of the nobility’s Grand Tour.

Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson

Lord Nelson and Emma HamiltonAs a result of her help in provisioning the Royal Navy, in 1799 she meets Nelson and the affair begins. They have a child, illegitimate, Horatia.

Nelson is killed at Trafalgar in 1805 and despite his plea that the state look after Emma, society rejects the adulteress, she is imprisoned twice for debts and dies penniless in Calais in 1815.

Quite a story.

When we look at painting it is easy to simply judge it on superficial grounds. How pretty is it? How well is painted? The choice of colours, brushstrokes and its form and composition.

It can be even more enjoyable, when staring into the eyes of personalities such as Emma, to allow our values to be challenged, to reflect on what the subject is saying and doing to us; to penetrate deeper into our thoughts, beliefs and feelings. This is the impact Romney’s portrait of Emma Lady Hamilton can have.

Emma Hamilton George Romney
Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765 – 1815) by George Romney (1734 – 1802)

Emma Hamilton – a seductress? An adulteress? A victim of social hypocrisy? Human and sexual trafficking?

An intelligent, shrewd, resourceful survivor? A woman of her times, of our times? What is your take? How does she play to your modern values? How would she have played your values 200 years ago? How does she stand in the eyes of modern social status compared to 1800?

‘Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity’ is currently an exhibition at the Royal Museums Greenwich