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An 18th-Century Supermodel

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

I painted "Emma, Lady Hamilton" for Conjoined 10, a group show presented by Chet Zar and Copro Gallery in Santa Monica, California, at the Bergamot Station gallery complex. Thanks to Chet and to Gary Pressman and Erica Miller at Copro for including me in this fantastic show, which runs through March 14, 2020.

Emma, Lady Hamilton, is considered by some to be a precursor to the supermodel. Born in 1765 in an English hamlet to a blacksmith (who died shortly after her birth) and his wife, Amy Lyon began was taken to London by her mother so that family could help support them until the young girl was old enough to work. She was born poor but grew strikingly beautiful, with rosy coloring, big blue eyes, lush brown locks of hair, and a lovely figure.

During her early teens, Amy (who began to go by the name Emma Hart) worked in London as a theater assistant, actress, and model. At times she supplemented her small income with prostitution. One of her acting jobs was at the Temple of Health founded by Dr. James Graham, a sexologist and showman. Dr. Graham is probably best remembered for his Celestial Bed, a huge bed that "guaranteed" conception to couples who wanted children. The bed was rented out to many couples who paid 50 English pounds for a night (an amount equivalent to over 9,000 pounds in 2020!). Electric charges, live romantic music, and mechanical tilting of the mattress to aid conception were part of the experience that couples enjoyed in the bed, which was decorated with images of Hymen, the Greek god of marriage ceremonies, and other figures representing love and fertility. Emma Hart performed at the Temple as Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth. Below is a drawing said to be of Emma playing Hebe:

By the age of about 16, Emma Hart, with her ravishing beauty and abilities in acting and dance, was in demand as what might now be considered a high-class call girl. She was housed in a luxurious brothel in St. James's, London. Among the aristocrats she met was Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who decided to take her with him as his resident mistress and an entertainer to his friends at Uppark, his estate in South Harting, West Sussex, England. Emma eventually became pregnant by Sir Harry, and when this happened he angrily dismissed her from Uppark. She appealed to his friend and frequent Uppark visitor Charles Greville, who took her in as his own mistress and helped support Emma's daughter, whom she named Emma Carew. Over time Greville tired of Emma and shifted her onto his 55-year-old uncle, Lord William Hamilton, an avid art collector and the British envoy to Naples, who had met and admired her. Emma moved to Naples and, though she had not wanted to leave Greville, grew fond of Hamilton. Though not young, Hamilton was handsome and fascinating and shared with Emma his life of wealth and culture. She was taught French and Italian and eventually became a fashion plate and popular hostess and entertainer to Neapolitan aristocracy. And then Hamilton made her his wife.

This was Lord Hamilton, painted by English artist George Romney:

As Lady Hamilton, Emma now had a legitimate place in society and even became intimate friends with the Queen of Naples. All of Europe began to hear of her great beauty and exuberance. She hosted memorable, lavish parties and spearheaded exciting fashion trends. She could fully exercise her natural talents in the arena Hamilton had given her. Below is an 18th-century depiction of Mt. Vesuvius and ships coming into port at Naples:

By this time, Emma was also famous as an artist's muse, having modeled for well-established painters including George Romney and Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the 18th century, art was often the equivalent of today's photography of fashionable celebrities and was sought by buyers not only for its quality but also for the beauty and fame of its subjects. Emma was probably as close to being a supermodel as any European woman of her time. Here are three paintings of Emma by George Romney, who considered her his muse:

But something happened that in time would destroy Emma's security: she met and fell in love with Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, a married hero of the British Royal Navy who helped protect Naples in wartime. Below are a portrait of Nelson and a statue of him in London. Combat had cost Nelson his right arm and some of the sight in his right eye.

After Emma and Nelson's acquaintance had grown into a full-blown sexual affair, Hamilton accepted it and even moved to London with them. In fact, in London the populace seemed to enjoy gossip about the romance, and the women of the city considered Emma their fashion sage, dressing as she dressed and cutting their hair short when she did. Nelson is said to have been present when Hamilton died in 1803 at the age of 72. And two years later, during the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain, Nelson also died. Nelson provided for Emma and their illegitimate daughter, Horatia, during his lifetime, but obligations to his wife and official disapproval by the government of his affair with Emma prevented him from leaving her much to live on after his death. In London Emma had hosted lavish events to celebrate Nelson's victories for the Royal Navy and appealed to the government for money, hoping they would reward her efforts to promote Nelson's heroism, but her appeals fell on deaf ears. In the end Emma had to sell her off belongings, including clothes, to survive. She died in poverty in 1815 in Calais, France, at the age of 49. Her fame has survived in history and art, however; she is still considered one of the world's most famous beauties as well as a romantic symbol and an example of how perseverence and talent can (sometimes! certainly not always) beat socioeconomic odds.

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