Wednesday, 26 April 2017

'Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity' at the National Maritime Museum

The exhibition about Emma, Lady Hamilton, has now closed at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich but I wanted to record it anyway in the Plastic Bag. Not so much as it was a great exhibition of art but that it shone a light on the life and character of Emma Hamilton, beloved of Horatio Nelson and resident just a couple of miles away from me in her later years.

It was a strange exhibition in some ways, full of bits of paper in glass cases, paintings, books opened at certain pages, a few sculptures and a video film recreating her dancing, a bit of this and that, all trying to tell the story of Emma Hamilton. For me there were a few too many statements like 'we don't know this happened but it's likely to have happened to a girl of her class' type of statements that we're supposed to accept at the curator's say so. Assuming I do accept these statements then that sort of makes her a more remarkable woman given that she ended up living with Britain's hero after the Napoleonic Wars.

It was the story of Emma that was fascinating rather than the exhibits, really. The exhibits helped illustrate her life but I would've preferred more fact and less speculation. There was a roomful of paintings of Emma by George Romney that were, to all intents, pretty bog standard paintings of a woman in various poses and costumes with very little remarkable about them other than they were of Emma. The only one that really caught my eye was 'Emma as Circe' which at least has a dramatic pose. I didn't think the other Romney paintings were terribly good as paintings, let alone helping to tell Emma's story.

We get the tale of a country girl who goes into service in London and who may or may not have been a prostitute, who goes on to come the kept mistress of a rich bloke who trades her to his uncle in Naples who just happens to be a diplomat and who subsequently marries her. She becomes the toast of Naples and meets Nelson and they fall in love but he cant's divorce (because it wasn't the done thing) so they live together. After his death she's no longer flavour of the month and goes into decline, dying in poverty in France. That's a potted version of her story but also a pretty damned grand affair for a little country girl. And very sad.

The best painting was of 'Emma as a Reclining Bacchante' by Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun. Vigee Le Brun was an exquisite portraitist and was at the top of her game when she went to Naples on her European travels keeping away from republican France, and she did several portraits of Lady Emma Hamilton. I saw two of her other portraits at an exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris a few years ago so it was nice to see this one 'in the flesh' to add to my collection of Vigee Le Brun portraits. She also writes about Emma in her diaries.

All in all, it was a very interesting exhibition that I'm pleased I managed to see. It was strangely busy as well, which was nice to see. Who knew that Emma Hamilton had so many fans?

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