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Emma Hamilton, the beauty who was Romney’s muse and Lord Nelson’s love

Tijana Radeska

The daughter of a blacksmith from Ness near Neston, Cheshire in England, Amy Lyon has been described as a woman of breathtaking beauty and irresistible sensuality and sexuality. She is remembered in the world as Emma, Lady Hamilton – the mistress of Lorn Nelson and the muse of George Romney. Not much is known about her childhood except that she was born in 1765, raised by her mother, and that she later changed her name to Emma Hart.

At the age of 12, she moved to London and worked as an under-nursemaid in the house of a composer called Thomas Linley. Her next job was at the “Goddess of Health,” a place also known as the “Temple of Health” for a Scottish “quack” doctor and sexologist named James Graham, who offered help to couples that had problems with conception. The most attractive therapy in his “temple” was the Great Celestial State Bed through which electricity was passed, and for which infertile couples were paying 50 pounds for one night. Emma worked there as a model and a dancer.

Emma as Circe by George Romney, 1782


Portrait by George Romney, circa 1785


Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1790–1791

After three years, she started working as a hostess and entertainer at a cottage near Uppark in Sussex, owned by Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh. Apparently, Emma entertained Harry and his friends by dancing naked on the dining table. She became Harry’s mistress but didn’t get much attention as he was more interested in drinking and hunting with his friends. So in the meantime, she befriended one of Harry’s friends – Charles Francis Greville, son of the Earl of Warwick at the time. Greville was enchanted by Emma’s beauty and fell in love with her.

At the age of 16, Emma became pregnant with Harry’s child, who didn’t want a baby or a marriage with her. He accommodated “the beauty” in one of his houses in London during her pregnancy. As Harry wasn’t paying much attention to Emma, she answered Greville’s love and became his mistress. It was at Greville’s request that she changed her name to Emma Hart.



Emma as a Bacchante by George Romney, 18th century

For a while, Emma lived with Greville, her mother, and daughter Emma Carew, but after a while, Carew and her grandmother left for Wales and remained there for the rest of their lives. At this time, Emma met the artist George Romney and became his muse and a lifelong obsession. As the subject of many of Romney’s paintings, Emma Hart became famous in certain social circles. She was witty, intelligent, a quick learner, elegant and, as paintings of her attest, incredibly beautiful. It was easy for many to fall in love with her and to desire her.


Emma Hamilton as a young woman c. 1782, by George Romney


Emma as a Sibyl by George Romney, circa 1785


Emma as a Bacchante by George Romney, 1785

Although he was in love with Emma, Greville needed to find a wealthy wife so that he could repay his debts. He didn’t know how to get rid of Emma, so he sent her to his uncle Sir William Hamilton, a British envoy to Naples. He was aware that his uncle wouldn’t stay indifferent to Emma’s beauty and charm. Indeed, during the period of six months, while she was waiting for Greville to come and get her, Hamilton grew very fond of her. As she soon learned what Greville did and that he wouldn’t come to get her, she became Hamilton’s partner.

In 1791, they returned to London and got married. When they went to Naples again, Emma befriended Queen Maria Carolina, the sister of Marie Antoinette and the wife of Ferdinand I of Naples. In 1793, Emma met Lord Nelson for the first time. Even though her figure wasn’t as stunning as before, she was still a beauty. They met again in 1798 when Emma arranged a great ball in Nelson’s honor, with 1,740 people. He was fascinated by her and even wrote about Emma’s talents to his wife.

Lady Hamilton as Ariadne by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1790


Lady Hamilton as The Magdalene, by George Romney, before 1792



Lord Horatio Nelson by John Hoppner


Pastel by Johann Heinrich Schmidt, c. 1800, owned by Nelson

Their affair began, and in 1801 they were already madly and happily in love. That same year, their daughter Horatia was born and Nelson decided to leave his wife. Their affair seems to have been supported by Sir Hamilton as he was old and his health was deteriorating. He died in 1803 leaving his wife an annuity of £800. Unfortunately, their happiness didn’t last long. In 1805, Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. Emma was inconsolable.

Horatia Ward née Nelson  Photo credit

She was already 40, grieving, with no spark of charm and wittiness that could earn her a new “protector”. It is said that at 46, she got very fat and looked like an old woman with gray hair.

Read another story from us: The lady who enjoyed dressing as boy became a fearsome pirate: The life and times of Mary Read

Apparently, after Nelson’s death, Emma didn’t care much about her looks or her own wellbeing. She was arrested for debt and imprisoned. When she got released, Emma fled to her daughter Horatia in Calais where she died in 1815, at the age of 50. She was buried in the churchyard of St. Pierre’s in Calais.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News