Now for a closer look at this National Portrait Gallery retrospective… There are some surprising portraits here, not the least the paintings of the Waterloo generals, Wellington, et al., and an amazing capture on canvas of the saintly William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery crusader. But although it is the beautiful, sensually painted women who draw the eye, it is the eye-stopping portrait of a young man who may hold a clue to the centuries-old puzzle of Thomas Lawrence’s sexuality.

In her review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit in The Observer (October 24th, 2010), Laura Cumming asks the viewer to “consider Lord Mountstuart of Bute in Spanish costume, his manhood barely concealed in skin-tight trousers. Silhouetted against a stormy sunset in his Byronic black cloak (Lawrence arguably pioneered the look, Byron was only seven at this time), Mountstuart treads upon the toy landscape below. His body is wildly elongated, his face more or less Hispanicised and yet all these implausibilities are somehow swept aside by the sensuous conviction of the paint.”

That depiction of the young lord’s “manhood” caused quite a stir at the time. Lawrence thrusts Mountstuart’s thrusting hips and bulging thighs, encased in skin-tight trousers, right into the viewer’s face. It’s not subtle, not by any means, and this reproduction hardly does it justice, for seeing it up close and personal is an entirely different experience, one that stops the viewer dead in his tracks, and my feeling is that it is intentional, that Lawrence wanted the viewer’s face rubbed into that young buck’s manhood.

Or was it his own face that he wanted to rub into Mountstuart’s crotch? It’s unsettling. And it’s also revealing that the 1923 Grieg edition of Farington’s diaries censures what Farington said about this portrait in May of 1794. Luckily, the editors of the Yale edition had no such qualms.

Lord Mountstuart of Bute (1767-1794)

Farington wrote in his diary on the 5th of May, 1795, that King George III “started back with disgust” when he saw the portrait on display at the Royal Academy exhibition for that year. From the exhibition catalog (edited by A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz), a comment and quote from an early 19th century book of anecdotes has more to say on this painting: The unbridled sexuality of this portrait, led another critic to sarcasm: ‘We wish he had been a Bishop, as then his Cassoc [sic] might hide those eccentricities…at which delicacy must blush, and modesty turn aside.”

The editors kindly enlarge that part of the portrait — “those eccentricities” in question — for the further edification of the reader on page 124 of the catalogue. Pretty blatant, this, and, to me, it’s significant that Lawrence was never so blatant in his painting of dashing young trousered men again.

In Lawrence’s later years one woman in particular appeared to provide him with companionship, Isabella Wolff, who first met him when she sat for her portrait in 1803. Isabella was the daughter of Norton Hutchinson, a prominent East India trader and the estranged wife of Jens Wolff. A merchant, shipbroker, merchant, and collector who served as the Danish Consul, Jens Wolff was of Anglo-Danish heritage.

The couple had separated after 18 years of marriage and had one son, Herman St. John Wolff, who may have been born any time between 1810 and 1814 (or perhaps before those dates). The lack of certainty as to the correct birth date of Herman Wolff has led to speculation that he was the son of Isabella and Thomas Lawrence. Is there anything to back this up? Lawrence did appear to be fond of the boy and went on trips to the continent with him, but is that enough to make a case for paternity? It is also possible that Herman was Wolff’s son by another woman, not his wife Isabella. The jury is still out on this one.

Lawrence and Isabella Wolff knew each other for at least twenty-six years. She’d sat for a portrait in 1803, while she was still married to Jens Wolff, and they’d become close, even intimate, friends. Indeed, the artist John Constable, writing to his wife in 1824, simply stated what was being said at the time in London art circles: “A Mrs. Wolfe came in the evening. She is very pretty; & talks incessantly of all the arts & sciences… She is quite an intimate of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who has often drawn her. Her husband, from whom she is parted, in the Danish consul & in every sense of the world a Wolfe.”

Very odd, that comment, that Jens Wolff is “in every sense of the world a Wolfe,” because there was gossip in a newspaper, the Literary Gazette, very shortly after Lawrence’s death that he had been involved with a “Mrs. W, the wife of a foreign minister, whose brutal treatment [had thrown] her upon the protection of Sir T. Lawrence.” Had Jens Wolff been a wife beater? Was that what Constable was alluding to?

They were definitely close, as evidenced by this letter to her that survives, written from Rome in late June of 1819, when Isabella was about 50 and Lawrence only a couple of years older. He wrote:

My Bed Room Window is so small that only one Person can conveniently look out of it, but it looks over the Pope’s garden and St. Peters, Monte Mario &c., and as sweet Even’g closes I often squeeze you into it tho’ it does hurt you a little by holding your arms so closely within mine.

It reads real. Real and affectionate. This is not the Lawrence so many described as a manipulative social climber, overly charming, out to seduce by the sweetness of his words and the timbre of his voice. Isabella Wolff and Lawrence were definitely close, but how close is still a matter for conjecture. The bulk of their correspondence, unfortunately, was apparently censured both by his first biographer and by Lawrence’s relatives. Richard Holmes, however, dismissed her role in the painter’s life as simply “maternal.”

Isabella Wolff, 1803-1815, now at the Art Institute of Chicago

Contemporaries agree that Isabella Wolff was a great source of inspiration for him; she seemed to serve him as a beloved muse. (As perhaps, Sarah Siddons had, so many years before?) The portrait above was one that Lawrence could not seem to give up. He worked on it for over twelve years. (He also drew her many times.) At the Royal Academy exhibit in 1815, this portrait held pride of place. It was his only painting at that exhibition of a female subject.

The philosopher and critic William Hazlitt called it “a chef d’oeuvre of style…enough to make the Ladies vow that they will never again look at themselves in their glasses, but only in his Canvasses.” The critical reaction at the time to the portrait of Isabella Wolff was uniformly positive.

Mrs. Wolff’s is a classical pose, Grecian inspired, and, indeed, she is shown studying a book open to an image of the Delphic Sibyl. There is something of the Greek priestess in her attitude, with her hand on her head, and critics have suggested that being cast as a sibyl, as one of those priestesses who looked into the future and passed judgments, may fit with the role she played as mentor and muse in Lawrence’s life. It is an eye-catching portrait fraught with feeling.

Isabella Wolff died in 1829; Thomas Lawrence died unexpectedly – he had not been ill — very soon thereafter, in 1830. Whether or not their relationship was sexual in nature – whether they might have had a child together – whether he was heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual — is irrelevant to the obvious closeness of their friendship. I would not hesitate to say she most probably meant a great deal to him and that the shock of her death no doubt hastened his demise. And that, at the end, is what is important, that his life, as it neared its end, at long last, did have what anyone would not hesitate to call love. It was surely about time.

The End


Lawrence achieved a knighthood in the spring of 1815, thanks to Prinny’s patronage, and was sent by him to the continent to paint portraits of the heroes and distinguished others of the recent battle of Waterloo – which greatly enhanced his prestige and stature amongst his fellow artists — and he became president of the officially-sanctioned society of artists, the Royal Academy, in 1820, when Prinny ascended to the throne. (The artist arrived back in London in March of 1820 to find that he had succeeded Benjamin West.) Lawrence’s reign as head of the RA was to last only ten years, however; he passed away in 1830, only sixty years old, at the height of his powers.

Like a number of other 18th-century artists, Lawrence’s popularity waned during the Victorian era, but his reputation has revived in the 20th century. The lack of public access to most of his work might have been one of the reasons for his lack of recognition. Nonetheless, several striking portraits have since firmed up his reputation. One of them is of the actress Elizabeth Farren (a full-length portrait in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, seen below). Farren was a cold and calculating woman of low origins who parlayed her looks and popularity as an actress into aristocratic gold, snagging the wealthy Earl of Derby as her prize. The portrait is stunning; it’s difficult to take one’s eyes away from the tall, willowy woman commanding the space on that canvas.

Elizabeth Farren, later the Countess of Derby, circa 1790
Sarah Barrett Moulton aka Pinkie, 1794, at California’s Huntington Library

Arguably his most famous portrait – in terms of recognition by the general art-loving public – is probably the one dubbed Pinkie, which, along with Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, has been much reproduced. (Indeed, they could be veritable bookends, that boy in blue, this girl in pink.) The iconic portrait of this young girl, Sarah Barrett Moulton, was painted in 1794, when Lawrence was in his mid-thirties.

Jonathan Buttal (or Buttall) aka The Blue Boy, circa 1770, was painted by Gainsborough and is also in the collection of the Huntington Library

Lawrence was a wonderful painter of very small children as well as of adolescents like Sarah Moulton. One painting many people recognize – though they probably would not be able to identify the artist – is The Calmady Children, painted in 1823, seven years before his death. A charming image much reproduced in greeting cards, it is in this current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

The Calmady Children, 1823, Metropolitan Museum of Art



Part Four Coming Soon!


As to the mystery of his debts, critics have laid Lawrence’s money problems to the demands of his large family, whom he supported. He’d supported them for a very long time, beginning at the age of 10. (He was 13 when the ad put in by his father in the Bath Chronicle ran.) His Royal Academy colleague Joseph Farington, the painter famous for his rich gossipy diary of the Georgian art world covering the years 1793 until his death in 1821, supports this widely-documented view. (Note: Yale University recently updated and enlarged the standard 1923 edition of the Farington Diary.)

Lawrence, R.A., allows his Father for the support of his family near £300 a year. He pays for his own lodgings in Bond-street 200 guineas a year. His price for his portraits is 40 guineas for a three-quarter, 80 guineas for a half-length, and 160 guineas for a whole-length. –October 28, 1793

Bear in mind that in today’s currency, we are talking some 70 to 80 times that £300. In today’s values, it’s almost $50,000+ a year, an enormous, enormous amount for those times. (A guinea = one pound and one shilling.) Lawrence’s family would have lived high off the hog indeed!

A further comment on Farington and his diaries is appropriate here. Joseph Farington (1747-1821) was an inveterate gossip and social climber who made much of his marriage to a cousin of the prestigious Walpole family. Although purporting to be a friend of many of his RA colleagues he was envious of most of them and often nasty when commenting about them in the diary he kept for many years. He played politics and was a major manipulator of the other RA members and not to be trusted. (He was, frankly, a snake.) The diary only surfaced a hundred years after his death, in 1921, when the volumes were auctioned off by his family. None of his long-deceased colleagues and those whom he called friends was privy to the intimate details in these pages.

Lawrence’s father was a failure in every business he’d attempted and, as we can see, had lived off his son’s earnings as a young artist from the time he was a mere child. But, even with having to support this family of parasites, it’s hard to imagine, with the prices Lawrence charged for a painting, that he could ever have fallen into such deep debt. On what else could he squander so much money? He lived in well-appointed homes, yet there’s no report he lived extravagantly, kept expensive mistresses, or that he gambled (the latter the downfall of many a Regency gentleman). So, on what, then, could he have spent his money?

One possibility was his ever-growing collection of Old Master paintings and sculptures. He did amass a very large collection – some 4,000 works! — as did his fellow artists Reynolds and Romney, among others, but not to the extent of his. (The collection was auctioned off at his death to pay off debts.) The possibility that intrigued me, though, was that perhaps someone was blackmailing him to keep his clandestine activities – such as a double life in London’s gay underworld — quiet.

Although there’s is no hard proof, the critic Richard Holmes, in his essay for Thomas Lawrence Portraits for the National Gallery, does suggest he was quite possibly bisexual. I do believe Lawrence was super-charged, sexually – some might say over-sexed – and if he were indeed bisexual it could explain his personality and his inability to commit to one person. His so-called friend, Farington, who called him “a male coquet,” noted he was overly intimate with his female sitters, subjecting them to long, close sittings that might not have been necessary; could he have been thus with male sitters as well? That, however, seems not to have attracted notice.

James Northcote, the pupil of Reynolds and his first biographer, made another interesting remark about Lawrence that is cited in David Piper’s The English Face (1957). Piper says, “Northcote called him ‘a sort of man-milliner painter – a meteor of fashion’.” The term “man-milliner” is 18th century slang for homosexual, and Piper goes on to say, “Northcote was biased and extremely jealous, but his criticism is not entirely unjust.”

Indeed, Lawrence’s sexuality, his possible gender confusion, could have been a destabilizing force that went on to affect all facets of his personality and may well have been connected to his monetary woes.


Mary Darby Robinson, by Hoppner

Leaving these speculations aside for the time being, the other references I found of note concerned the deep, often bitter rivalry between John Hoppner and Lawrence. Hoppner was a successful artist with great ambition, but he was too soon eclipsed professionally by the younger man and it did not sit well with him. (Though Hoppner was a skilled portraitist, his heart was not in painting portraits but in landscape painting. In the late Georgian era, however, painting portraits paid the bills.)

Hoppner’s most well-known portrait is probably that of Mary Robinson aka Perdita, first mistress of King George IV when he was the Prince of Wales. (The painting is now owned by the Chawton House Library.) Hoppner, whose parents were German and whose mother was in service to Queen Charlotte, had nursed the ambition of being named court painter — perhaps counting on these German connections to be appointed — but it never happened.

Farington noted that the rivalry would often revolve around petty incidents but was not the less vicious for all that. In the spring of 1801, the two artists squabbled over the placement of canvases at an RA exhibit, which resulted in Lawrence’s portrait of the Princess of Wales not being shown.

Hoppner will not exhibit on account of Lawrence monopolizing a center place by sending canvasses & figures of an uncommon size. —April 6, 1801

A dispute brought to trial in Sheriffs Court over a payment owing to Stubbs, the era’s most renowned painter of horses, from one of his patrons had Lawrence as witness on Stubbs’s side and Hoppner on the other. Farington remarked that Hoppner “was very violent against the claim of Stubbs,” but that a full judgment was made in Stubbs’s favor over his testimony. It appeared that nothing was too small over which they locked horns, such was their rabid dislike one for the other.

One almost has to feel sorry for Hoppner, for no other artist really had much of a chance against Lawrence, who, in addition to being immensely talented and personally charming, became a favorite of the royal family. The charm was innate; it was said that he had a seductive voice which he used to great effect and that he spoke in a “low, soft whisper…calculated to please.” Nancy Frazier, in the Penguin Concise Dictionary of Art History (2000), on those who were not so taken with Lawrence’s charm and even less with his talent, commented that: To some critics, he never seems to have gone beyond virtuoso flattery and an ability to give pleasure…[and that he was obsessed with] …charming his way through cosmopolitan society.

But charm worked for him. Though early in his career he’d painted a portrait of Queen Charlotte that King George III was said not to have cared much for, his son the Prince of Wales – popularly known as Prinny and later King George IV –championed him. (That George did not get along with his father also probably helped his relationship with Thomas Lawrence.)

The artist also squeaked by with another possible problem that might have affected his relation
ship with the royals. As Richard Holmes writes, “[In 1806] Lawrence is implicated in the ‘Delicate Investigation’ into alleged impropriety with the Princess of Wales [Prinny’s wife, Caroline] and has to give testimony defending his name against imputations of improper behavior.” The allegations grew out of malicious gossip from a former page at Montague House, according to the biographer Flora Fraser, during the time that Lawrence was painting Princess Caroline’s portrait.

Given his seductive approach to his sitters, however, and the natural flirtatiousness of the Princess Caroline, it’s not difficult to see how his attentions could have been misread and misunderstood. He could not, however, have been so foolish as to hit on Prinny’s wife, even given that gentleman’s abhorrence of her. He would have been signing his own death sentence.


Detail from a Thomas Lawrence portrait of Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the rejected wife of the Prince of Wales


To quote Fraser, “Lawrence stayed several nights at Montague House in the winter of 1800, so as to lose no time when Princess Charlotte [the daughter of the Prince and Princess who also sat for him] came from Shrewsbury House in the morning.” In his defense when he was accused of improper behavior, along with another man, a Captain Manby, Fraser says:

“Perceval had shown to Mr. Thomas Lawrence and to Captain Manby the examinations which incriminated them as possibly guilty of high treason. Manby and Lawrence made depositions indignantly countering the charges against them… Lawrence rebutted…testimony that he had stayed behind a locked door with the Princess. [He declared that] ‘nothing passed between her Royal Highness and myself which I could have had the least objection for all the world to have seen and heard.’ “

(Note: Perceval was Spencer Perceval, at that time attorney general, later chancellor of the exchequer, and then prime minister, who holds the not-so-wonderful distinction of having been the only prime minister ever assassinated. He was murdered in 1812; Princess Caroline underwent the humiliation of a public trial in the summer of 1820, sans Perceval.)


Part Three Coming Soon!


On this day, the anniversary of the death of artist Sir Thomas Lawrence RA in 1830,  we begin a series by guest blogger Jo Manning that originally appeared in 2010 entitlted –

The Wretched Love Life of Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), extraordinary painter, elusive personality…


Master Lawrence takes very striking likenesses of ladies and gentlemen

for a charge of one guinea for an oval crayon. —Bath Chronicle, 1782

There is an exhibition currently at the National Portrait Gallery in London: Thomas Lawrence, Regency Power and Brilliance. Only 54 paintings, but they are choice. Most of his work is held privately and several of the paintings in this exhibition are lent by owners who prefer to remain anonymous. (I met such an owner – his painting is not in this show – when researching My Lady Scandalous; he kindly allowed me to use a Lawrence painting on the condition that I not identify him.)

Actress Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson

I came across the name of Thomas Lawrence for the second time when I was researching the life of Anna Foldsone (sometimes spelled Foldstone or Foltson, but later known as Anne Mee), a talented miniaturist, for a possible collective biography (tentatively titled Artists In Love) of six 18th century female artists. (That project, alas, is currently hanging fire.)

Lawrence, a friend of Anna’s journeyman painter father Joseph Foldsone, was cited as one of her teachers, and, later, after the death of her father when she was a teenager, as her fiancé. Apparently, nothing happened – as nothing seemed to happen with any of Lawrence’s relationships with women – he never married — and I could find little more on the subject of him and this very lovely artist.

Anna Foldsone, shortly after what did or did not happen with Lawrence, married an Irish barrister named Joseph Mee; it was not a happy marriage and she could have been on the rebound from Lawrence. Here’s a self-portrait of her below; she was known for her glorious, thick, curly blonde hair.

Anne Mee, by Anne Mee
There was, however, a good deal of speculation on his relationships with the Siddons women, Sarah, the mother, arguably the most famous actress of the time, and her two daughters, Sally and Maria. What exactly transpired is unknown, but there was enough gossip at the time to indicate he behaved like an utter cad, first wooing Sally and then dumping her for Maria; then he dumped Maria and went back to Sally! There was also speculation he was involved with their mother Sarah. Tragically, both sisters died young, probably of consumption, Maria in 1798 and Sally in 1803. Around 1904, Oswald Knapp exploited this scandal in his biography of Lawrence, An Artist’s Love Story. For the most part, biographers of Lawrence have tended to ignore his love life, which is readily understandable because it was such a mess, but it seems to me that the time seems ripe for a full-blown, warts-and-all biography of this talented, complicated man.

What’s so interesting in this sordid story of the Siddons daughters is that Sarah Siddons reportedly stayed friendly with the artist, who went on to paint a number of portraits of her, despite his questionable behavior with the two girls. Many years later, the writer Andre Maurois weighed in on this in a novel, remarking that it was the mother Lawrence was “in thrall” to, that she, not Sally, not Maria, was the object of his heated pursuits.

After the females in the Siddons family, Lawrence’s name was most closely linked with Isabella Wolff, with whom he might have fathered a son – though I doubt it — but more about that later, when I discuss the paintings in this current exhibition.

In addition to the great mystery of his love life there was the mystery of where all his money went; he had great financial problems despite his very successful career and his estate at his death was mired in debt. The first mystery leads me to wonder if the problem was that he may have been attracted to his own gender but felt he had to play the game of pursuing women. He was unable to commit to any one woman, yet he was an odd kind of womanizer; he appeared to show great, passionate, intense interest … and then it more or less fizzled out. His behavior was strange, erratic, immature, confused. I’ve yet to find any speculation – much less evidence — that Lawrence might have been gay, but closeted gay men were not that uncommon in Georgian England. Sodomy was punishable by hanging, however, so overt behavior carried the threat of death. One painting in particular in this exhibition set me onto this course of thought.

Part Two Coming Soon!


By Guest Blogger Jo Manning

This sumptuous accompaniment – replete with gorgeous full-color and some black and white images — to the exhibition currently showing at The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (until April 17th) comprises essays by Quintin Colville; Vic Gatrell; Christine Riding; Jason M. Kelly; Gillian Russell; Margarette Lincoln; Hannah Greig; and Kate Williams on different aspects of the controversial Emma Hamilton’s life, legend, and times.

I’ve been to two previous art shows that featured Emma Hamilton and other Georgian celebrities:  Joshua Reynolds And The Creation of Celebrity (at the Tate Britain in 2005), and the George Romney exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in 2002. Both were exemplary, dedicated to these superb portraitists and their famous subjects. These sitters became instant celebrities owing to the prints of the portraits becoming widely disseminated. (These prints generated a bit of nice income for the painters, as well.) The caricaturist Gillray illustrated the popularity of these prints in his well-known “Very Slippy Weather,”showing Londoners entranced by the latest prints for sale at stationers’ shops.
Emma Hamilton (born 1765-died 1815) was also variously known as Amy/Amey/Emy/Emily Lyon and Emma Hart until she married Sir William Hamilton, British envoy (ambassador) to the Court of Naples, thus becoming Lady Hamilton. She was one of the most controversial – and, yes, notorious — women of her time. Much has been written about her but there remains a good deal of speculation, as well. (Among the best-written biographies and novels of her, in my opinion, are these:  Williams, Kate, England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, 2006; Fraser, FloraBeloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton, 2004; and Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance, 1992.)

For starters, she was an unqualified beauty: a perfect oval of a face; thick, wavy, cascading auburn tresses; big-eyed; a rosebud mouth; and a complexion described by one besotted writer as a “velvet skin of lilies and roses”.  Surprisingly tall, with good, square shoulders and a substantial bosom, she defied the “pocket Venus” model prized by prevailing18th century aesthetic standards. A killer combination, this, that pouting baby face and a curvy, womanly figure. Who would not want to paint her? More to the point, who would not want to be her lover?

Emma Hart as a Bacchante, circa 1785
Biographies and other writings on Emma find more ample material in the second and last third of her life than in the first. Yes, she grew up poor; yes, she worked in menial positions as a young teen; yes, she moved to London at one point; yes, men began to notice her. What is uncertain is when and how she became a sex worker. Did her mother actually pimp her out at the age of fourteen? Did she work the streets or was she in a brothel? At any rate, we are on more solid ground when she is taken up by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh (this name is pronounced “Fanshawe”), a wealthy, dissolute rake who nonetheless has her take up the ladylike sport of horse-riding (“To hounds!”) and teaches her more genteel manners.  (She was said to have a vulgar speaking voice and bad diction; her spelling, from letters that remain, show her bad spelling, but many people then were bad spellers.)
He dumps her, however, when she becomes pregnant. She is about sixteen when she is sent away – and the record is not clear whether or not this child was Fetherstonhaugh’s or Greville’s or another man in their set, Jack Payne — and gives birth to a girl, said to be named Emma Carew. (She was also known as Emma Hartley; after years as a teacher/governess she died alone in Florence and is buried in the English Cemetery. It appears she’d had a sad life.)
After giving birth, she left the child to be raised by a relative in the country and took up with this man in Fetherstonhaugh’s set, Charles Greville, who refused to have another to do with the baby and further set about further “improving” Emma in manners, diction, et cetera. Greville,
who was the nephew of the very wealthy Lord Hamilton, but not well-off himself, was a bit of a control freak, from all I have read about him and which these essays confirm. It was Greville who introduced her to the portrait painter George Romney….and thereby hangs quite a tale.  And here is Romney looking his moodiest, in an unfinished self-portrait (circa 1781/2):
I myself have researched and written about Romney’s obsession with Emma, whom he painted at least sixty times and sketched many more times. At his death, notebooks were found filled with drawings – many unfinished — of his muse Emma Hart – as she was then known. Romney was a strange old cuss. Extremely talented – he became one of the most renowned portraitists in England – but he was prone to serious bouts of depression (it apparently ran in his family). He was a very moody man. Emma Hart enriched his life, and when she was gone from it, he went even more downhill mentally. 
Emma Hart In A Straw Hat
The only quibble I have with the uniformly excellent essays making up this book is in the Christine Riding piece. Emma Hart sat for George Romney some nine years. Nowhere in all the background reading and research I did for my guest blog for Number One London did I find any evidence that there was anyone else in that studio save Romney and Emma. I never saw mention of a “chaperone” nor of any friends/acquaintances of Greville or Emma dropping in. And this is telling, because sittings for artists were social occasions; observers sat and gossiped and were served tea, etc. This was the norm. One sitting could take up to an hour; these sittings were longer. Again, never, ever, did I find any of this normal way of conducting sittings followed by Romney with Emma. Greville, to my knowledge, simply would not allow this.
Emma Hart as Circe, painted by George Romney c1782… Exquisite!
Charles Greville was an extremely jealous and controlling man, possessive to a rather sickening degree, in my opinion. Emma Hart was his possession; he did not want to share her with anyone, even in the benign setting of sitting for a portrait. All I read led me to believe that those two, artist and subject, were alone…together. For NINE years! And I wondered, did they become lovers? It’s tantalizing to imagine this, but there is no solid proof. What seems to be evident, however, is that Emma opened up to Romney as she was posing and entertained him by singing and dancing and having fun. (I reckon she did not have much fun in her relationship with Greville, given his rigid personality.)
And, although over the years people have made fun of Emma and her “Attitudes” – i.e., the dramatic poses she struck to entertain guests – there needs to be, I think, an objective re-examination of her talents, both with these poses and with her singing. (She did hang out with theatre people when she was younger and may even have appeared onstage.) Apparently she wasn’t as untalented as so many reported over the years. I found that re-appraisal fascinating…and it confirmed to me that so much of what was written at the time and subsequently thereafter – much of it simply repeating the same anecdotes — was not to be trusted. (I found this to be true when I was writing the biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, My Lady Scandalous. There is a lot of misinformation/misinterpretation out there and one has to be cautious.)
Perhaps my favorite portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney
When Emma Hart was given to Lord Hamilton by his nephew (yes, she was a gift, as she was, after all, his possession), she was eagerly received. Greville was reportedly tired of her and, assiduously searching for a wealthy woman to marry, Emma was in his way. By sending her to Naples on a ruse (oh, yeah, go on ahead, I’ll be joining you directly!), he accomplished his purpose. The much older, lonely man, besotted by her beauty, took her in and eventually proposed marriage to her. (She was 21 when Greville rid himself of her; Hamilton was about 56. They married when Hamilton was 61 years old; his first wife, an heiress, had died before Emma appeared on the scene and he’d been alone for some years.)
Gillray caricature making fun of Lord Hamilton’s interest in Classical antiquities and volcanoes (he was a renowned amateur volcanologist), with images of Emma and Lord Nelson in the upper left corner, indicating he’d been made a cuckold
Most of you may know the rest of this celebrated story. Emma – now Lady Hamilton and ensconced in luxury far beyond her imagination whe
n she was walking the London streets and/or working in a brothel – met Lord Nelson, the famed British admiral and hero of Trafalgar, and Lord Hamilton – bless his heart – was toast.
The details can be found in the essays, but a last word about Emma’s child(ren) with Nelson is perhaps appropriate here. She had Horatia, who lived to a ripe old age, the wife of a minister and the mother of a slew of children, whose maternity Emma never acknowledged publicly, and possibly one or two other children, one of whom was said to have died very young or at birth.  One or two sources I read in my research implied that there were twin girls, one of whom was sent to an orphanage, the other having died or disappeared. Sadly, it did not appear that Emma was much of a mother (though some sources said she was close to Emma Carew, her first daughter), but there is not much to go on to substantiate what happened to these later, mysterious twins…if they indeed ever existed at all, poor lost babes.
Lord Nelson, Hero of the Battle of the Nile and of Trafalgar
This is quite a wonderful compilation with superb illustrations, fast reading, and an excellent introduction to the life and loves of a singular woman. Enjoy the reading and perhaps shed a tear or two for Emma Hamilton’s last tawdry years. So many women like her wound up in France, dying there, forgotten. (My biography subject died there, as did the actress mistress of King William IV, Dorothy Jordan, along with other discarded women.) Nelson wanted Emma taken care of by the country he’d served so well; well, she wasn’t.
And, if you can, visit the exhibit at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London before it closes. As you can tell from the few sample images here, it is a feast for the eyes.
Quinton Colville’s introductory essay, “Re-imagining Emma Hamilton,” gives an excellent overview of the mythology and reality surrounding this woman; he is the Curator of Naval History at the National Maritime Museum in London. There are six full and informative articles in this companion to the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, starting with historian Vic Gattrell, who teaches at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge; his essay is “Sexual Exploitation And The Lure Of London,” a subject on which he has written extensively. Christine Riding holds the position of Head of Arts and Curator of the Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum; she was previously at the Tate Britain, where she curated 18th and 19thcentury British art; her essay is “Romney’s Muse: A Creative Partnership In Portraiture”.
Jason M. Kelly takes us to the middle part of Emma Hamilton’s career, to Naples, where, as the wife of the British ambassador, she moves in very different circles and we take a look at “A Classical Education: Naples And The Heart of European Culture.” Kelly is an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue and directs the Arts and Humanities Institute there. Gillian Russell penned “International Celebrity: An Artist On Her Own Terms”; Russell writes on fashionable women and on theatre in Georgian London.
Rounding out these essays are Margarette Lincoln (“Emma And Nelson: Icon And Mistress Of The Nation’s Hero” and Hannah Grieg on Emma’s last sad years with “Decline And Fall: Social Insecurity And Financial Ruin.” ) Lincoln is a specialist in English naval history and served as Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum for several years; she is now a visiting professor at the University of London. Grieg is an academic who is now at the University of York, lecturing on 18thcentury British social, cultural, and political history; much of her research centers on the lives of the elite class in that society.
A special treat at the end of this fascinating book is biographer Kate Williams’ take on “Emma Hamilton In Fiction And Film.” Williams is a professor of history at the University of Reading and author of England’s Mistress.
Poster for Vivien Leigh/Laurence Oliver biopic That Hamilton Woman!

EMMA HAMILTON:  SEDUCTION & CELEBRITY, edited by Quintin Colville with Kate Williams, Thames & Hudson/Royal Museums Greenwich, 2016, 280 pages