Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity
November 2016 to April 2017, National Maritime Museum
The story of Emma Hamilton is one of female power and achievement in a man’s world, against all odds. Born into poverty in 1765, she rose to be a muse for famous artists, an influential ambassador’s wife, a European cultural icon and Lord Nelson’s mistress – before facing prison and dying in destitution.
The exhibition traced her spectacular career from rags to riches and back again through over 200 objects, paintings by George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence, and heartfelt letters between Emma and her lovers. The exhibition also explored the obstacles and social barriers for a woman of her time in the public eye, many of which still resonate today.
Emma’s story was told through the many identities she had throughout her life, from servant, seductress and muse, through possession, student, performer to wife, lover, homemaker and eventually - after Nelson’s death- mourner, and pauper. Her narrative arc was told in four acts and was augmented by a rich colour palette, and spatial and scenographic devices used to evoke the various locations, from seedy Covent Gardento the plush villas of Naples and eventually back to Merton Place in Surrey, where she tried to build a life with Nelson. Emma’s presence was felt in the exhibition recreated life-sized with graphic shadows, printed onto bespoke toile de jouy wallpapers each depicting scenes from her life.
The gallery was planned around two central points with walls emanating from them. These two circular spaces held the turning points of Emma’s life - the first was The Attitudes - her tableaux vivant performances of classical and mythological characters recreated as a life-sized AV installation - which brought her fame across Europe. The second, Political Agent, saw her become friend and confidante of the Queen of Naples. This was a long and steep climb for a servant girl from Cheshire.
The rich and varied design employed drapes, fabric and theatrical lighting, creating drama and atmosphere to accompany her remarkable story. The exhibition concluded with the museum’s star object - Nelson’s famous uniform with the bullet hole. Emma held onto it, until finally in desperate poverty she was forced to sell it.
“No one in her time could resist Emma Hamilton, and nor will you”
★★★★★ The Guardian
“more extraordinary than fiction… Hamilton’s remarkable story”
★★★★ Time Out
Client: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Exhibition Design: Hara Clark
Graphic Design: Fernando Lai Couto
Lighting Design: David Atkinson
Audio Visual: Centre Screen & NMM
Contractor: Scena Productions
Photograph credit: Nick Wood