"Surely no person was ever so happy as I am":
On exhibit: October 19th, 2007 - March 16th, 2008
Lady Emma Hamilton (baptized 1765-1815) lived a life characterized by vast change and movement. Born in the country to poverty and quickly orphaned, Emma went to London to work as a household servant. There she became a courtesan, an actress, and Charles Greville's kept woman. Tiring of her, Greville sent her to Naples as a gift to his recently widowed uncle who, he thought, needed a bedmate. Surprisingly, she married that uncle, the diplomat, vulcanologist, and collector Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803). At his side during the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, she too engaged in diplomacy. She also became—notoriously—mistress to the already-married Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) and bore Nelson's only surviving child, their daughter Horatia. After Hamilton and Nelson died, however, Emma missed the protection both men had provided her. Greville, who was Hamilton's heir, and Lady Nelson, both concerned to keep Emma from sharing in Hamilton or Nelson's estates, were equally anxious to see her out of their lives. Emma lost her home, sank into illness, depression, and drink, and eventually left England for France. There, in 1815, she died.
The arc of Emma's life might be seen in terms of the medieval Wheel of Fortune. As it rose, the Wheel pulled her up from nothing to a brief eminence. As it kept on turning, however, it returned her to nothingness, eventually crushing her beneath its spokes. But that view does Emma no justice. No passive rider borne aloft and then tossed down by an indifferent Lady Fortune, Emma fashioned much of her own fate. That hand held not only poverty and a dead father but also beauty, the ability to learn proper carriage and speech, and presence. These she used to turn herself into one of the great beauties of her age. Painted, almost obsessively, by George Romney and a host of other artists, French and British, Emma became one of the most recognizable female figures of her era. Grit and gall underlie her life's story. With none of the advantages that class, education, wealth, or gender would have offered her, Emma Hamilton forced an upper-class, educated, wealthy, and male world to respond to her. Her story is the subject of this exhibition.
The exhibition features items from the collections of Jean Kislak and the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book & Manuscript Library. It includes rarely shown portraits of Emma and Greville by Romney, images of Nelson, books about Emma, Sir William Hamilton, and Horatio Nelson, and original manuscripts that detail Emma's life as Greville's mistress, wiife of Sir William Hamilton, and Nelson's love.