The original celebrity
Tim Richardson is captivated by an exhibition that shows Nelson’s mistress to have been much more than a self-made seductress
She makes for quite a poster girl. In George Romney’s Emma as Circe (about 1782), the widening, darkly limpid eyes of the teenaged emma hamilton stare out urgently from under a swirl of bundled auburn hair.
With white décolletage framed by a simple smock, cheeks rouged in excitement, sensuous red lips parted in fear (or anticipation?), this freely realised portrait of one of the most charismatic and beautiful women of the 18th century—the daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith—is one of at least 70 that Romney completed of emma in various incarnations between 1782 and 1791.
A good number of these portraits—emma as Cassandra, as St Cecilia, as Miranda— are included in this splendid exhibition. Clearly, Romney had no cause to rely on the fauxdemure coquettishness of conventional portraiture to grab the attention.
however, it’s not all about sex appeal. Striking the distinctive poses and ‘attitudes’ for which she was to become celebrated, emma collaborated creatively with Romney to conceive each picture as a miniature theatrical performance. This makes her much more than a mere artist’s model or—worse—‘muse’. her relationship with Romney was more akin to that of an actor with a film director, yet it’s also clear that Romney was both romantically and sexually obsessed by emma—and he was not the only one.
After desperate beginnings in London, where she appears to have ended up as a ‘courtesan’ at a well-known Covent Garden establishment, emma caught the eye and imagination of some of her high-born clients. It was her character as much as her One of two paintings by Romney depicting Emma Hamilton as the Greek sorceress Circe