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

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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