The presentational highlight is a central theatre space draped with white muslin, on which a fine film is shown of Emma’s ‘attitudes’, the dance-like vignettes she concocted to illustrate the lives of famous historical women such as Penelope, Medea and Cleopatra (performed here with aplomb by Amelia Cardwell).
The tragic appeal of these figures can be seen to presage Emma’s own descent into genteel poverty after Nelson’s death, but the catalogue adds a more positive contemporary spin, explicitly likening Emma to performance artists such as Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic, which does not seem too fanciful an idea.
There are all kinds of odd trinkets on display, including a bracelet woven of Emma’s own hair and a Berlin tea service illustrating the ‘attitudes’, plus several moving artefacts, such as the poem-letter Nelson wrote to Emma immediately after the Battle of Copenhagen. The poem isn’t good, but the romantic impulse is magnificent.
However, the exhibition is not about the objects; it’s Emma’s personality that shines through. The only disappointment is the choice of final exhibit—the undress uniform coat worn by Nelson at Trafalgar, which, we are told, one visitor noticed was lain on Emma’s bed after his death, apparently as a pathetic surrogate.
It appears that the National Maritime Museum’s role as England’s shrine to Nelson cannot be gainsaid after all and that Emma Hamilton must still be presented primarily as the glamorously tragic lover of a national hero, as opposed to a woman of achievement and distinction in her own right. ‘Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity’ is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10, until April 17, 2017 (020–8312 6608; www.rmg.co.uk/nationalmaritime-museum)
Olive Edis at Norwich Castle Museum