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Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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;­tional­mar­itime-mu­seum)

Olive Edis at Nor­wich Cas­tle Mu­seum

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