11 SepLady Emma Hamilton Before She Loved Admiral Nelson

Lady Emma Hamilton Before She Fell In Love With Admiral NelsonEmma Lyon was the daughter of a day-laborer. In her babyhood her home was Hawarden, “the luster of fame of which town is equally divided between a man and a woman,” once said Disraeli, with a solemn sidelong glance at William Ewart Gladstone.

At Hawarden, Lyon the obscure, known to us for but one thing, died, and if his body was buried in the Hawarden churchyard, Destiny failed to mark the spot. The widow worked at menial tasks in the homes of the local gentry, and the child was fed with scraps that fell from the rich man’s table—a condition that grew into a habit.

When Emma was thirteen years old, she had learned to read, and could “print”; that is, she could write a letter, a feat her mother never learned to do.

At this time the girl waited on table and acted as nurse-maid in the family of Sir Thomas Hawarden. Doubtless she learned by listening, and absorbed knowledge because she had the capacity. When Sir Thomas moved up to London, which is down from Hawarden, the sprightly little girl was taken along.

Her dresses were a little above her shoe-tops, but she lowered the skirt on her own account, very shortly.

Country girls of immature age, comely to look upon, had better keep close at home. The city devours such, and infamy and death for them lie in wait. But here was an exception—Emma Lyon was a child of the hedgerows, and her innocence was only in her appearance. She must have been at that time like the child of the gypsy beggar told of by Smollett, that was purchased for two pounds by an admiring gent, who made a bet with his friends that he could replace her rags with silks and fine linen, and in six weeks introduce her at court, as to the manner born, a credit to her sex. All worked well for a time, when one day, alas, under great provocation, the girl sloughed her ladylike manners, and took on the glossary of the road and camp.

Emma Lyon at fifteen, having graduated as a scullion, went to work for a shopkeeper, as a servant and general helper. It was soon found that as a saleswoman she was worth much more than as a cook. A caller asked her where she was educated, and she explained that it was at the expense of the Earl of Halifax, and that she was his ward.

The Earl fortunately was dead and could not deny the report. Sir Harry Featherston, hearing about the titled girl, or at least of the girl mentioned with titled people, rescued her from the shopkeeper and sent her to his country seat, that she might have the advantages of the best society.

Her beauty and quiet good sense seemed to back up the legend that she was the natural child of the Earl of Halifax; and as the subject seemed to be a painful one to the child herself, it was discussed only in whispers. The girl learned to ride horseback remarkably well, and at a fete appeared as Joan of Arc, armed cap-a-pie, riding a snow-white stallion. Romney, the portrait-painter, spending a week-end with Sir Henry, was struck with the picturesque beauty of the child and painted her as Diana. Romney was impressed with the plastic beauty of the girl, her downcast eyes, her silent ways, her responsive manner, and he begged Sir Harry to allow her to go to London and sit for another picture.

Now Sir Harry was a married man, senior warden of his church, and as the girl was bringing him a trifle more fame than he deserved, he consented.

Romney writing to a friend, under date of June Nineteenth, Seventeen Hundred Eighty-one, says:

“At present, and the greater part of the summer, I shall be engaged in painting pictures from the Divine Lady. I can not give her any other name, for I think her superior to all womankind.

“I have two pictures to paint of her for the Prince of Wales. She says she must see you before she leaves England, which will be in the beginning of September. She asked me if you would not write my life. I told her you had begun it; then, she said, she hoped you would have much to say of her in the life, as she prided herself upon being my model.

“I dedicate my time to this charming lady; there is a prospect of her leaving town with Sir William, for two or three weeks. They are very much hurried at present, as everything is going on for their speedy marriage, and all the world following her, and talking of her, so that if she has not more good sense than vanity, her brain must be turned. The pictures I have begun of Joan of Arc, a Magdalen, and a Bacchante for the Prince of Wales; and another I am to begin as a companion to the Bacchante. I am also to paint her as Constance for the Shakespeare Gallery.”

Twenty-three pictures of Emma Lyon painted by Romney are now in existence. England at that time was experiencing a tidal wave of genius, and Romney and his beautiful model rode in on the crest of the wave, with Sir Joshua, the Herschels, Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Doctor Johnson, Goldsmith, Horace Walpole and various others of equal note caught in amber, all of them, by the busy Boswell.

Besides those who did things worth while, there were others who buzzed, dallied, and simply seemed and thought they lived. Among this class who were famous for doing nothing was Beau Nash, the pride of the pump-room. Next in note, but more moderately colored, was Sir Charles Greville, man of polite education, a typical courtier, with a leaning toward music and the arts, which gave his character a flavor of culture that the others did not possess.

The fair Emma was giving the Romney studio a trifle more fame than the domestic peace of the portrait-painter demanded, and when Sir Charles Greville, sitting for his portrait, became acquainted with the beautiful model, Romney saw his opportunity to escape the inevitable crash. So Sir Charles, the man of culture, the patron of the picturesque, the devotee of beauty, undertook the further education of Emma as an ethnological experiment.

He employed a competent teacher to give her lessons in voice culture, to the end that she should neither screech nor purr. Sir Charles himself read to her from the poets and she committed to memory Pope’s “Essay on Man,” and a whole speech by Robert Walpole, which she recited at a banquet at Strawberry Hill, to the immense surprise, not to mention delight, of Horace Walpole.

Sir Charles also hired a costumer by the month to study the physiological landscape and prepare raiment of extremely rich, but somber, hues, so that the divine lady would outclass in both modesty and aplomb the fairest daughters of Albion.

About this time, Emma became known as “Lady Harte,” it being discovered that Burke’s Peerage contained information that the Hartes were kinsmen of the Earl of Halifax, and also that the Hartes had moved to America. The testimony of contemporary expert porchers seems to show that Sir Charles Greville spent upwards of five thousand pounds a year upon the education of his ward. This was continued for several years, when a reversal in the income of Sir Charles made retrenchment desirable, if not absolutely necessary. And as good fortune would have it, about this time Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Neapolitan Court, was home on a little visit.

He was introduced to Lady Harte by his nephew, Sir Charles Greville, and at once perceived and appreciated the wonderful natural as well as acquired gifts of the lady.

Lady Harte was interviewed as to her possibly becoming Lady Hamilton, all as duly provided by the laws of Great Britain and the Church of England; and it being ascertained that Lady Harte was willing, and also that she was not a sister of the deceased Lady Hamilton, Sir William and Emma were duly married.

At Naples, Lady Hamilton at once became very popular. She had a splendid presence, was a ready talker, knew the subtle art of listening, took a sympathetic interest in her husband’s work, and when necessary could entertain their friends by a song, recitation or a speech. Her relationship with Sir William was beyond reproach—she was by his side wherever he went, and her early education in the practical workaday affairs of the world served her in good stead.

Southey feels called upon to criticize Lady Hamilton, but he also offers as apology for the errors of her early life, the fact of her vagabond childhood, and says her immorality was more unmoral than vicious, and that her loyalty to Sir William was beautiful and beyond cavil.

Sir William Hamilton represented the British nation at Naples for thirty-six years. He was a diplomat of the old school—gracious, refined, dignified, with a bias for Art.

Among other good things done for his country was the collecting of a vast treasure of bronzes gotten from Pompeii and Herculaneum. This collection was sold by Sir William, through the agency of his wife, to the British nation for the sum of seven thousand pounds. There was a great scandal about the purchase at the time, and the transaction was pointed out to prove the absolutely selfish and grasping qualities of Lady Hamilton, the costly and curious vases being referred to in the House of Commons as “junk.”

Time, however, has given a proper focus to the matter, and this collection of beautiful things made by people dead these two thousand years is now known to be absolutely priceless, almost as much so as the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon at Athens and which now repose in the British Museum, the chief attraction of the place.

There were many visitors of note being constantly entertained at the Embassy of Naples. Among others was the Bishop of Derry, the man who enjoyed the distinction of being both a bishop and an infidel. When he made oath in the courts of alleged justice he always crossed his fingers, put his tongue in his cheek and winked at the notary.

The infidelic prelate has added his testimony to the excellence of the character of Lady Hamilton, and once swore on the book in which he did not believe, that if Sir William should die he would wed his widow. To which the lady replied, “Provided, of course, the widow was willing!” The temperature suddenly dropping below thirty-two Fahrenheit, the bishop moved on.

And along about this time the “Agamemnon” sailed into the beautiful bay of Naples, and Captain Nelson made an official call upon the envoy.

It was at dinner that night that Sir William remarked to Lady Emma: “My dear, that captain of the ‘Agamemnon’ is a most remarkable man. I believe I will invite him here to our home.” And the lady, generous, kind, gentle, answered, “Why certainly, invite him here—a little rest from the sea he will enjoy.”

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