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Who were the famous and admired “rock stars” of Regency England? At the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting (JASNA AGM) recently, Dr. Jocelyn Harris identified five charismatic celebrities of Regency England. Jane Austen would certainly have known about them.

Dr. Harris chose:

  • Emma Hamilton
  • Dora Jordan
  • Fanny Burney
  • The Prince Regent
  • Lord Byron

Who were these people, and what might Jane Austen have thought about them? As I watched their presentations, I thought that Austen probably didn’t think very highly of some of them. See what you think.

Emma Hamilton

Emma, Lady Hamilton is best known for her love affair with the naval hero Lord Nelson.

George Romney was captivated by Emma Hamilton’s beauty, as were other artists. This shows Emma as Circe.

 

Early in her life, Emma Lyon worked as a housemaid, but her classical beauty and vivacious spirit brought her to the attention of several rich young men. She became the mistress of one, had his child, then moved in with one of his friends. That friend traded her to his rich uncle, Sir William Hamilton, in exchange for becoming his uncle’s heir. Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples, married Emma and made her Lady Hamilton in 1791; he was sixty and she was about twenty-six.

In Naples, Emma became known for her dramatic “attitudes.” She wore classical Greek dress and struck a series of poses representing various emotions and classical stories. She was very expressive and visitors loved to watch her. She was also talented at learning languages. She helped her husband, and later Lord Nelson, with diplomacy. After a few years, she became seriously overweight, but apparently was still enchanting.

Emma Hamilton by George Romney, circa 1785 ©National Portrait Gallery, London.   Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Around 1798 Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson fell in love. Both were married to someone else. But they seem to have adored each other. She bore him three children, though only one survived, a daughter named Horatia. Nelson said of her, as she was courageously seeing him off to sea, “Brave Emma! Good Emma! If there were more Emmas there would be more Nelsons.”

Emma’s husband died in 1803, then Admiral Nelson died in 1805. Emma was heartbroken at Nelson’s death. She received a large legacy and annuity, but continued her extravagance until she was imprisoned for debt in 1813. Friends helped her get released. She spent her final days, drunken and bedridden, in Calais, France. Her daughter Horatia tended her until she died in 1815. When Horatia returned to England, she was taken in by Nelson’s sisters, and ended up marrying a curate and having a large family. She acknowledged that Nelson was her father, but refused to acknowledge Lady Hamilton as her mother.

Jane Austen’s Perspective

In her letters (Oct. 11, 1813), Austen says that she is tired of biographies of Nelson, though she hasn’t read any. Perhaps his open adultery diminished his glory in her eyes, though we don’t know for sure. Her brother Frank wrote admiringly of Nelson’s judgment and decisiveness, and his ability to motivate others. He said nothing of Nelson’s moral values, however (Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, 1913, chapter 12).

Austen makes no mention of Emma Hamilton in her writings. Dr. Harris speculates that Mrs. Smith of Persuasion, whose maiden name was Miss Hamilton, might have some connection to Emma Hamilton, or even Emma Woodhouse herself, as Emma Hamilton was also known as a matchmaker and lady bountiful. To me it seems unlikely that Austen would have named either of them after such a scandalous celebrity. In Mansfield Park, fashionable Mary Crawford thinks of adultery as folly to be concealed. However, it seems to me that Austen agrees with her hero and heroine, Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, who consider it serious sin. So I don’t think she would have thought very highly of Emma Hamilton.

For more on Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), see “Emma at Home: Lady Hamilton and Her ‘Attitudes,’” which includes further links.

 

Dorothy Jordan

Dorothy Jordan was a famous actress of Austen’s time. In her early years, she shone in a variety of roles, but eventually settled down to become a comic actress. Sarah Siddons (who might be considered another Regency “Rock Star”) was the queen of tragedy, and Dorothy Jordan was the “comic muse.” A woman of several names, she was also called Dora or Dorothea. She was born Dorothy Bland and when her father deserted the family she became Dorothy Phillips. She was commonly known as Mrs. Jordan, though she never married.

Jordan’s parents were a vicar’s daughter who had become a London actress, and an Irish captain whose father, a judge, disinherited him for his liaison with Jordan’s mother. (They may have married, but as minors, the marriage was not valid.) Her father later made a legal marriage in Ireland to another woman.

By 1779, eighteen-year-old Dorothea was working as an actress in Dublin. She was seduced by her manager, conceived his child, and fled when he threatened her with debtor’s prison. (Her manager reminds me of Willoughby with Eliza, only even worse!) She got another job in Leeds, where they called her Mrs. Jordan because she was pregnant (therefore “Mrs.”) and had crossed over the water to get to England from Ireland, like the Israelites crossing the Jordan River in the Bible.

She gradually moved up in her profession, until she was acting in the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. There she became the mistress of Richard Ford, son of the court physician, and had three children with him.

In 1790, Prince William Henry, duke of Clarence (third son of George III), fell in love with her and she became his mistress. He provided her with an annuity of £1200, a carriage, and provision for all her children. However, she continued to act around the country, and she shared her income with the duke. People wondered which of them supported the other!

She bore ten children to the duke and acted as his wife and hostess. However, in 1811 his debts were increasing and he told her they had to separate so he could marry someone rich.

Mrs Jordan from The Life of Mrs Jordan by J Boaden (1831), public domain

Mrs. Jordan continued acting, to great acclaim, and traveling. She was very well-paid, but generous and extravagant. Late in her life, while she was in ill health, her son-in-law defrauded her of much of her money. She died impoverished near Paris, with only about £10 to her name.

Jane Austen’s Perspective

Austen mentions Mrs. Jordan in a letter (1801), admiring Cassandra’s resignation when she could not come to London and see Mrs. Jordan. According to Dr. Harris, in 1814, when Jane was looking forward to seeing the play “The Devil to Pay” and expecting to be “very much amused,” Jane was going to see Mrs. Jordan perform. No doubt the sisters, great fans of the theater, much admired Mrs. Jordan’s acting, as everyone else did. We don’t know what Austen thought of Mrs. Jordan’s personal life. Harris speculates that Jordan’s personality, arch, playful, bewitching, and frank, may be reflected in Elizabeth Bennet.

Mrs. Jordan seems to have been a faithful and domestic “wife” to the Duke of Clarence for many years, and popular opinion held that he should not have deserted her. Their children, who received the surname FitzClarence, were of course illegitimate. Fitz-, by the way, simply means “son of,” though from the 1600s it came to be used for illegitimate royal children. (Did the Fitzwilliams of Pride and Prejudice have an illegitimate royal ancestor? Or were they from an older Norman family, perhaps descended from the younger son of a warrior named William? It could be either.) Clarence’s oldest son, by Mrs. Jordan, could not inherit the throne after the Duke of Clarence became King William IV.

In Emma, Emma thinks Harriet is well-born, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman. However, it turns out that Harriet is the daughter of a tradesman. Emma thinks, “The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed.” Did Jane Austen herself think that that it was acceptable for those with “nobility or wealth” to have illegitimate children? Or was she continuing to make fun of Emma’s snobbishness?

Personally, I think that as a devout Anglican, Austen would not have approved of Mrs. Jordan’s liaison even with a duke. But, she may have felt sympathy for a couple who loved each other but were not legally allowed to marry. And Mrs. Jordan seems to have been a good influence on her Duke. I see no firm evidence either way for Austen’s opinion. She certainly admired Mrs. Jordan as an actress.

For more on Dorothy Jordan (1761-1816), see “Mrs. Dora Jordan—The Comic Muse.

On Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), see “Austen’s Regretted Mischance to see Mrs. Siddons” and “The Indomitable Mrs. Siddons.

 

Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay)

Our third “Rock Star” was a popular novelist like Jane Austen, but Burney was much more well-known in her time than Austen. Burney came from a more conventional middle class background than Emma Hamilton or Dorothy Jordan did. Her father was a well-known music teacher who went on musical tours of Europe; Fanny helped him with the books he wrote.

Her family brought her into contact with some of the leading people of her day, including Samuel Johnson, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, writer Hester Thrale (later Piozzi), bluestockings Elizabeth Montagu and Hannah More, and many others. Austen, of course, did not move in such intellectual or social circles.

Like Jane Austen, Burney published her first book, Evelina, anonymously. Not even her father knew that she had written it until some months after it came out. (He had disapproved of her earlier writing, but liked Evelina.) It was well-reviewed and over 2000 copies sold. Bookstores in fashionable spas and in London had a hard time keeping it in stock. Burney’s next, longer book, Cecilia, was also a great success.

Portrait of Madame D’Arblay (Fanny Burney) engraved from a painting by Edward Francis Burney (Portraits of Eminent Men and Women, 1873), public domain, wikimedia

After a few years without writing, Burney was offered a place at court, as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte. Her father persuaded her to accept, for the family’s advantage. However, Burney was miserable with the drudgery and routine of court life. She did have one adventure, though, when King George III, in a fit of madness, chased her around Kew Gardens. After five years she asked to retire due to ill health, and was allowed to go.

At age forty-one, Fanny met a French military officer, D’Arblay. They fell in love and were married. Fanny’s father was unhappy about the match, since Fanny had little money and D’Arblay had none. However, they had a happy marriage. Their son Alexander was born about a year and a half after their wedding.

Fanny continued writing; mostly plays that were not performed in her lifetime (one was performed for one night, but was an immediate failure). Her novel Camilla, though, was another success, and provided enough money for the D’Arblays to build their own home.

While Fanny’s siblings sometimes acted scandalously, she herself lived a conventional, moral life. Her books express solid moral values, while showing the restrictions placed on women. She died in her home in London in 1840. Fanny Burney has been called the mother of English fiction. She was one of the first successful English novelists.

Jane Austen’s Perspective

Burney’s novels Cecilia and Camilla are mentioned in glowing terms in Northanger Abbey:

“‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Jane Austen subscribed to Camilla. (That means that she gave financial support for it before it was published, something like a Kickstarter campaign today.) In her letters, Austen also mentions characters from Burney’s novels. The novels seem to have influenced her own. Harris also speculates that Burney’s experiences at court, recorded in her journals and passed on by Austen’s mother’s cousin Cassandra Cooke (Burney’s neighbor), might be reflected in some of Fanny Price’s experiences in Mansfield Park. Austen obviously admired Fanny Burney’s work, and I think she would have admired Burney personally as well. Jocelyn Harris calls Burney and Austen “sisters of the pen.”

 

Two other women authors of Jane Austen’s day might qualify as “rock stars,” in terms of popularity, even more than Fanny Burney. Maria Edgeworth, whose novel Belinda is mentioned in Northanger Abbey along with Burney’s novels, was the most successful novelist of her time, in terms of sales and income. Hannah More, whose writings Austen doesn’t seem to have cared for, wrote mostly nonfiction, a tremendous range of books for rich and poor, which were wildly popular. She wrote and worked for causes including the abolition of slavery, education for women and for the poor, and better moral values.

For more on Fanny Burney (1752-1840), see “Only a Novel: The Life of Fanny Burney.”  For more on Burney’s novels, and ways they may have influenced Jane Austen, see “Jane Austen a-Shopping with Burney’s Evelina.

On Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), see “Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen’s Forgotten Idol.

On Hannah More, see “Jane Austen’s Novels and Hannah More’s Life—Intersecting Planes” and “Jane Austen, Hanah More, and the Novel of Education.”

 

What do you think of these “rock stars” of Austen’s England? What do you think Austen would have liked and not liked about them? Are there other women of the time that you would nominate?

In Part 2 we’ll look at some gentlemen “Rock Stars of the Regency.”

 

Source: These summaries are based on entries in the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, plus Jocelyn Harris’s presentation for the JASNA AGM, “Rock Stars of the Regency.”

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Towards the end of his life Horatio Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar, lived at Merton Place, an elegant country house set in 160 acres of landscaped grounds in what is now the London Borough of Merton in South London in an area more commonly known as South Wimbledon, where I live.

Merton Place. Image @National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Nelson had gathered many honours for services to his country during his career. Horatio Nelson was known as  1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte KB. The KB is the term for Knight of the Bath, which is a high-ranking knighthood. Knighthoods came and still come in different categories. Nelson’s knighthood was the top rank.

Admiral Lord Nelson

Nelson was born into a prosperous family in Norfolk on the 29th September 1758. His uncle, Maurice Suckling, encouraged him to join the Navy. His talent was recognised at an early age because he served with the leading naval officers of the time and he rose rapidly through the ranks. He obtained his first command in 1778 at the age of twenty. His reputation grew because of his courage and valour in battle and his ability to gather a firm grasp of naval tactics very quickly. Nelson was a sickly individual and often had periods of illness. After The Wars of American Independence he was laid off and was without a ship for a while.

Emma Hamilton in an attitude of dance

With the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars, Nelson was called back into service to serve primarily in the Mediterranean theatre of war. He fought in various minor battles just off Toulon, at the Capture of Corsica, and then was given diplomatic duties with the Italian States. On 12 September 1793, he first met Lady Hamilton. At the time, Nelson was a 35-year-old post captain and she was the 28-year-old wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples. Emma was famous as a great beauty and a performer of ”Attitudes”, based on Ancient Greek statuary. She wore diaphanous floating materials for these poses but some , which left nothing to the imagination. (What an old buffer like Sir William Hamilton was doing with a party girl, as a wife is another story!)

Nelson loses his arm

In 1797, Nelson came to prominence again as captain of HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Soon after he took part in the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in which he was badly wounded and lost his right arm. He was forced to return to England to recuperate.

Extract from HMS Theseus medical officer’s journal for 25 July 1797 relating to the amputation of part of Nelson’s right arm. Image @National Archives

It is interesting to note, in the Georgian navy any badly damaged limb was always amputated. This was the only way they could prevent disease setting into the wounds. If ever you have the chance to visit HMS Victory at Portsmouth you can see the surgeon’s instruments laid out on the deal-operating table below decks.  The surgeon had two assistant surgeons and used the help of the seaman’s mates to hold him down. They experimented with alcohol as an anaesthetic but discovered that getting the injured sailor drunk made the blood thin and it wouldn’t clot. The only thing they could do at that time was to strap him down and give him a piece of leather to grip between his teeth. A scalpel paired back the skin and flesh. A caffater was used to drain the blood. The arteries were severed and then a saw was used to cut quickly through the bone. A file was used to smooth the end of the bone. The arteries were tied. The flap of skin was sewn over the stump. The stump was dipped in tar and then and only then, the man was given rum, lots of it, to get drunk. All done and dusted in 90 seconds.

In 1798 Nelson returned to action and beat Napoleons navy at the battle of The Nile. One of Nelson’s greatest achievements. He remained in the Mediterranean to support the State of Naples against a French invasion. In 1801 Nelson was ordered to go to the Baltic and this time he defeated the Danes at The Battle of Copenhagen. The Danes to this day don’t like Nelson. The Danish fleet was in port and by attacking the fleet in port a lot of the bombardment also hit the city of Copenhagen and destroyed much of the city,  killing many ordinary citizens.

 

HMS Victory. Image @Tony Grant

After this encounter in the north Nelson took over the blockade of the French and Spanish fleets in Toulon. They escaped and Nelson chased them to the West Indies and back without bringing them to battle. He now began the blockade of the French and Spanish in Cadiz. The end game was approaching although nobody knew that at the time. He returned to England and Merton Place for some respite with his family that had become Lady Hamilton, her husband Sir William (who was living with them),  Nelson and Emma’s daughter, Horatia. It was a scandalous arrangement for the time, but Sir William Hamilton appeared to be comfortable with the situation. That tells another story.

Sir William Hamilton, Emma, and Admiral Nelson. Image @The Nelson Society

In October  1805, Nelson returned to action off Cadiz. He was a great national hero by this time, and he journeyed in triumph from Merton Place, cheered by villagers as he made his way to Portsmouth. Normally a sea captain or admiral would have been rowed by longboat to his ship waiting at sea from the hard at Portsmouth, which is next to the dockyard entrance.

Nelson leaving Southsea beach, just outside of Portsmouth.

However, massive crowds had gathered to see Nelson leave for Cadiz. Worried about safety, he asked to leave from Southsea beach, about three quarters of a mile east of Portsmouth.  So it was Southsea he was rowed from, to a waiting ship that took him to HMS Victory off Cadiz harbour. A famous painting portrays Nelson’s departure from Southsea beach.

HMS Victory, broadside. Image @Tony Grant

People talk about “the Nelson touch,” and the superiority of the British Navy. The British navy like the British army was and is a family. Officers knew each other personally and socialised together. Nelson was going to Cadiz to meet friends, the other naval officers commanding the ships under his overall command. They knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths and Nelson played to these. He knew who could do what, exactly. It was a, “well oiled machine.” Also British gun crews trained continuously in the using and firing of their guns. They were trained thoroughly. The whole fleet worked as a well-run unit.

Trafalgar

The fact that the French and Spanish were a combined fleet made up of two navies had an inbuilt fault. Their gun crews were not so efficient. There were two languages to contend with and there was a matter of pride on each side that caused friction. The French and Spanish commanders did not know their men and captains as well as the officers in the British navy knew theirs. The British fleet was smaller but a much more efficient group. Nelson also utilised unconventional tactics. Because of the superior numbers of the opposing fleet Nelson decided not to go for a broadside attack where the two fleets would have passed each other firing side by side until one side gave in. He was outnumbered and this would not have faired well for the British fleet. Nelson decided to form his fleet into two parts, each forming a line, which sailed into the French and Spanish fleets, like two arrows fired perpendicularly to the line of French and Spanish ships.

 

Battle of Trafalgar

This split the opposing force into three parts. Nelson’s fleet dealt with each part separately. The Spanish and French fleet was taken unawares with this tactic and many of their ships were not able to engage the British at first. This gave time for the British to pick off the enemy, slowly destroying them almost, one by one. Nelson was victorious. A sniper high in the rigging of the mizzenmast of the French ship Redoubtable picked out Nelson and Captain Hardy standing on the poop deck of the Victory and shot Nelson. The bullet passed through his shoulder, through his lungs and severed his spine. The ships surgeon later did an autopsy to find the cause of Nelson’s death and extent of his injuries. A marine called John Pollard revenged Nelsons death by shooting the French sniper dead. He was seen falling from the mizzenmast into the shrouds hanging from the Redoubtable.

 

Death of Nelson

To illustrate Nelson’s shear courage and perhaps bravado, minutes before he himself was shot, an officer standing next to him had been severed in half by a cannon ball from the French ship and the blood and body parts of this unfortunate had only just been cleared away when Nelson himself was struck.

The stern of the HMS Victory. Image @Tony Grant

Most injuries and deaths in a battle of this sort were from flying splinters of wood. Victory was made from 6000 trees, 90% of which were oak but some elm, pine and fir were used. When you see the Victory and some of the massive wooden elbows, struts and planks used in it’s construction you can imagine how great sharp pieces of wood could go flying about when hit by a cannon ball going at the speed of sound. The majority of fatalities were from splinters to the head.

Nelson was not the nicest of personalities. He was proud, vain, and authoritarian but he was also extremely brave, astute and a brilliant tactician. He was loved and admired by his men and the whole of the British nation.

Bullet hole in Nelson's uniform.

If you go to The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich you can see the admirals coat Nelson was wearing when he was shot. The bullet hole is visible in the shoulder and the expensive white silk lining is heavily blood stained.

Nelson did not want a sea burial. He had the right to ask for a land burial. It would be months before The Victory would return to Portsmouth so the ships surgeon suggested they place Nelson’s body in a large cask of rum. They did this and the body remained in relatively good condition until Nelson’s state funeral and burial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. There is rather a gruesome story following Nelson’s funeral. The crew of HMS Victory are reputed to have drunk the rum Nelson’s body had been preserved in.

Nelson's crypt in St. Paul's Cathedral. Image @LIFE Magazine

So, Nelson’s final journey to super stardom and the gratitude of an adoring nation started from Merton Place in South Wimbledon.
Merton Place no longer exists and the 160 acres of land Nelson owned around Merton Place have long been sold off and used for housing over various generations.

London road today crossing what was Nelson's estate. Image @Tony Grant

Roads of Victorian, Edwardian and more modern flats and housing now covers what was once Nelson’s idyllic estate of Merton. There is much evidence still existing though, if you take the time to look.

Merton Place as it once was, also former home of Thomas Sainsbury, Lord Mayor of London. Image @Old London Maps

By 1801 Nelson had separated from his wife Fanny. He wanted to find a home where  he could entertain his friends. Lady Hamilton found Merton Place situated next to the picturesque Wandle River and Nelson paid £9000 for it.

 

The Wandle River. Image @Tony Grant

Nelson paid for the house’s development. Great changes to it took place in 1805. Nelson employed the architect Thomas Chawner to create a new layout. It became a double fronted house with a grand drive leading up to it.

Merton Place, parish of Merton.

Also a tributary from the Wandle River was dug leading up to the house. This was named The Nile, after Nelson’s famous victory. If you go to the site of Merton place to day there is a housing estate; houses and flats built in the 1960’s.

 

Nelson's estate today. Image @Tony Grant

On the very site of, “Merton Place,” is a block of flats called, “Merton Place.” On the site of the entrance to the grand drive that lead up to the house from the London Road is a pub called, The Nelson Arms.

The Nelson Arms on the site of the entrance to Merton Place. Image @Tony Grant

It is a spectacular Edwardian edifice with large tiled pictures of Nelson’s portrait and HMS Victory.

 

The gatehouse site today. Image @Tony Grant.

A few hundred yards form The Nelson Arms are some housing and flats that are on the site of a building that was called, The Gatehouse. The owner was a friend of Nelson’s, James Halfhide. Nelson often visited James in The Gatehouse. A little further along the London Road, leading into Tooting, is Wandle Park, the site of Wandle Park House. Lady Hamilton and Nelson are known to have visited the owner James Perry the editor and owner of the Morning Chronicle, the most successful London Newspaper in Georgian times.

St. Mary the Virgin. Image @Tony Grant

A mile west of Merton Place is the church of St Mary the Virgin, where Nelson worshipped regularly on a Sunday. The pew he used is still there.

Bell ropes, St. Mary the Virgin. Image @Tony Grant

Not far from here is a newer church called St John the Divine. Built in 1914, it was designed by the architect C. Cage to mark the anniversary of the death of Nelson. The church was built on what was part of the western extension of Nelson’s lands as a memorial to Nelson, and was financed by funds collected from local people.

St. John the Divine, Burne Jones window

It has a stained glass window designed by the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward  Burne Jones and was made at the William Morris works situated next to the Wandle River near Merton Place. The high altar is made from a piece of timber from HMS Victory.

Nelson Park. Image @Tony Grant

Next to the church is a small park with a granite monument that has an inscription recalling Nelson. This stone is flanked by two cannons which stood at the entrance to the doorway into Merton Place.

The cricket pitch at Mitcham. Image @Tony Grant

A mile and a half south of Merton Place at Mitcham, is Mitcham Cricket club, which still exists today. Some excellent pubs surround the cricket green at Mitcham and it is very relaxing to sit out in front of one of the pubs on a balmy summers day, drinking a pint of local Youngs beer, watching white flannelled cricketers hitting leather on willow.  It is one of the most famous and oldest local, amateur cricket clubs in England. Nelson watched cricket here.

Mordern Lodge. Image @Tony Grant

Going west from Mitcham Cricket club back towards Merton is Mordern Lodge. It is set back from the road and set within some beautiful grounds. It is a private residence surrounded by lawns, shrubs and trees and can be just glimpsed from the road. Here lived in the 19th century Abraham Goldsmid, an eminent Jewish banker of Anglo Dutch decent. He was a senior partner in one of the Capitals most powerful brokerage firms, Goldsmid. He had friends in high places – The Prince Regent, Sheridan, the playwright William Pitt, and the prime minister were friends, and Nelson himself was a personal, close friend. They lived virtually next to each other.

After Nelson’s death, Abraham and a group of fellow trustees gave Emma Hamilton £3,700 to save her from spiralling debt.

Eagle House. Imge @Tony Grant

A mile and a bit north of Merton Place are Wimbledon Village and Wimbledon Common. There is a very elegant and unusually designed house called Eagle House in the village, once owned by the Reverend Thomas Lancaster. Nelson visited when it was a school for young noblemen and gentlemen. After Nelson’s visit it was renamed “Nelson House School.”

Tile panel on The Nelson Arms. Image @Tony Grant

Wimbledon and South London do not look the same as in Nelson’s day but he would recognise some of it. Wimbledon Common and much of the village has not changed much since his day. He would certainly recognise some buildings, but Merton Place, the house and grounds he loved so much, no longer exist. He would think he was in some alien landscape.

Written by Jane Austen’s World contributor, Tony Grant, London Calling.

 

The Princess Royal Pub on the Nelson Estate. Image @Tony Grant

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Pub sign, Princess Alexandra Pub. Image @Tony Grant

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Emma, Lady Hamilton is best known by the casual history fan for her love affair with Lord Nelson. Born in poverty, she first plied her alluring wares in a brothel before becoming Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh’s mistress. When she became pregnant, he unceremoniously dumped her. But Emma was too stunningly beautiful to live a life of squalor, and the Honorable Charles Greville next picked her to become his mistress. It was through Greville’s connections that she met painter, George Romney, whose obsession with her beauty resulted in a score of memorable paintings. (He continued to paint her portrait even after she left England.)

Emma as Circe, George Romney

Emma loved Charles, but he needed money, so when he met a woman of means in 1786,  he trundled Emma off to his widowed uncle in Naples, Italy, and thus Emma’s association with Sir William Hamilton began. Sir William was a diplomat and an avid art collector of classical statuary, urns and vases, which filled his villa in Portici overlooking the Bay of Naples. A connoisseur, he deeply appreciated Emma’s beauty, intelligence and special talents, not the least among which were her acting skills, hostessing abilities, and aptitude for learning new languages.

Caricature of Emma Hamilton as an artist’s model posing in an “Attitude”, Thomas Rowlandson

Sir William Hamilton

Emma’s stint as Romney’s model had given her experience posing in various classical guises. She’d also had the dubious distinction earlier in her career in London, of having worked as a scantily clad model and dancer – or “Goddess of Health” –  at Dr. Graham’s Temple of Health and Hymen, which claimed to cure the reproductive and sexual problems of couples. Emma  used her “theatrical” experiences to develop her “Attitudes”.  In helping Emma design her act, Sir William, whose knowledge of the imagery on classical vases was authoritative, used ancient Roman pantomimes as a model. The result of their collaboration was a silent performance that combined poses, classical dance and acting with Emma’s special allure. Emma gave her first showing in spring of 1787 to a group of European guests. Sir William held the lights and introduced his wife, as he would do for all her theatrics.

The Attitudes of Lady Hamilton, 1791, Novelli

The poses were an immediate hit. Emma moved through her routine within a tall black box surrounded by a gold picture frame, using only a shawl or urn for a prop. (Although she must have occasionally used a child, as included in these images.) For her “Attitudes”, Emma  wore simple white-draped garments that fitted loosely and allowed her long hair to flow free. Her dresses were modeled on those worn by peasant women in the Bay of Naples. Sitting, standing, leaning, or kneeling, or posing as Medea or Cleopatra, she seemed to step right off the antique vases that her husband collected.

Portland Vase, British Museum, once owned by Sir William Hamilton

Emma’s repertoire was large and made up of at least 200 poses. During a performance she moved from one silent tableau to the other with great rapidity, delicacy. and deliberateness in what one writer termed ‘bursts of stillness.’ The private and select audiences would attempt to guess the names of the classical characters and scenes from stage and literature that she pantomimed, and stare in awe at Emma’s ability to transform her moods and the scene in an instant. Out of necessity, earlier viewings remained private, for Sir William and Emma were not married.

The couple did eventually marry  in London in 1791 at St. George’s Church in Hanover Square. Sir William was 61 and his wife was 26. After their wedding, the Hamiltons returned to their home in Italy. They continued to perform the “Attitudes, but now they could publicly and conspicuously invite a much larger and more diverse audience. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, had been invited to watch a performance during a visit to Naples. Impressed, he wrote:

The Chevalier Hamilton so long resident here as English Ambassador, so long too connoisseur and student of Art and Nature, has found their counterpart and acme with exquisite delight in a lovely girl, English, and some twenty years of age. She is exceedingly beautiful and finely built. She wears a Greek garb becoming her to perfection. She then merely loosens her locks takes a pair of shawls, and effects changes of postures, moods, gestures, mien, and appearance that make one really feel as if one were in some dream. Here is visible complete and bodied forth in movements of surprising variety, all that so many artists have sought in vain to fix and render. Successively standing, kneeling, seated, reclining, grave, sad, sportive, teasing, abandoned, penitent, alluring, threatening, agonised. One follows the other and grows out of it. She knows how to choose and shift the simple folds of her single kerchief for every expression, and to adjust it into a hundred kinds of headgear. Her elderly knight holds the torches for her performance, and is absorbed in his soul’s desire.

Lady Emma Hamilton as the Goddess of Health, 1790, Cosway

There must have been something titillating and erotic about Emma’s act, for her poses, although inspired by classical motifs, also drew upon her earlier experiences as a “Goddess of Health” in London and her erotic performances dancing naked for Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh’s friends on his dining table. Her fame spread far and wide, and Emma, Lady Hamilton’s “Attitudes” became a big draw on Europe’s Grand Tour. Painters and writers sought out her performances, which charmed aristocrats and royals as much as artists and the literary set.  Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun observed:

“Nothing was more curious than the faculty that Lady Hamilton had acquired of suddenly imparting to all her features the expression of sorrow or joy, and of posing in a wonderful manner in order to represent different characters. Her eyes alight with animation, her hair strewn about her, she displayed to you a delicious bacchanale, then all at once her face expressed sadness, and you saw an admirable repentant Magdalene.” – Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

Lady Emma Hamilton, 1794, Rehberg

The black and white Rehberg illustrations featured in this post and commisioned by Sir William,  are drawn with simple, graceful and classical lines and freeze a particular “Attitude”. Their idealistic poses are among the few visual reminders that remain of Emma, Lady Hamilton as a performance artist. As the images show, Emma was a voluptuous, well-formed and beautiful woman. Her love for food and drink was no secret, and she would gain a substantial amount of weight over time, until at 47 she was described as being fat. But for a number of magical years, art, performance and beauty combined to create a series of tableaus that are still remembered today for their freshness and originality.

Emma Hamilton, 1794, Friedrich Rehberg, engraver and Tommaso Piroli, illustrator

Read about Lady Hamilton’s later years and sad death in this link.

To learn more about Emma’s fascinating skills, watch a lecture by John Wilton-Ely. His talk is on the ” performances by Lady Emma Hamilton, one of the most celebrated beauties of her era and a remarkable pioneer in developing performance art.”  Click here to watch the lecture. (A little over an hour long but well worth the time.)

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