Some women’s history: Lady Hamilton movie and exhibit

Emma, Lady Hamilton. By Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

Emma, Lady Hamilton is a complicated and important figure from the Regency period. She was a cultural figure and diplomat. History remembers her for many of her controversies, including being the lover of British naval hero Lord Nelson.

There is currently an exhibit about Lady Hamilton at a book club in New York city. More info about “The Enchantress: Emma, Lady Hamilton”, at the Grolier Club until April 30, 2011, can be found at their link, and at the “read more” below.

I have become fascinated with Lady Hamilton party because of the movie “That Hamilton Woman”, with Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton, and with Leigh’s then husband, Laurence Olivier, as Lord Horatio Nelson. The movie is exquisite.

My favorite part of the movie is the way it explores the relationships between men and women, caught in a sexist society, where divorce is more of a shame than affairs, courtesans, or cruelty. And, I love the line uttered by the character of Lord Nelson, “That’s the way people look at these things. They do not believe in a friendship between a man and a woman.” I think that the tension that occurs — partly by nature, partly by a skeptical, sexist society — when a man and a woman try to be friends or colleagues is a large part of the energy that keeps women from succeeding in business, or fairly taking part in governing.

For an excellent review of the Grolier Club exhibit, see the Scandalous Women article: here. A quick biography of Emma, Lady Hamilton can be found at one of my favorite history blogs, The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century: here.

Info on the exhibit:Link to description of event:
http://www.grolierclub.org/Default.aspx?p=DynamicModule&pageid=289912&ssid=169182&vnf=1

Grolier Club in NYC presents…
The Enchantress: Emma, Lady Hamilton
Curated by Jean Kislak & Arthur Dunkelman

In the ground floor gallery
February 16-April 30, 2011
The exhibit will be open to the public free of charge,
Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

An exhibition on the extraordinary life and legacy of Emma, Lady Hamilton will be on display at the Grolier Club in New York from February 16 through April 30, 2011. The exhibition, The Enchantress: Emma, Lady Hamilton, will feature the Jean Kislak collection of manuscripts, books and art related to Lady Hamilton and her era, including the events that shaped her life and the men she helped shape – most prominently Sir William Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero.

Among many exceptional items in the exhibit are oil portraits of Emma Hamilton by famed British painters George Romney and Sir Thomas Lawrence as well as the earliest known letter from Lord Nelson to Emma, 13 June 1798, written aboard HMS Vanguard just before the decisive Battle of the Nile, when the English destroyed the French fleet.

“That Hamilton Woman”

Loved, celebrated and abandoned, Emma Hamilton was among the most colorful characters in English history. She refused to accept the norms of her society; instead, she used her beauty and charisma to cross the boundaries of class, sex, geography and wealth. Her sphere of influence spanned theater, art and music; as well as international society and diplomacy.

Born Amy Lyon, daughter of a poor country blacksmith, she reinvented herself as the glamorous Emma Hart while still in her teens, and by 26 had become Emma, Lady Hamilton, wife of Sir William Hamilton, the 61-year-old British envoy to the court of Naples. Her beauty was legendary; her portrait was painted repeatedly by famous artists of her day, most notably by Romney, whose obsession with her led him to create at least 60 portraits and historic allegories inspired by Emma’s image.

The Kislak collection includes three outstanding Romney portraits of Emma, as well as a Romney painting of Charles Greville, Emma’s early paramour, and a portrait of Sir William Hamilton by William Beechey.

Emma is best known for her love affair with Admiral Nelson, the brilliant naval commander [who fought to stop Napoleon Bonaparte] whose statue stands today atop a 185-foot-tall column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Their scandalous affair – both were married to others – was one of the most famous in history and remains a subject of fascination. More than two hundred years later, newspaper articles, books and movies continue to be written. Emma Hamilton is even a popular topic on the Internet.

Emma’s life is revealed touchingly through the Kislak collection, a rich historic trove of letters, books, art works and personal effects. The collection also includes an array of 20th century works inspired by her romantic and tragic story – including novels, biographies, a theater program from a 1920s London play, a movie poster for Alexander Korda’s 1941 historical drama, That Hamilton Woman, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and the first draft of a television screenplay, A Bequest to the Nation, by Terence Rattigan.

During their lifetimes, Nelson and Emma made a pact to destroy the letters received from one another. Nelson kept his promise and destroyed Emma’s letters, but Emma broke her word, so many of Nelson’s letters to her still exist. The Kislak collection includes 11 of them.

Jean Kislak, collector and connoisseur, has studied Emma’s history for more than 25 years, assembling a collection that reveals the scope and depth of Emma’s colorful life. In addition to original letters spanning the period from 1765 to 1807, the collection also includes a diversity of art and objects – such as a portfolio of prints of Emma in theatrical poses, sheet music signed by Emma, an 1805 commemorative silver pill box with Nelson’s portrait in cameo, a collection of Emma’s financial papers, and an account book in which a youthful Emma Hart documented her spending on everyday items such as sugar, coffee and thread.

The Grolier Club exhibition will include one of the larger and more personal objects in the Kislak collection, the wooden cradle that held baby Horatia, the daughter born to Emma and Nelson in 1801.

LOCATION AND TIME: The Enchantress: Emma, Lady Hamilton will be on view at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York, from February 16 through April 30, 2011. The exhibit will be open to the public free of charge, Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Additional information and directions are available under the “Exhibitions” tab of the navigation menu at left.

CATALOGUE: An illustrated catalog of The Enchantress: Emma, Lady Hamilton will be available at the Grolier Club and from the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Miami Lakes, Florida, www.kislakfoundation.org.

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