The story of Horatio Nelson may be filled with blood and honour, heroism and sacrifice but it is essentially an uncomplicated one, of a man on his ever-rising trajectory to greatness.

In this story Emma Hamilton is a margin note – the captivating lover that stole his heart and carried the daughter he could not acknowledge and would never really know.

As Nelson, after death, moved from national hero to deity – the embodiment of Empire itself – Emma became an irritating moral blot on the great man’s legacy. So a prudish Victorian society assigned her a new role – that of wanton temptress.

For Emma (1765-1815), the idea that her identity would be shaped by a society’s fascination and revulsion, would have come as no surprise. It was, in essence, the story of her life, a journey that is, in its way, as compelling, courageous and extraordinary as the life of her lover.

Celebrity and reinvention

It is, also, an amazingly modern tale of a female celebrity and reinvention. Beauty encourages brashness, it elevates, then overshadows, true talent and, when beauty fades, all that went before is quickly condemned, as if the enchanted come to their senses and castigate the object of their fascination for their own dark impositions.

“A pretty woman is not always a fool,” she wrote. And yet she was gifted to her elderly husband like one of his antiquities.

Emma in a white head-dress, George Romney, 1784

“The prospect of possessing so delightful an object causes me some pleasing sensations,” wrote Sir William Hamilton to the man who, to be rid of her, had sent his lover as a mistress to his uncle. Yet Sir William too would be dazzled by her, providing her with marriage, respectability and entry into regal circles.

All this for a girl Emma born in dire poverty who may have been a child prostitute and certainly gave birth to a child in her early teens. She was to captivate Europe with her beauty and achievements and was feted by kings and queens but the story was to have a tragic end as, abandoned by her society friends and branded an adulteress, she was imprisoned for debt and died in exile in Calais at the age of 49.

Difficult to label

Curator Quintin Colville said: “Emma Hamilton in the public mind is thoroughly associated with Nelson.

“It’s a very well entrenched stereotype which has some truth but which also conceals a far more complex, far more remarkable and far more spectacular life story in which her own talents, her risk-taking creativity has often been forgotten.

“We’re taking you through a procession of identities that Emma moved through one after the other through her life because she is someone who is remarkably difficult to label.

“She moves between different personas and what we really want to do is replace simplicity with complexity in the sense that this is a remarkable woman with myriad faces.”

Dido in Despair, James Gillray, 1801

Emma Hamilton: Seduction And Celebrity at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich , aims to tell her story through her own eyes, not through the eyes of the men who would possess her. On display are more than 200 objects, many of which have never been on public show before.

Highlights

Highlights from the exhibition includes exceptional fine art by George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence; key letters from Emma and her lovers; Emma’s personal possessions including one of the betrothal rings exchanged between her and Nelson; her songbooks and decorative objects that illustrate her celebrated attitudes.

Many objects from Emma’s life are missing. She was in a penniless state and sentimental objects were sold or gifted for favours.

She once owned the coat still holed by the musket ball that killed Nelson but that she gave to a benefactor. It is the star exhibit of the National Maritime Museum and a key object in this exhibition.

Until April 2017, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, November 3, 2016–April 17, 2017, Adult £14, Child £7, Concession £6