Romantic Circles Gallery
Dido in Despair!
An obese and rosy Lady Emma Hamilton in a white nightgown and nightcap sits up in her bed with arms and legs splayed outward, pushing the sea-foam green curtains of the canopy back. Her gaze is directed outside the window, through which the British Navy fleet is seen departing into the horizon under the auspices of Horatio Nelson. Her husband William Hamilton lays sleeping in her shadow. A woman’s vanity table, covered with jewelry, combs, and makeup, sits at the foot of the bed. Various antiquities in poorly preserved states litter the floral carpet. A blue ribbon that says “Hero of the Nile” and a book open to a page reading “Antiquities…Naples” with the page opposite depicting a monster chasing a naked woman are also on the floor. Another book, reading “Studies of Academic Attitudes” opposite a picture of a voluptuous woman reclining on her back, sits on the red-cushioned window seat. In the frame of the print four lines of verse are split across the main title: “Ah where, & ah where, is my gallant Sailor gone? / He’s gone to fight the Frenchman, for George upon the throne / He’s gone to fight the Frenchmen, t’loose the other Arm & Eye, / And left with me with the old Antique, to lay me down and cry.”
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Copyright, 2009.
Printing ContextDido in Despair! was published in Hannah Humphrey’s print shop at 27 St. James Street, London on February 6, 1801.
Associated EventsThe love affair between Lady Emma Hamilton and Captain Horatio Nelson had been in full swing for over a year at the time of this print’s publication in February, 1801. Only one week earlier, in fact, she had borne her first of three children by him, and the Hamiltons-Nelson trio, whose goings-on were made known to the public via various newspapers and journals, was in London. The print refers to a slightly earlier time, picturing Emma in the late stages of pregnancy and Nelson leaving for another naval assignment; in the years between 1800 and 1805 he alternately fulfilled his naval duties in the Mediterranean and Baltic seas and spent time with Lady Hamilton, either at Merton Palace (bought for her at his behest in 1802, decorated as a shrine to him), in Naples, or on his ships. At the time of this print’s publication, William Hamilton had not acknowledged his wife’s obvious adulterous relationship with their mutual friend (N. Rodger, "Nelson, Horatio" Oxford DNB).
Associated PlacesThe Two Sicilies: The island shared by Naples and Palermo is important for its geographical location, which opened it more than any other non-French Mediterranean island to French advances throughout the closing decade of eighteenth and the early nineteenth century. Its internal politics were difficult during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, caught between the French and Jacobin sympathizers and the Bourbon loyalists. Sir William Hamilton spent the majority of his diplomatic career in Naples as envoy to the Spanish court, and it became an important shoring site for Admiral Horatio Nelson after his post-Battle of the Nile recuperation there in 1798 (G. Morson, "Sir William Hamilton" Oxford DNB).
The British Royal Navy
Throughout the eighteenth century, the British Royal Navy grew in size and importance: by the Napoleanoic Wars during the early nineteenth century, more than 100,000 seamen comprised the force, the largest labor sector in Britain. Vying with the French for maritime supremacy, the British government's dedication to supporting its size, both in workforce and tonnage, made the Royal Navy the most competitive naval power in Europe. It was a key influence on the definition of "Britishness" for all levels of society. (M. Lincoln Representing the Royal Navy 7-11).
Associated TextsDido Forsaken, Sic Transit Gloria Regina by James Gillray, published May 21, 1787 by S.W. Fores, Picadilly Street, London also makes use of the classical story of Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas. It pictures Lady Fitzherbert as Dido on a pyre of logs (actually penises) watching Edmund Burke, Charles North, and her lover the Prince of Wales sail away in rowboat, declaring to have never seen her in their lives. From behind her, William Pitt blows the crown off of her head. The Death of Dido by Joshua Reynolds and W.S. Reynolds was a clear model for Gillray’s earlier Dido print.
SubjectAn obese and rosy Lady Emma Hamilton in a white nightgown and nightcap sits up in her bed with arms and legs splayed outward, pushing the sea-foam green curtains of the canopy back. Her gaze is directed outside the window, through which the British Navy fleet is seen departing into the horizon under the auspices of Horatio Nelson. Her husband William Hamilton lays sleeping in her shadow. A woman’s vanity table, covered with jewelry, combs, and makeup, sits at the foot of the bed. Various antiquities litter the floral carpet. A blue ribbon that says “Hero of the Nile” and a book open to a page reading “Antiquities…Naples” with the page opposite depicting a monster chasing a naked woman are also on the floor. Another book, open to “Studies of Academic Attitudes” opposite a picture of a voluptuous woman reclining on her back, sits on the red-cushioned window seat. In the frame of the print four lines of verse are split across the main title: “Ah where, & ah where, is my gallant Sailor gone? / He’s gone to fight the Frenchman, for George upon the throne / He’s gone to fight the Frenchmen, t’loose the other Arm & Eye, / And left with me with the old Antique, to lay me down and cry.”
ThemePictorial images within the print quickly identify the associated event, the scandalous pregnancy of Lady Emma Hamilton. The book lying open on the red cushioned window bench, depicting a reclining woman opposite the text “Studies of Academic Attitudes” refers to Emma’s career as a model and Hamilton’s development of her sitting “attitudes,” which were modeled after figures of classical antiquity. Her exaggerated but frantic physical stance here mocks these refined “attitudes.” The antiques on the floor and the reference to “the old Antique” in the frame text identify Hamilton’s role as an antiquarian, while the blue ribbon reading “Hero of the Nile” identifies Horatio Nelson in reference to his famous victory against the French at the mouth of the Nile.
Caricature depends on a language of exaggerated or manipulated physical aspects to make allusions and leverage satire. Here, Emma’s red cheeks, often used to represent inebriation, may also suggest Emma Hamilton’s sexual licentiousness. The massiveness of Emma Hamilton alludes not only to her famous voluptuousness but also to her pregnancy (K. Hart, James Gillray 45); at the time of this print’s publication she had borne Horatio Nelson’s daughter one week earlier (N. Rodger, Oxford DNB).
Gillray often used epigraphic texts in the frame of the print to make allusions to the print and its content and/or to its wider social, political, or artistic context. The catchy, rhymed verses here make light of Emma’s despair while identifying the associated event depicted by the print, Nelson’s departure for sea.
Another prevalent motif in both Gillray’s social and political caricature is the mixing of high and low content. The double role of Emma Hamilton as herself and as Dido refers to Aeneas’ abandonment of his Carthaginian queen to save Rome as an analog from classical antiquity for Nelson’s departure to fight France.
SignificanceDido in Despair! responds to the public’s thirst for images and information related to the scandalous trio that brought together the life of courtesan, politician/diplomat, and war hero. Overstating the prominence this party had in popular news is a challenge; their goings-on appeared daily in a variety of periodicals and their scandal was depicted by caricaturists from 1800 onward. Romney and Reynold’s use of Lady Emma Hamilton as a model made her all the more visible to a public enamored both with portraiture in general and with courtesan scandals. The level of Nelson’s devotion to Hamilton led him to compromise his responsibilities to the British Royal Navy—but in this print, Hamilton is the powerless figure, distraught at her being left “to the Old Antique.” She is also a ridiculous figure, framed with a sing-song verse when faced with an event of apparently--judging by her facial and body expression--epic proportions. In the romantic era, women who attempted to assert power over men were seen as threats to society as a whole (indeed, Nelson’s influence over the navy makes their affair a prime example); to invert this relationship is to allow the public to laugh at aristocratic sexual licentiousness and simultaneously hold to its principles on gender.
At the same time, Emma as Dido is not only a figure of powerlessness: she is raised as an artisitc model through classical allusion. In the ironic mixture of Emma as caricaturized self and as Dido, aristocratic absurdity and high art converge in order to make explicit the disparity between them. Furthermore, Gillray’s refashioning and exaggeration of one of Emma’s “Attitudes” and his ironic conceptualization of her as Dido, critique the romantic aesthetic paradigm, the dictators of which embraced the appropriation of the classical figure in portraiture but did not embrace engraving. Sir Hamilton’s well-recognized prominence as an antiquarian and his development of her “Attitudes” also reflects the importance allotted to the classic model. Romney, in fact, had earlier painted Emma Hamilton as Ariadne at her husband’s behest (N. Rodger, "Horatio Nelson" Oxford DNB). In the print, he sleeps in Emma’s shadow as evidence of his wife’s affair litters his own apartment: the antiquarian’s honor is shaken without him recognizing it, or caring about it: reportedly, he was more distressed at the loss of some of his collection than at the dangers presented to his wife in the multiple sea escapes made from Palermo (N. Rodger, "Horatio Nelson" Oxford DNB). Thus, Emma’s double role provides for a double irony, critiquing both the aspiring and charismatic woman and the "elite" aesthetic preferences.
FunctionDido in Despair! relays to the public the scandalous pregnancy of Lady Emma Hamilton by Admiral Horatio Nelson in a comical critique of the national figures' sexual licentiousness in general. It also makes a statement about the prominent definition of “high aesthetics” in romantic-era painting.
BibliographyHart, Katherine W. James Gillray: Prints by the Eighteenth Master of Caricature. Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2004.
Lincoln, Margarette. Representing the Royal Navy: British Seapower, 1750-1815. Greenwhich: Ashgate, 2002.
Morson, Geoffrey V. “Hamilton, Sir William.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Oct 2007. 30 March 2009
Pocock, Tom. “Hamilton, Emma, Lady Hamilton. ” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2007. 30 March 2009
Rodger, N.A.M. “Nelson, Horatio, Viscount Nelson.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn Oct 2007. 30 March 2009
Long TitleDido in Despair!
6 February 1802