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.
Dido in Despair! was published in Hannah Humphrey’s print shop at 27 St. James Street, London on February 6, 1801.
The 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).
Lady Emma Hamilton (bap. 1765, d. 1815): Lady Emma Hamilton was born in Ness, Cheshire to the blacksmith Henry Lyon and his wife Mary Lyon, who raised Emma after Lyon died when she was one month old. In London, she originally found work as a nursemaid in 1778, and three years later, after a “brush with the demi-monde” settled in Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh’s country mansion in Sussex. This relationship marked her entry into renowned, lifelong mistresshood and morally questionable promiscuity in British society’s most public echelons; she proved herself comfortable, even commanding and clever, in this role, though it often brought her societal scorn. Emma bore her first daughter in the spring of 1782. After her time with Fetherstonhaugh, Emma Hamilton (then Emma Hart) settled with his friend Charles Francis Greville at his estate in Paddington. Through Greville, she met George Romney and Joshua Reynolds, who were the first of a variety of contemporary painters to find her voluptuous figure and heart-shaped face attractive for a portrait sitter. She also met Sir William Hamilton, Greville’s uncle, who commissioned these initial portraits. Greville, wishing to replace Emma with a profitable marriage, encouraged his uncle’s interest in Emma. She moved to Naples where Hamilton was envoy in 1786, and the couple married in 1791. Emma’s introduction into the arts and into Hamilton’s interests in antiquities included voice training and posing in “what became known as her “Attitudes”, posing in classical robes in imitation of the figures on the antique Greek vases Sir William collected, while he acted as master of ceremonies” (T. Pocock, "Hamilton, Emma" Oxford DNB).
Emma met Captain Horatio Nelson in 1793 when he was sent to Naples on a diplomatic mission. Shortly after his return to the island in 1798, made to recuperate from the Battle of the Nile, Hamilton, Emma, and Nelson fell in together and became a prominent trio in the British Neapolitan political and upper-class spheres. Nelson and Emma consummated their affair in 1798 after she demonstrated her bravery in the royal family’s escape from Naples, and she bore the first of three children by him in January 1801. Sir Hamilton did not acknowledge his wife’s affair until 1803, though her adultery was public knowledge and had been taken up by print and caricature by 1800, and had had a marked impact on Nelson’s position in military matters. In 1802, Emma purchased Merton Palace near Wimbeldon at Nelson’s behest, such that he could have a place to host the Hamiltons and see his granddaughter. She decorated it as a shrine to Nelson. He was extremely devoted to her, and she at times played off of his devotion, manipulating relationships with his friends and using his jealous tendencies to her advantage. Following her husband’s death in 1803 and Nelson’s in 1805, she continued living an extravagant lifestyle at Merton, expended her inheritance, and accumulated enough debt to be sent to the Debtor’s Prison in Southwark. After leaving Southwark in 1813, she spent the final two years of her life suffering an addiction to alcohol and surviving under the care of her daughter Horatia in Calais, France, where she died on January 15, 1815 (T. Pocock, "Hamilton, Emma" Oxford DNB).
Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758-1805): Horatio Nelson was born at Norfolk to Reverend Edmund Nelson (1722–1802), a rector, and Catherine (1725–1767), a great-niece of Sir Robert Walpole and a cousin of Horatio, the second Lord Walpole (who became Nelson's godfather). He gained his first sea experience on a merchantman in the West Indies in 1773, and became a second-lieutenant following his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling’s promotion to controller of the navy in 1777. Over the next fifteen years, Hamilton demonstrated his bravery and daring in a variety of international naval episodes. At times, his unchecked energy led to problems with higher authority. He married Frances Herbert Nisbet ([née Woolward] 1761–1831) in March 1787, whom he had met a year earlier in Nevis. Frances had never lived outside the West Indies, and she struggled through the English winters. The couple remained childless. War with France brought him out of a lapse of activity, and his heroic boarding of the San Nicolas and San Josef in the battle of St. Vincent alighted the public’s admiration; furthermore, Nelson proactively fomented his own public image to the resentment of some of his fellow officers. For example, he gave an interview intended for the press and worked to publicize a narrative account of his successes. Nelson was knighted and promoted to rear-admiral. A year later, after searching for a large French fleet in the Mediterranean and then routing them in the Abu Qir Bay, Nelson solidified his hero-status in the legendary Battle of the Nile. The most spectacular event of the battle was the explosion of the Bellerophon: ‘Victory is certainly not a name strong enough for such a scene,’ Nelson wrote to his wife. The victory contributed not only to Nelson’s popular public image and the title "Hero of the Nile," but also a renewed attempt for an international coalition against France. Furthermore, it was important for the Two Sicilies, the contested region most exposed to France. Nelson was received by the Neapolitan court, including the British minister, Sir William Hamilton, and his wife Emma. Soon the tense position between a French invasion, provoked by the island's queen, and a restless Neapolitan populace necessitated an evacuation of the royal family and court. Lady Hamilton’s bravery in the journey—a sick young soldier died in her arms—incited Nelson’s admiration. He began to look to her for emotional support in his lonely and overworked state. The two fell into an intense affair that lasted until the end of his life and produced three children. Their love went unacknowledged and unchecked by Sir Hamilton until the year of his death, 1803. Frances and Admiral Nelson became estranged after his return to Britain with the Hamiltons in 1800.
Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo dealt with a French satellite republic under the control of the Neapolitan aristocracy while Nelson remained ashore in Palermo to protect the king and queen at their insistence. However, a naval crisis called him temporarily to sea and upon his return, Nelson, unrelentingly hateful of the French, cancelled an armistice into which Ruffo had entered: “Nelson's political opinions were conservative and uncomplicated: he hated Frenchmen and Jacobins” (N. Rodger, Oxford DNB). Many rebels were executed and Nelson was accused of treachery, though the event was the result of a miscommunication that may have been consciously supported by the Hamiltons, more savvy than Nelson in terms of politics. However, Nelson found Emma irresistible, so much so that he began to prioritize his love affair over his naval duties, often to the dismay of the ministers in Britain and his fellow officers. For example, he was not at sea to intercept Napoleon Bonaparte coming back from Tenerife in 1799. Once again leaving Palermo to escape French agression, Hamilton, Nelson, and Emma’s international tour brought the affair into the public sphere: “Everywhere Nelson was received with the greatest honour; everywhere close observation of the tria juncta in uno (as Emma Hamilton called their ménage à trois) aroused mingled amusement, regret, and disgust.” The peace of Amiens in 1802 allotted Nelson nineteen moths of rest from naval duties, in which time the public became fully aware of his relationship with Emma. On October 21, 1805 the British Royal Navy achieved a decisive victory over a combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars. In part credited to Admiral Nelson’s tactical decisions, the victory also included the death of Britain’s greatest naval war hero. Nelson was mortally wounded by a musket-ball fired from the French Redoubtable. N. Rodger’s clarification of the circumstances of Nelson’s death—that he was not necessarily the intended target, that he was wearing a normal uniform coat, that he did not “court death” in battle—points to the power of the popular public imagination in memorializing and mythicizing their most prized naval hero. The fleet returned his body to Britain preserved in spirits, where crowds overwhelmed Greenwich Hospital as the body lay in state for three days. At the funeral procession and burial on January 8, 1806, more vast crowds were moved by the seamen’s tearing and saving of the “colors” instead of burying them atop the coffin (N. Rodger, "Nelson, Horatio" Oxford DNB).
Sir William Hamilton (1731–1803): Sir William Hamilton was a British envoy-extraordinary to Naples, a naturalist, and collector of antiquity and art. Hamilton was born in either London or Berkshire to Lord Archibald Hamilton (1673–1754), a lord commissioner of the Admiralty, and Lady Jane Hamilton (d. 1752). He grew up in a metropolitan household lifestyle and his mother’s affair with Frederick, Prince of Wales, facilitated the childhood friendship between Hamilton and the future George III. Hamilton attended Westminster school from 1739 to 1746, after which he became an ensign in the 3rd regiment of foot guards and later equerry to the young Prince of Wales. He left the army in 1758, five years after being promoted lieutenant. In the same year he married his first wife Catherine (1738-1782), with whom he shared a love for music. In 1761 Hamilton entered parliament in support of the king’s party, but left his seat in the Commons for a diplomatic career as envoy-extraordinary to the Spanish Court at Naples. Naples, the third largest city in Europe at the time, satiated Hamilton’s thirst for art, architecture, science, literature, and music, while its geography developed his interest in vulcanology; his 1776 publication "Campi phlegraei" contributed to the popularity of the subject in art and poetry, and to Vesuvius’ place in the British grand tour. Indeed, his “diplomatic duties seem to have occupied little of his time or thought.” During the war with France, however, they included an effort to prevent a Sicilian and French alliance. The Hamiltons owned various properties in the region, and received many foreign visitors, “as calling upon the Hamiltons became de rigueur for anyone of taste or refinement or importance visiting Naples” (G. Morson, "Sir William Hamilton" Oxford DNB).
Hamilton was an avid collector of arts and antiquities and self-promoted his collection, the creation of which often brought him into debt and the numbers of which are impressive: over 350 paintings, over 600 bronzes, over 1000 Greek vases. In 1772 Hamilton was knighted and elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Catherine died of a fever in August 1782 and Hamilton spent the year of 1783 in London, in which time he met his nephew Charles Francis Greville’s lover Emma [née Lyon] Hart and commissioned her portrait by both Romney and Reynolds. Emma and Hamilton married in 1791, but her morally questionable reputation prevented her becoming ambassadress; however, her time spent with Marie Antoinette in Paris validated her acceptance at King Ferdinand IV and Maria Carolina’s Neapolitan court and she became a close consort to the queen. Alluding to her voluptuousness and affinity for posing and modeling, Horace Walpole suggested that Hamilton’s motivations for marriage were in part based on her likeness to his “gallery of statues” (G. Morson, quoting Walpole, Oxford DNB). The entrance of maritime hero Admiral Nelson into The Two Sicilies led to his wife’s affair and to the creation of the infamous trio. During the French Revolution, the diplomatic challenges newly presented to Hamilton, mainly monitoring and repressing the Jacobin uprisings, weakened his health. After the recapture of Naples in 1799 (now controlled by Neapolitan aristocracy), Hamilton’s lack of neutrality—he clearly supported the queen’s party—as envoy contributed to his removal from his position in 1800. The affair between Emma and Nelson was already public knowledge, and upon his return to England he was largely shunned by the King George III and other important royal and political figures. His cuckholdry was mocked in both visual and written print. He lived out the final years of his life with Nelson and Emma, and declined in health until he died in April 1803 with the two of them at his side (G. Morson, Oxford DNB).
The 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).
Dido 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.
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 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.”
Pictorial 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.
Dido 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.
Dido 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.
Hart, Katherine W. James Gillray: Prints by the Eighteenth Master of Caricature. Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2004.
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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
Dido in Despair!
6 February 1802