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Pantomime, Connoisseurship, Consumption: Emma Hamilton and the Politics of Embodiment

When Pygmalion's Galatea, whom he had fashioned exactly after his dreams, endowing her with as much reality and existence as an artist can, finally came up to him and said, "here I am," how different was the living woman from the scupltured stone.[1]

  1. In his introduction to the Oxford edition of Corinne, John Claiborne Isbell writes that Germaine De Stael had Emma Hamilton in mind when composing her heroine's narrative.[2] Chloe Chard also brings Corinne and Emma Hamilton together as comparative Italian tourist sites.[3] For Chard, De Stael's heroine and Emma Hamilton can apparently both be read in terms of the ways in which they as women represent the warm south's spectacular fascination; how they unite notions of the natural with theatricality; and how they themselves embody a culture of fashionable travel, dilettantism, imperial desire, sexual excess and a particular acquisitive fantasy of the past. Suggestive as Chard's reading is, there are important differences between De Stael's genius-heroine (a figure whose intellect and independence stimulate her creativity) and the notorious society beauty whose "attitudes" animated audiences across Europe. Corinne, as other essays in this issue point out, offers a deeply critical account of the notions of gender which inhibit and ultimately destroy its heroine. In fact, Corinne might be read as a critique of, rather than a parallel to, the feminine stereotypes that Emma Hamilton was so often said to embody. This essay might be read, then, as a further exploration of the critical account De Stael's novel offers of such stereotypes, and particularly the turn-of-the-Nineteenth-Century idea of femininity as performance, pantomime and picturesque display.
  2. "The prospect of possessing so delightful an object under my roof," Sir William Hamilton wrote to his nephew Charles Greville on the 25th April, 1786, "certainly causes in me some pleasing sensations." [4] The object in question was Emma Hart: artist's model, Greville's mistress and the latest addition to Sir William's collection of curiosities. Hart had travelled from London to Naples under the impression she was to spend a six-month sojourn in the Italian south. In fact, she was the principle article of exchange in a complex bargain between uncle and nephew. Greville secured the freedom to make a good marriage and was reassured of his status as his uncle's beneficiary. In return, Sir William received a woman reputed to possess the face of a goddess and the figure of a statue. Hart's beauty was already celebrated in a series of portraits by Romney and Reynolds, and Hamilton found in her a modern embodiment of antique femininity, the final focus of his dilettantism. "There is two painters now in the house painting me," Hart wrote to Greville three months after her arrival in Naples, "as soon as these is finished ther is two more to paint me & Angeleca if she comes & Marchmont is to cut a head of me for a ring."[5] Over the decade that followed, Hamilton saw the features of his future wife fixed and rendered in pencil, oil and charcoal, in chalcedony and cornelian. But what spread Emma Hart's fame far beyond the walls of Sir William's connoisseur's cabinet was her pantomimic impersonation of a range of classical and contemporary feminine figures-her "attitudes."
  3. By the time Emma Hart became Emma Hamilton she was, in effect, one of the major tourist attractions of the late eighteenth century.[6] As the next stop after Pompei and the Villa Borghese, painters, poets and visitors completing their classical education on the continent gathered at Sir William's Neapolitan villa to witness her attitudes. In this tableau vivant, marble appeared to be transformed into flesh as artworks were reinterpreted through performance and process.[7] Statues and paintings were briefly brought to life as Hamilton cited the characteristics of saints, goddesses, nymphs and sentimental heroines through arrested postures, swift bodily movement and the skilful manipulation of the two or three Indian shawls which constituted her drapery. With her spectators assembled, Hamilton, dressed in a simple chiton, crouched at one end of the room enveloped and concealed beneath her shawls. Then, rising and raising her drapery in much the same way as the sheet would be removed from a piece of statuary, she appeared before her audience, revealing a recognisable character before swiftly changing position to embody another figure. Most accounts of the attitudes suggest it was Hamilton's ability to shift between a range of characters, passions and expressions in a short space of time which was the most striking part of the display. Goethe's comments are probably the most famous. He writes:

    Sir William Hamilton, who is living here as English Ambassador, has now, after many years of devotion to the arts and the study of nature, found the acme of these delights in the person of an English girl of twenty with a beautiful face and a perfect figure. He has had a Greek costume made for her which becomes her extremely. Dressed in this, she lets down her hair and, with a few shawls, gives so much variety to her poses, gestures expressions &c that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes. He sees what thousands of artists would have liked to express realised before him in movements and surprising transformations, standing, kneeling, sitting, reclining, serious, sad, playful, ecstatic, contrite, alluring, threatening, anxious, one pose follows another without a break. She knows how to arrange the folds of her veil to match each mood and has a hundred ways of turning it into a headdress. The old knight idolises her and is enthusiastic about everything she does. In her, he has found all the antiquities, all the profiles of Sicilian coins, even the Apollo Belvedere. This much is certain: as a performance it's like nothing you ever saw before in your life.[8]

    The attitudes are frequently described as a sequence of discrete characters and their appropriate passions, yet here, Hamilton's individual poses seem less important than the effect produced by the performance as a whole. Its her mercuriality and her kaleidoscopic display of gesture and expression which render Goethe almost unable to believe his eyes. Both artwork and performer, Hamilton's proliferating femininities afford him the fantasy of a nameless, perpetual desire. His excitement is captured in the rapt catalogue of her multiple states, her shifting moods, her "surprising transformations". There's no mention of the end of the performance and it's as if Hamilton just goes on becoming without ever being. The attitudes are framed at the beginning and end of this passage by the aging gentleman connoisseur, Sir William Hamilton. His are, apparently, the libidinised pleasures of a Pygmalion regarding his Galetea realised. This living statue seems the last and best of his collection. Her performance functions as a final consummation of his tasteful connoisseurship, as a lifetime's knowledge of nature, art and antiquity is enacted before his eyes.

  4. In the few critical readings of Hamilton's attitudes that currently exist, the elements of movement and variability, so central to Goethe's account of the performance, are generally overlooked in favour of discussion of the individual figures she embodied. Volker Schachenmayr, for example, regards the attitudes as "essentially static" and suggests that Hamilton's "function in Sir. William's household was consistently to alternate between her physical presence and her easy transition into a static, pictorial space."[9] Similarly, in his comments on the attitudes, Richard Wendorf reads Hamilton's performance through the isolated identification of the singular passions and physiognomy associated with each character she personified.[10] The tendency is to interpret the attitudes as a sequence of fixed poses-a gallery of identifiable statues that live and breathe but do not disturb the spectator too much with their mutability, their mobility. This perception is perhaps reinforced by Frederick Rehberg's famous drawings of the attitudes, first published in 1794. Rehberg's series of stationary Hamiltons has (no doubt intentionally) the fixed, two-dimensional qualities of the Etruscan bas-reliefs and vase paintings in her husband's collection.[11] A second, widely held misconception is that Hamilton's attitudes took their exclusive inspiration from the goddesses of antiquity and their famous representations in the sculpture galleries of Rome, Venice and Naples. In fact, out of the twelve figures named in an early nineteenth-century edition of the Rehberg series, only five are identified as recognisable classical heroines.[12] That Hamilton's features and physique appeared to invite comparisons with those of the marble goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome there can be no doubt. Indeed, her husband actively encouraged such comparisons through his direction of her performances and his patronage of the artists that painted her. But Pygmalion and his gallery of living statues are only part of the story. In Goethe's account, Hamilton is not simply poised on the cusp between marble and flesh but is forever vacillating between a host of available classical and contemporary femininities. It is, perhaps, this sense of interminable variety-the speed of Hamilton's transformations and her medley of women from all ages, cultures and traditions-that provides the key to understanding her pantomimic display in its particular historical context.

  5. What's intriguing about Hamilton's attitudes in contemporary accounts, I think, is the way they often seem to defy or exceed their audience's expectations. Despite her viewers' manifest desire to see the rectitude of their judgement and the superiority of their taste reconfirmed in their recognition of each of Hamilton's impersonated heroines, the voices of many commentators on the attitudes are characterised by their disagreement and confusion. This confusion concerns the ways of ascribing meaning to the figures Hamilton embodied, thereby making sense of the performance as a whole. As Goethe's bewildered list of the verbs the attitudes invoke is enclosed by the figure of the connoisseur who controls and fixes their significance, so other spectators produced other stories, other frames to define and contain Hamilton's performance. In what follows, I examine the gendered and cultural implications of Emma Hamilton's mobile gallery of statues through three interrelated contextual frames. First, I examine contemporary debates on connoisseurship, polite taste and masculine spectatorship. Next, I explore how that notion of a feminised variety which the attitudes exemplify received articulation in late eighteenth-century theories of the picturesque. Finally, I look at the debate on femininity and consumption in the 1790s, for it is in the pages of the new style magazines and their discussions of fashionable femininity that Hamilton's attitudes are perhaps most clearly imbricated with the modernity of the culture which produced them.

    I: A Living Statue
  6. Late in 1791, Pietro Novelli, a Venitian artist, witnessed and produced a fascinating series of drawings of Hamilton and her attitudes.[13] His eight Hamiltons, with their adumbrated limbs and hair, their blurred lines and hazy shifts of light and shade, are figures caught by chance in motion rather than one fixed and posed for an artist's sitting. Unlike the Rehberg series, Novelli's drawing captures that sense of surprise and rapid transformation remarked upon by most of the attitudes' spectators. Rather than imitating a series of static bas-reliefs or statues, Hamilton is engaged here in a mobile performative process.
    While Novelli's drawing conveys the protean nature of the attitudes, it also discloses a visual story through which the spectator comprehends and connects its series of figures. The narrative continuity of her personifications is provided by the fluidity of bodily movement through which each figure is linked to its successor. Hamilton appears, through the use of her hair, drapery, countenance and gesture, to create a complete sequence which runs from the imposing figure of terror on the top left to the embodiment of indolence and satiety on the bottom right. This narrative of the passions follows the gradations of her body from the upright posture of tragic nobility to the reclining sensuousness of a bacchante. As the eye moves from one consecutive figure to the next, it produces a series of relations which binds these disparate feminine prototypes and the passions which they represent together. Novelli's narrative of the attitudes, then, is one which concerns the consummate grace of the female body in motion. Clearly too, it's a narrative about the progressive eroticisation of the feminine, as Hamilton begins in a state of classical imperturbability and ends in one of virtual undress.[14]
  7. Novelli produces a visual structure for making sense of the attitudes. But what, in the end, does this structure render comprehensible, and what does it disguise in its attempt at so doing? As I have already noted, in her attitudes, Hamilton embodied a proliferation of characters from different narrative traditions. In Novelli's drawing, these disparate figures are linked only by the arbitrary contiguity of Hamilton's graceful movement. The kneeling figure, for example, seems part of a fascinated Catholic or gothic vocabulary; the enraptured saint belongs to the Biblical sublime; the Roman matron inhabits the language of virtue and republican patriotism; the bacchante is associated with the pastoral or erotic; and the grieving figure clasping the ashes of her lover is firmly situated within the idiom of late eighteenth-century sentimentality. The attitudes present generic and cultural variety, lifting a range of femininities out of their original narrative contexts and historical traditions. Hamilton could, as many spectators commented, be Greek, Egyptian, Catholic, pagan, tragic, epic, sentimental, pastoral, all in a matter of minutes. Hamilton's attitudes partially disguised, or rather appeared to render the disparate contextual provenances of their heroines unimportant, concealing their non-unitary nature through the narrative contiguity of feminine display.
  8. The attitudes' double effect of physical continuity and narrative contiguity is neatly captured in Carlo Gastone's representative response to the performance. "I have never," he writes:

    …seen anything more fluid and graceful, more sublime and heroic; the English Apasia knows very well how to assume every part; thus, at one moment I was admiring her in the constancy of Sophonisba in taking the cup of poison…at another, the desperation of Gabriella de Vergy on discovering the heart of her warrior lover still beating in the fatal vase; afterwards, changing enance at a stroke, she fled, like the Virgillian Galatea who wishes to be seen among the willow after she has thrown the apple to the shepherd; or else she cast herself down like a drunken bacchante, extending an arm to a lewd satyr…[she] imitated to perfection now the Medusa of Rondaninni and of Strozzi, now the Marys at the Sepulchre of Annibale Carraci.[15]

    Gastone remarks on the attitudes' fluidity, inferring that the series of personifications is united by the sensuous grace of the performance, by Hamilton's corporeal narrative harmony. Yet, as he gravitates toward description of the individual figures, he is only able to provide a sense of their situatedness within their own singular narrative structures rather than illustrate their sequential relation to one another. Each figure has its own narrative history which Gastone imaginatively reconstructs. Hamilton's attitudes afford the gentleman viewer the pleasures of contemplation and conjecture. Their function here is to remind the man of taste of his capacity to appreciate the aesthetics of the feminine, to enjoy what is beautiful and pleasing, as well as to reaffirm him of his ability to assign meaning and value to the figures he's seeing represented.

  9. Yet far from providing a conclusive resolution to the performance, Gastone's extrapolation of the micro-narratives of each of Hamilton's heroines could seem partial, idiosyncratic or equivocal. For example, the attitude he identifies as Gabriella de Vergy is probably that more usually associated with the figure of Agrippina weeping over the ashes of Germanicus.[16] Rezonnico's Rondaninni Medusa might have been another's Medea, his Madonna someone else's Santa Rosa. In fact, while it is often assumed that the attitudes produce a sort of cultural consensus among their spectators-uniting an audience through their collective recognition of the various figures Hamilton embodied-there is actually a remarkable degree of uncertainty regarding exactly who she might be at any one time. Hamilton's attitudes were not, then, a cultural quiz to which there was one right answer, but a series of transferable feminine types available to be arrogated to their spectator's particular context of connoisseurship.[17] There is no totalising narrative defining or connecting her sequence of saints, goddesses, nymphs and sentimental heroines. There is no narrative because there is no singular explanatory framework capable of containing the representation of the various figures she enacts. However, the promise of narrative unity is offered to the viewer by Hamilton's graceful physical teleology, just as the promise of believing that one always knows what one sees is held out in the attitudes' invitation to recognise a particular representation in one of its disparate feminine types.
  10. Hamilton's attitudes-their particular solicitation of recognition and response; their evident sensuousness; their lack of narrative connection and their narrative similitude-should be understood within the context of the cultures of connoisseurship and consumption of the late eighteenth century. For a large part of that century, a predominant discourse of taste, judgement, and the masculine subjects capable of exercising them, had been one that stressed the values of restraint and rationality and the virtues of generalising. Through his capacity to extrapolate meaningful unity from particulars and through his denial of the erotic or arousing elements of the aesthetic the polite masculine spectator might see his identity reconfirmed in a shared republic of taste.[18] But the notional spectator solicited by Hamilton's attitudes is characterised by his partiality and his sensuality. He produces his own micro-narratives for each feminine type. He assigns them provisional rather than conclusive value. He appreciates the spectacle of the female body in motion. He has the leisure and possesses the means to acquire and accumulate disparate cultural referents through education, travel and connoisseurship. His tastes are varied and various, his pleasures apparently indiscriminate. His is an aesthetic caprice perhaps appropriate to the polite social milieu of expatriate Italy with its leisured tourists, artists and dilletantes, its culture of excavation, consumption and collection, and its despoiled antique curiosities.

  11. II: Connoisseurship and Curiosity

  12. In his Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste of 1790, Archibald Alison argues that rude or less cultivated societies tended to favour the qualities of uniformity, closure and cohesiveness in the arts, whereas "the great characteristic of the taste of polished ages" is the appreciation of the diverse, multiple and discontinuous. "The love of variety," he writes, "distinguish[es] the periods of cultivation and refinement."[19] According to Alison, a connoisseur receives pleasure and extends his taste and judgement through the appreciation of varied aesthetic objects whose primary relation is one of juxtaposition or contiguity. Objects agreeable to modern taste "first affect the mind with an emotion of surprise" and "produce afterwards an increased or additional train of imagery."[20] This process of contemplation, response, and reflection is remarkably similar to the reported effects of Hamilton's attitudes on their audience. For Alison, the exemplar of modern taste is found in the figure of the connoisseur, "in his cabinet, surrounded by the relics of former ages." The connoisseur's primary aesthetic impulses are inquisitive and acquisitive. He receives pleasure from curious objects and his own curiosity-collecting diverse articles of interest, amalgamating aesthetic variety, allowing his imagination free rein. His acquisitions afford him, writes Alison, "a thousand sources of imagery…an almost inexhaustible field in which his fancy may expatiate."[21]
  13. In Goethe's Italienische Reise, Sir William Hamilton is described as a figure whose aesthetic appreciation is based primarily on these values of variety, curiosity and contiguity. Goethe visits "Sir William's secret treasure vault",

    which was crammed with works of art and junk, all in the greatest confusion. Oddments from every period, busts, torsos, vases, bronzes, decorative implements of all kinds made of Scicilian agate, carvings, paintings and chance bargains of every sort, lay about all higgledy-piggledy. There was even a small chapel. Out of curiosity, I lifted the lid of a long case which lay on the floor and in it were two magnificent candelabra. I nudged Hackert and asked him in a whisper if they were not very like the candelabra in the Portici museum. He silenced me with a look. No doubt they somehow strayed here from the cellars of Pompei.[22]

    Goethe's description of the connoisseur and his collection is interestingly related to some earlier remarks in the Italienische Reise on the Villa Pallagonia. As Sir William's vault is characterised by its disorganised confusion, so the overriding effect of the Villa's collection is one of bewildering multiplicity. The courtyard is filled with "figures multiplied ad infinitum, designed without rhyme or reason, combined without discrimination or point, pedestals and monstrosities in one unending row." With consternation Goethe notes that:

    Oddly scrolled marble urns, inherited from the owner's father, and dwarfs and freaks of a later date, lay higgledy-piggledy, waiting to be found their right place. In addition [to their being] an arbour, crammed with antique vases and stone scrolls of various shapes….just inside the door one is confronted by the laurel wreathed head of a Roman emperor on the body of a dwarf who sits on a dolphin.[23]

    According to Goethe, this collection of objects is "not the product of calculation or even of caprice; they are merely accidental jumbles."

  14. What is intriguing about Goethe's response to the collections of Sir William Hamilton and Prince Pallagonia is the discursive proximity it reveals of a taste that he quite evidently regards as perverted and one that he is prepared to accept as judicious. Goethe describes Pallagonia as a "lunatic" with a "passion for…revolting shapes."[24] His dilletantism is apparently equivalent to the deformity of the objects displayed in and about his villa. Conversely, Sir William's taste is described throughout the Italienische Reise as prudent and sagacious. But what draws the two men together is the confused and indiscriminate natures of their respective collections. As the figures of the Roman emperor and the dwarf are rendered meaningless through their absurd juxtaposition, so Sir William's vault is a space where art seems indistinguishable from junk, where a chapel is reduced to the status of a chance bargain. Like Hamilton's attitudes, the objects of the Sicilian eccentric and the English connoisseur all originate from disparate contexts, styles and historical periods-they have no logical connection to each other save that of their being collected together. Both collections are finally characterised in Goethe's descriptions by their contiguity and discontinuity, their almost incomprehensible variety.
  15. What Goethe calls Pallagonia's "madness" might, in a sense, excuse the grotesque nonsense of his villa. His groups of figures and objects are described as "accidental jumbles" without intent or purpose, the creations of an eccentric mind and its diminished responsibility. For Goethe, then, Sir William's collection of objects is perhaps the product of the caprice or the calculation that the lunatic prince in his folly lacks. Carefully selected and acquired, the collection carries aesthetic value for Goethe despite its disorganised variousness and thus retains the capacity to inspire curiosity rather than disgust. Sir William's collection is gathered to the purpose of producing appreciative pleasure in himself and other connoisseurs. Yet this intentional relation between owner and possession, between the connoisseur and the objects through which he defines and expresses himself, could perhaps be read the other way. Just as the Prince's lunacy seems, in Goethe's account, almost a result of the absorption and dispersal of his identity in his disparate possessions, might not Sir William's indiscriminate hoarding and the desires and pleasures of obsessive acquisition suggest an identity as various and dissipated as the objects in his collection?
    The dissipation of the modern connoisseur was the stock in trade of British satirists. In John Wolcot's Lyric Epistle to Sir William Hamilton, the connoisseur is advised to,

    Leave not a dust-hole unexplor'd;
    Something shall rise to be ador'd-…
    …Old mats, old dish-clouts, dripping pans and spits,
    Would prove delectable to other wits;
    Gods legs, and legs of old joint stools,
    Would ravish all our antiquarian schools.[25]

    Connoisseurship here appears mere aesthetic caprice, a curiosity with no meaningful content. It is also available to be pilloried because of the nature of the pleasures it apparently affords. The terms Wolcot uses to describe the connoisseur's enjoyment of his objects (ador'd, delectable, ravish) intimate a taste as sensuous as it is indiscriminate. Sir William's ruling passion, his desire to acquire and appreciate antique junk, is represented here as a luxuriant perversion.

  16. In my discussion of Gastone's account of the attitudes, I noted three key responses Emma Hamilton elicited from her spectators. The initial effect was surprise or astonishment at the speed of the display and the sheer variety of her personifications. This was linked to the sensuous enjoyment of the performance, followed by imaginative conjecture as to the meanings of the range of figures embodied. Emptying her characters of their narrative connectedness, and obliterating the sense that these personifications could have any continuous purpose other than that of display, Emma Hamilton enacted the aesthetic of the connoisseur's cabinet. In a similar manner to Sir William's vault of hoarded objects, the pleasures the attitudes afforded were those of variety, curiosity and juxtaposition. Unlike the collections of the Villa Pallagonia where figures were grotesque and their relations nonsensical, the attitudes allowed their spectators the tasteful indulgence of the production of provisional narratives and meanings. Hamilton's attitudes addressed themselves to the pleasures and predilections of the modern connoisseur. They spoke to a taste that was polite and cultured but plural and dissipated-with all the implications of that word as atomisation and excess.
  17. The connoisseur was represented in the late eighteenth century as a figure both antiquated and modern. He seemed antiquated because his interests were still primarily associated with patrician wealth and the leisure age afforded and also because, in the many satires in which he was lampooned, his obsessions and possessions were represented as a preterite substitute for a lost virility. Yet he appeared modern in the very nature of his desire to amalgamate and possess as well as in the indiscriminate variety of the objects through which his identity was defined. The connoisseur's plural tastes were in fact the signature of his modernity. For the story of the progressive refinement of society was, to its eighteenth-century tellers, also a story of the loss of the uniform and the cohesive (in taste as much as in the political public sphere and the marketplace) and their replacement with an atomised diversity. As one characteristically glum antiquarian put it, comparing the tastes of former centuries with those of "the modern age" was like comparing "a landscape of a bold and massive taste of composition…the whole simple and harmonious" with "a scene flittered into a multiplicity of luminous spots and gaudy without effect."[26]
  18. The burden of my argument thus far has been to stress the way that Hamilton's attitudes solicited the gaze of a particular masculine spectator: a spectator defined by his position as a man of wealth, leisure and learning, by his polite and promiscuous tastes, and by his appreciation of the variety and sensuality of her display. I now want to move on to consider how these ways of ascribing meaning to the attitudes were also bound up with the wider cultural representation and implications of a certain type of femininity. I suggest that the feminine meanings of Hamilton's attitudes are best understood in terms of that rag-bag of idioms and vocabularies that go under the name of the picturesque. For the picturesque is defined by its prioritising of the various over the uniform and by its hostility to narrative continuity and completion. As Stephen Copley and Peter Garside note, the picturesque "rest[s] on the suppression of the interpretive and narrative signs which marked earlier representation."[27] The picturesque is one of the defining if problematically definable vocabularies of the turn of the nineteenth century and it is precisely in the account it articulates of a femininity that is both antique and modern, both entirely natural and thoroughly cultivated, that renders it such an important contextual frame for Emma Hamilton's attitudes.

  19. III : Picturesque Femininity

  20. While commentators might have disagreed about the identities of the female figures embodied in the attitudes, there is a remarkable degree of unanimity in their accounts of Hamilton's appearance. Almost everyone who saw and wrote about the attitudes concurred that there was a startling disparity between her demeanour and apparel in and out of the performance. The adjectives most frequently used to describe Hamilton's appearance during the attitudes are "easy", "graceful", "negligent", "natural" "simple" and "effortless" while that repeatedly used for a non-attitudinising Hamilton was "vulgar." Choosing just one of countless examples, Mrs St. George wrote that the Hamilton was "graceful and beautiful" in performance, but followed this with the remark that "it is singular that in spite of the accuracy of her imitation of the finest ancient draperies, her usual dress is tasteless, loaded, vulgar and unbecoming."[28] Hamilton's plainness, simplicity and grace during her performance was somehow regarded by her audience as the natural corollary of polite taste, whereas her preference for ornament, detail and colour in her everyday appearance was consistently rendered equivalent to her "vulgar" class and courtesan status. What most spectators found appealing about the attitudinising Hamilton was that she appeared classical, timeless, simple and natural. The primary effect of the attitudes was, as I have noted, that of a confusing variety, but this was enacted by a figure noted for her simple appearance and her natural ease. It is in this combination of variety and mutability with naturalness and simplicity that Hamilton's attitudes were picturesque.
  21. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century picturesque writings, variety and profusion are associated with the boundless abundance of nature and with a notion of culture that is both modern and feminised in its whimsical mutability, its rapid changes, its discontinuity. It is noticeable in a number of theories of the picturesque that nature and culture are conflated in the figure of the endlessly various female-a figure who is frequently explicitly described as a living statue. In William Gilpin's 1794 poem On Landscape Painting, for example, Nature's inexhaustible variety is described in terms of a female body which vacillates between flesh and marble. Gilpin advises the landscape painter to view nature's "varied range"

    …as the sculptur'd charms
    Of the fam'd Venus grew, so must thou cull
    From various scenes such parts as best create
    One perfect whole. If Nature ne'er array'd
    Her most accomplish'd work with grace compleat,
    Think, will she waste on desert rocks and dells,
    What she denies to Woman's charming form?[29]

    Gilpin refers to the famous story of Zeuxis and the women of Crotona-a story central to many eighteenth-century theories of artistic production and represented, for example, in Angelica Kauffman's famous painting.[30] In order to avoid the slavish imitation of nature by copying the physique and features of a single female model with all her necessary imperfections, Zeuxis organised a beauty parade of all the women of Crotona in order to select from among them the most graceful limbs, the most faultless breast, the most exquisite face which collectively might produce a figure of feminine perfection.

  22. Gilpin instructs the landscape painter to select judiciously, as Zeuxis did, in order to create a cohesive whole from Nature's varied partiality. But his verse also conveys a strong sense of the aesthetic and erotic pleasure afforded by the mercurial incompleteness of the natural scene and the female body.[31] Thus, the illusory whole produced by Zeuxis' selection of body parts and the landscape painter's choice of natural objects which might unify and balance his canvas seem, in the poem, almost an afterthought. Unity and totality simply do not carry the same energy or the same sensuous pleasures as the discontinuity which femininity here represents. Gilpin's ideal landscape, then, would be one which, as far as possible, simulated a feminine figure who, while offering the promise of the abstract perfection of marble, can only dramatise a naturalised mutable variety.
  23. The figure of the living statue assumed a singular significance in the work of Richard Payne Knight.[32] He was extremely struck by Hamilton's attitudes after seeing them in 1791 and often seems to have her in mind in his writings on the picturesque. Payne Knight argued that "change and variety" were "necessary to the enjoyment of all pleasure, whether sensual or intellectual."[33] Yet while his theory of the picturesque is predicated upon a notion of variety he also wishes to preserve a sense of the classical and universal. For him, the classical seems to act, as it were, as the solid ground upon which a variety of picturesque objects shift and change. It follows, then, that Payne Knight finds a living, moving piece of statuary picturesque: a figure which appears to position itself upon the ground of classic universality even as it, through its movement and gesture, produces the variety necessary to all pleasure. Taking the story of Zeuxis up where Gilpin left off, in his poem The Landscape, Payne Knight describes how the inspiration of the best antique sculptors came from a range of "breathing figures light and free" rather than "one single model stiffly bound."[34] In a later text, these breathing figures appear again in his description of the picturesque variability of a modern woman dressed as an antique statue. In an intriguing passage Payne Knight avers that

    The dirty and tattered garments, the dishevelled hair and general wild appearance of gypsies and beggar girls are often picturesque-but the flowing ringlets, fine shawls and robes of delicate muslin thrown into all the easy, negligent and playful folds of antique drapery by polished grace and refined elegance, are still more so. The first, indeed, are merely picturesque: that is, they have only the beauties of harmonious variety of tint, and light and shade, blended with everything else that is disgusting while the others have these in an equal, or even superior degree, in addition to the charms of lightness, neatness and purity.[35]

    One can easily visualise an attitudinising Emma Hamilton in Payne Knight's "flowing ringlets, fine shawls, and robes of delicate muslin" and his picturesque feminine ideal concurs with many accounts of her appearance during her performances.[36] For Payne Knight, the most picturesque figure is apparently a moveable piece of feminine statuary, a woman who simulates antique marble in her appearance and physical perfection and who displays this through her graceful movement and the negligent folds of her drapery.

  24. In picturesque theories, the gypsy represents a roughness, a wildness and most pertinently, an idleness which is both at one with, and an ornament to, the variable landscape. The graceful feminine body in its loose Grecian garb is similarly a sign, for picturesque theorists, of a naturalised unfettered leisure. Both figures are here described in terms which render them equivalent to a notion of the natural or the a-historical. While in themselves they embody that variety and change necessary to Payne Knight's picturesque pleasures, they are also set in opposition to the variety and change deemed characteristic of modernity since their respective appearances share the quality of a decontextualised timelessness. Their costumes seem natural and a-historical because neither apparently subscribes to a modern sartorial code. Their bodies are not bound by the encumbrances of stays, weighed down by ornaments or deformed by padding and pinching. Their hair is neither dressed nor powdered, but left to wild dishevelment or negligent curls. Thus they share, Payne Knight infers, the appearance of natural timelessness, of a cross-temporal permanence set beyond the vicissitudes of history and fashionable change.
  25. However, whereas the living statue's timelessness seems purposefully arranged for the tasteful consumption of a discerning audience, the gypsy girls' a-historicism avoids the dynamic of conscious performance and display. The living statue is poised on the discursive boundary between the late eighteenth-century fashionable woman and a timeless, classical femininity. Like the fashionable woman, she is there to be seen, but she is an antique vision of naturalised ease rather than the dazzling spectacle of contemporary consumerism. According to Payne Knight, the living statue is more picturesque than the gypsy because she unites nature with refinement, while the gypsy remains resolutely unrefined. The living statue is the face of nature made acceptable to a polished audience, she is nature cleaned up, nature distilled and purified, nature without its rags and dishevelment. As Payne Knight finds something "disgusting" in the gypsy's picturesque filthiness, so he is filled with an unqualified delight at the living statue's "purity." The folds of her antique drapery are described as "easy" and "negligent," conjuring up the image of an almost savage artlessness yet, her graces are "polished", her elegance "refined", so that even in her apparent timelessness she is stamped indelibly with the marks of a polite and civilised modernity. The living statue is at her most natural and timeless only when she is at her most modern and calculating: when she disguises the processes of her own polished refinement through the perfect simulation of an uncultivated, atemporal femininity.[37]
  26. Its important to note that the decade in which Hamilton performed her attitudes witnessed a singular transformation in fashionable taste. "The ladies," remarked the editor of The Ladies Magazine in reference to current feminine style choices, "in all their dress…show an enthusiastic partiality for the forms and fashions which were preferred among the ancient Greeks and Romans."[38] The dress of the day, with its light, simple fabrics and new body-freeing simplicity was precisely that adopted by Hamilton in her attitudes-a plain robe of white muslin, an antique chiton. Hamilton's picturesque appearance, her combination of the simplicity of classical statuary with a naturalised variability, was, then, itself the style of the moment. If the ideal of picturesque femininity was a figure who assimilated the qualities of the classical, the natural and the timeless, then so too, as I have argued, was she relentlessly contemporary. In an era when women were encouraged to dress like a connoisseur's curiosity, buying "slippers in imitation of Etruscan ornaments" when one could choose between Minerva lapels or Iphigenia veils, Hamilton's attitudes could be read as producing their various classical and contemporary heroines as a series of available style choices.[39] Her gallery of statues might also be read by their spectators as a gallery of fashion.

  27. IV: Fashionable Caprice

  28. In his comments on the attitudes, Horace Walpole noted that Hamilton's appearance was marked with the signs of both the classical and the contemporary. "Sir William Hamilton's pantomime mistress," he wrote, "acts all the antique statues in an Indian shawl." "People are mad," he continued, "about her wonderful expression, which I do not conceive, so few antique statues having any expression at all-nor being designed to have it."[40] For Walpole, Hamilton's exotic drapery and her "wonderful expression" at odds with antique impassivity were indicative of her contradictory mingling of the ancient and modern. What his remarks highlight, I think, is that some of the attitudes' constituent audience might not have been engaged in the erudite process of recognition of her embodied figures and would have regarded the display much more simply as a fashionable diversion. In Walpole's account, the attitudes have the status of one of the many accomplishments performed by modish young women. For him, Hamilton's appearance and demeanour are less an appeal to the classical or universal and are more the sign of her complete conformity with fashionable taste.
  29. In 1796, a popular English fashion magazine suggested that in recent years modern dress codes had begun to approach the style of the antique:

    By following the style of dress, and the arrangement of drapery, in the fine remains of antiquity, the present taste has happily emancipated the ladies from all the ridiculous lumber of the late fashions; from powder, whalebone and cork, flounces and furbellows, pockets and pincushions.[41]

  30. If a woman dresses in the manner of an antique statue, Ackerman's Repository of the Arts claims, she is at once more natural, and more refined. She bodies forth the fashionable aesthetics of the moment even as she attains the appearance of the timeless and universal. "Present taste" may rid the modern feminine figure of its alliterative "lumber," but even as it lifts the antique outside and above the realm of those ornaments and trinkets whose shelf-life is only as long as their novelty holds, it opens it up to the vulnerability of being supplemented or supplanted by another sartorial whim. According to Ackerman's Repository, the "fine remains of antiquity" reveal the a-temporal simplicity of the feminine form. Yet here, in their very contemporaneity, their desirability and their commodification, they also appear to share the status of just another pincushion.

  31. Another turn of the century fashion magazine noted that

    An Englishwoman has the extensive privilege of arraying herself in whatever garb may suit her figure or her fancy. The fashions of every nation and every era are open to her choice. One day she may appear as the Egyptian Cleopatra, then a Grecian Helen, next morning the Roman Cornelia: or if these styles be too august for her taste, there are sylphs, goddesses, nymphs of every region, in earth or air, ready to lend her their wardrobe.[42]

    The Mirror of the Graces is here describing what amounts to an Emma Hamilton to suit every taste and pocket. It transforms history into a series of sartorial paradigms, and in a similar manner to Hamilton's attitudes, it thereby erases the cultural and temporal differences between its variety of "sylphs, goddesses and nymphs." Cleopatra, Helen and Cornelia are merely three commodities who similarly offer their characters and wardrobes up to the whimsical desires of the contemporary woman. As the fashionable female picks and chooses among the heroines of antiquity for the style that suits, she lifts those heroines out of their original narrative contexts and reinscribes them within the aesthetics of a contemporary, fluctuating variability where the terms and referents of "every nation and every era" can be adapted and marketed to modern taste.

  32. These turn of the century fashion magazines suggest that every woman can be a living statue, or even that every woman is a living statue. In choosing referents from antiquity to define modern femininity, these publications invoked a pseudo universalism that, like Payne Knight's classical solid ground, acted as the stable backdrop against which the fashionable woman displayed her picturesque variability. As a vision of antique simplicity, the living statue appears to be set beyond the change and atomisation of modernity. Yet her swift transformations and her whimsical mercuriality mark her out as the figure of the moment. She is both a-historical and relentlessly contemporary. She bodies forth that variety which had come to be regarded as the defining feature of the tastes and predilections of complex and commercial societies.

  33. In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin describes one mark of the modern as the "a-historical use of the forms of classical antiquity" when antique forms are ascribed the cultural value of "material transiency" rather than "eternal verity".[43] The illusory appeal of Hamilton's attitudes to the antique-their invitation to be read as classical even as they enact a range of fashionable heroines from Mary Magdalen to Sterne's Maria-is, as I have argued, precisely the sign of their modernity. Perhaps the use of the antique outside its own particular historical contexts has always been characterised by "transiency" as opposed to "verity," but what I have wanted to stress here is how Hamilton's attitudes, her performance, in Goethe's words, of "all the antiquities," can be read as a particular articulation of a culture engaged in the process of describing and expressing its own modernity. This articulation concerns, as I suggested, a notion of variety or atomisation that was characteristically contemporary and explicitly feminised: which was similarly associated with the dissipated excesses of the modern connoisseur and the natural refinements of the picturesque woman. My intention, in writing of Hamilton primarily as a spectacle rather than a subject, is not to reinforce the perception of her as an aesthetic commodity nor to deprive her of control of the meanings of her own performance. Hamilton's story has been told and retold in the pages of her many biographies.[44] What intrigues me about her mimoplastic display, imitated and modified throughout the nineteenth century in a wide range of monodramas and tableaux vivants, is the way it fulfilled, confounded or exceeded the aesthetic desires and demands of its audience-an audience polite and learned, fashionable and dissipated, who sought in Hamilton's performance the quintessentially modern pleasures of variety.
  34. Kate Davies, Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York

Thanks to Mary Peace, Angela Wright and participants of the 2004 conference on De Stael's Corinne.

Note on illustrations
Due to copyright restrictions, it has not been possible to reproduce the illustrations referred to in an internet-only journal. Notes following each reference to an illustration point the reader to an easily accessible reproduction.


[1] Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Italian Journey, trans. W.H. Auden (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), 129. [back]
[2] John Isbell, "Introduction," Germaine De Stael, Corinne, or, Italy, trans. Sylvia Raphael (Oxford: Worlds Classics, 1998), ix.[back]
[3] See Chloe Chard, Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), particularly chapter 3 "Spectator and Spectacle," 126-172. [back]
[4] Sir William Hamilton to Charles Greville, 25th April, 1786, Hugh Tours, The Life and Letters of Emma Hamilton (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963), 57. [back]
[5] Emma Hart to Charles Greville, 22nd July, 1786, The Life and Letters of Emma Hamilton, 62. Hart's "Angeleca" is Angelica Kauffman, who was later to paint her in the character of the comic muse. [back]
[6] As is noted by Chloe Chard, Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour, 147.[back]
[7] For a thorough account of the vogue of this and related forms of performance art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries see Kirsten Gram Holmstrom, Monodrama, Attitudes, Tableaux Vivants (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1967). [back]
[8] Goethe, Italian Journey, 208. Goethe recorded this response to the performance on 17 March, 1787.[back]
[9] Volker Schachenmayr, "Emma Lyon, the Attitude, and Goethean Performance Theory," New Theatre Quarterly 13 (1997): 5. [back]
[10] Richard Wendorf, Preface, Emma Hamilton's Attitudes by Frederick Rehberg (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library, 1990), 3-6. [back]
[11] Frederick Rehberg, Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature at Naples and with Permission Dedicated to the Right Honourable Sir William Hamilton (n.p, 1794). Richard Wendorf's edition of the Rehberg series (see note 10 above) is probably the most easily accessible. In a recent article, David Constantine agrees that the Rehberg attitudes are "static and lumpy" David Constantine, "Goethe and the Hamiltons" Oxford German Studies 26 (1997): 124. [back]
[12] The figures are named as Niobe, a Sybil, Mary Magdalen, "beloved lonely dreamer" (a pose generally taken as being that of Lawrence Sterne's Maria, a popular sentimental heroine), Sophonisba, Amymone, the Muse of Dance, Iphigenia, a nymph, a priestess, Cleopatra and Santa Rosa. [back]
[13] Novelli's drawings of Hamilton's attitudes are reproduced in Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection (London: British Museum, 1996), 259. [back]
[14] The erotic element of Hamilton's performance has frequently been remarked upon. In the 1780s and 90s, Rowlandson and Gilray chose to satirise the attitudes by associating them explicitly with striptease and representing Hamilton as a posture girl. See the reproductions in Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes, 300-303. Among more recent commentators, Jane Aiken Hodge, for example, describes the performance as "soft porn of the most elegant kind." Jane Aiken Hodge, Passion and Principle: The Loves and Lives of Regency Women (London: John Murray, 1996), 120. [back]
[15] Carlo Gastone, Opere del Cavaliere Carlo Gastone, Conte della Torre Rezzonico, VII: Giornale del Viggio di Napoli negli Anni 1789 e 1790 , ed and trans F. Mochetti, (Como: 1819), 247-8. [back]
[16] See, for example, Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes, 258. On the pose associated with Agrippina in late eighteenth century painting see Duncan Macmillan, "Woman as Hero: Gavin Hamilton's Radical Alternative," Gil Perry and Michael Rossington, eds, Femininity and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 78-99. [back]
[17] Spectators often attempted to Hamilton's attitudes in precisely this manner (with confusing results). For an alternative reading in these terms, see Chard, Pleasure and Guilt, 150. [back]
[18] On masculinity and the dominant civic humanist discourse of the fine arts in the eighteenth century see John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: The Body of the Public (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986). See also David Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). [back]
[19] Archibald Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (London: Robinson, 1790), 322. [back]
[20] Alison, Essays, 301. [back]
[21] Alison, Essays, 299. [back]
[22] Goethe, Italian Journey, 315. [back]
[23] Goethe, Italian Journey, 239-40.[back]
[24] Goethe, Italian Journey, 240.[back]
[25] Peter Pindar [John Wolcot], "A Lyric Epistle to Sir William Hamilton," in in The Works of Peter Pindar Esq 4 vols (London: Weybridge, 1809), vol.2, ll.17-20. [back]
[26] William Jones, The History of Athens, Politically and Philosophically Considered with the View to an Investigation of the Immediated Causes of Elevation and Decline Operative in a Free and Commercial State (London: J. Robson, 1786), 7. [back]
[27] Stephen Copley and Peter Garside, "Introduction," The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics Since 1770 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994),6. [back]
[28] Mesalina St. George, Journal, October 3, 1800, Hugh Tours, The Life and Letters of Emma Hamilton, 155-6. [back]
[29] William Gilpin, "On Landscape Painting, A Poem," in Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape: To Which is Added a Poem, On Landscape Painting (London: R. Blamire, 1794), 110. [back]
[30] Kauffman's painting of Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Painting of Helen of Troy is reproduced in Wendy Wassyng Roworth, ed., Angelica Kauffman: A Continental Artist in Georgian England (London: Reaktion Books, 1992), 56. [back]
[31] As John Whale notes, much of the burden of Gilpin's writing seems to be to "reassemble the variously disposed and dispersed body of a woman in the landscape." John Whale, "Romantics, Explorers and Picturesque Travellers," in Stephen Copley and Peter Garside, eds, The Politics of the Picturesque, 178. [back]
[32] Payne Knight was a close friend of both the Hamiltons. He collaborated with Sir William on a number of projects (including the infamous Priapus findings) and he and Emma maintained a brief, flirtatious correspondence. See See Michael Clarke and Nicholas Penny, eds, The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight 1751-1824 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982). See also Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes, 154. [back]
[33] Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (London: T Paue 1805), 425.[back]
[34] Richard Payne Knight, The Landscape: A Didactic Poem (London: W. Bulmer, 1794), 69. [back]
[35] Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, 334.[back]
[36] Elizabeth Foster, for example, recorded in her diary that during the attitudes, Hamilton was "draped exactly like a Grecian statue" in a "chemise of white muslin, her fine black hair flowing in ringlets over her shoulders." Elizabeth Foster, Diary entry, May, 1791, Hugh Tours, The Life and Letters of Emma Hamilton, 90.[back]
[37] There are other intriguing associations between Emma Hamilton and the picturesque stereotype of the figure of the gypsy, perhaps particularly in the Neapolitan costume she adopted to perform the tarantella. [back]
[38] The Ladies Magazine 32 (1801): 226-7.[back]
[39] The Ladies Magazine 31 (1800): 305. Minerva lapels and Iphigenia veils are described in The Ladies Magazine 27 (1796): 265.
[40] W.S. Lewis, ed. The Correspondence of Horace Walpole, 48 vols (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937-83), vol 11, 337-340. [back]
[41] Ackerman's Repository of the Arts 3 (1809): 171. [back]
[42] [unattrib.], The Mirror of the Graces: Or, the English Lady's Costume (London, 1811), 59-60.[back]
[43] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T Press, 1989), 183.[back]
[44] Recent biographies of Emma Hamilton include: Flora Fraser, Beloved Emma; Nora Lofts, Emma Hamilton (London: Joseph, 1978); Ken Mc Kay, A Remarkable Relationship: The Story of Emma Hamilton (Milford Haven: Ken McKay, 1992) and Colin Simpson, The Life of Emma Hamilton (London: Bodley Head, 1983). [back]


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