Emma Hart's fame began to spread when she met her future husband, Sir William Hamilton, in London in 1783. Sir William was the British envoy to the court of Ferdinand IV, King of the Two Sicilies, in Naples, and he had returned to England to attend to the estates of his first wife, Catherine, who had died in August 1782. Sir William was very taken with Emma's beauty which he felt bore a strong resemblance to the ideal form of beauty found in the vases and statues and other objects of antiquity, of which he was a passionate collector. At the time Emma was still his nephew's mistress, but he commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint her in the guise of a bacchante to hang in the gallery at his leased Palazzo in Naples. The painting was both exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 and engraved by J.R. Smith before being shipped to Naples (and later sold in these Rooms on 28th March 1801, lot 150, bought by ancestors of the present owners). Her image thus became famous in both Italy and England, and a succession of paintings of her followed.
In order to improve his financial circumstances, Sir William's nephew, Charles Greville, felt that he should marry, and it became necessary to find an alternative home for his humbly-born mistress. He wrote a number of times to his uncle, gradually persuading him that he should take Emma as his mistress. But Sir William was initially opposed to the immorality of the idea, and he was content with his paintings of her. She would also have been a socially unacceptable companion for a King's envoy. But he eventually succumbed under pressure from Greville, and she arrived in Naples, ignorant of Greville's plans to marry, with her mother and the artist and antiquarian Gavin Hamilton on 26th April 1786. Even though they were not yet married, Emma lived in the Palazzo Sessa which he had leased since his arrival in November 1764. The Palazzo had fabulous views of the bay of Naples and it acted as his official residence, his home and a museum as he filled it with his collection of paintings and antiquities.
It was most probably the fact that Emma had no musical training and at the time was unable to speak foreign languages that prompted her to perform her attitudes. It would have been expected that an envoy's wife would entertain the many visitors with conversation and musical entertainment. According to Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, she began performing her attitudes in about 1786 (see Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan 'Vases and Volcanoes, Sir William Hamilton and his Collection' Exhibition Catalogue [British Museum Press, London 1996], p. 260). Sir William designed a large black box edged with a gold frame in which she could pose in various attitudes in imitation of the antique. The box was subsequently moved to the Palazzo's cellars (as it was large and difficult to move and also limited Emma's performances) but as a result a new kind of fashionable performance had been born which was to be copied both in private and public parlours throughout Europe. Goethe, who visited Sir William in 1787 described both the box and Emma's performances. He recorded that in the cellar was 'a chest, standing upright, its front removed, the interior painted black, set inside a splendid gilt frame'. Emma would adopt different poses and she 'dressed in various colours against this black background, enclosed in the gold frame, she would imitate the antique paintings of Pompeii or even more recent masterpieces'. Her performances were described in contemporary accounts as being a continual flow of attitudes, one metamorphosing into the other seamlessly. Geothe recorded that 'She lets down her hair and, with a few shawls, gives so much variety to her poses, gestures, expressions, etc 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...In her he (Hamilton) has found all the antiquities, all the profiles of Sicilian coins, even the Apollo Belvedere (Goethe, Italian Journey [1962 edition], p. 208).
Emma thus became as much of a 'sight' for rich visitors on the grand tour as a visit to Mount Vesuvius or Pompeii. Not only did Sir William commission further paintings of her, but artists asked to paint her without commission, or were commissioned to paint her by other European patrons. Such was her fame and her accomplishment in enthralling visitors that she had evolved into a suitable wife for an envoy, and they were married in London in September 1791, enabling Sir William, as Walpole pointed out, to marry his 'Gallery of Statues' (Walpole Correspondence, XI, p. 349).
Friedrich Rehberg (1758-1835) made a series of drawings of Lady Hamilton's attitudes and as Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan point out (see ibid. , p. 260), he was clearly influenced by the artistic circle in which he mixed, employing the engraver Tommaso Piroli (1750-1824) whose outline prints of John Flaxman's outline illustrations to Homer had been recently published. Tommaso Piroli engraved Rehberg's drawings of Lady Hamilton and they were published a number of times. The first edition was not dated and in another edition the date 1794 replaced Piroli's name. A French and German edition, from which these images are taken, was also published with titles for each attitude.