The Wallace Collection

Henry Bone: Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, after Vigée Le Brun (1803)
Treasure of the Month - February 2008

Henry Bone: Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, after Vigée Le Brun (1803)

Few works of art can be associated with the great naval hero Lord Nelson, but one of them is this enamel miniature of his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton (M21).

Not only was it owned by Nelson, but it was actually bequeathed to him by Emma’s complacent husband, Sir William Hamilton. Nelson also owned the original painting by the French artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun on which Bone’s miniature was based.

Emma Lyon (1765-1815) was a notorious courtesan who had been the mistress of Sir William Hamilton’s nephew Charles Greville before marrying Hamilton in 1791. Her husband was the British Envoy in Naples and an important collector of art, particularly classical antiquities. In Naples Emma became part of a cultured group of antiquarians, expatriates and visiting artists. She had already acted as a model for several portrait painters, but it was in Naples that she became famous for her ‘attitudes’, a combination of poses and dance which allowed her to flaunt her beauty, sometimes in a frankly lascivious manner. It was after his brilliant victory at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798 that Nelson became her lover, a situation which was happily tolerated by Sir William Hamilton.

In 1790, shortly before their marriage, Hamilton ordered the portrait in oils on which Bone’s miniature was based. Vigée Le Brun was one of the most successful French painters of her time and a close friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette, whose portrait she painted on several occasions, (Her splendid portraits of Madame Perregaux and the comte d’Espagnac can be seen upstairs in the Study) She had arrived in Naples having fled France soon after the outbreak of the Revolution. Bone’s enamel copy of Vigée Le Brun’s picture is dated on the back ‘March 1803’. It was also painted for Sir William Hamilton, but bequeathed by him to Nelson almost immediately after it was completed. Nelson already owned Vigée Le Brun’s original, having bought it from Hamilton in order to prevent it appearing in a public sale. It is today in a private collection. Bone’s enamel was eventually bought by Lord Hertford, the father of Sir Richard Wallace, at auction in 1859 for the considerable sum of 700 guineas (£735).
Emma, who was frequently painted in mythological guises, is shown here as a Bacchante, a follower of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The drinking bowl she holds in her left hand, the vine leaves and the panther skin all allude to Dionysus. However, in a letter of 1790 Vigée Le Brun also referred to the painting as a representation of Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete who helped the Greek hero Theseus to escape from the Labyrinth after he killed the Minotaur, but who was abandoned by him on the island of Naxos; The ship on the horizon may therefore contain the departing Theseus. According to some versions of the myth, Ariadne later married Dionysus – an interpretation particularly relevant to Emma, who was discarded by Greville before becoming the wife of another man and living in a foreign land.

Henry Bone (1755-1834) was a specialist painter of miniatures in enamel. Appointed Enamel Painter to George III, his copies after oil paintings earned him an enormous reputation in his lifetime, culminating in the extraordinary price of 2,200 guineas paid in 1811 for his copy after Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (now in the National Gallery). Some of his children were also artists. His son Henry Pierce Bone’s Lady Cockburn and her Eldest Sons, after Reynolds also hangs on this wall.

Further Reading

  • Reynolds, Graham Wallace Collection Catalogue of Miniatures

The Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London, 1980.