By Simon de Bruxelles in the UK’s Times Online
It was an affair that scandalised early 19th-century society: the ménage à trois between a beautiful actress, an elderly aristocrat and the country’s greatest hero.
The affair between Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton, was followed by a fascinated public that devoured every word published in the newspapers and scandal sheets. But these were the days before the paparazzi. Cartoonists could lampoon and caricature but as far as seeing the couple together, the public were forced to use their imagination.
Now a small watercolour sketch has been identified as the only known painting from life of them with her husband. They were painted seated in an open boat as they were rowed along a river in Sicily in 1800, the year before Lady Hamilton gave birth to Nelson’s illegitimate daughter, Horatia, and five years before his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The image was painted by Ellis Cornelia Knight, a friend of Lady Hamilton, who filled a sketch book with pictures when she accompanied the couple on a tour of the Mediterranean on board Nelson’s flagship Foudroyant. The small pictorial diary has been in a naval family for many generations and has never been seen in public before.
Nelson and Lady Hamilton had fallen in love in 1798. She was married to Sir William Hamilton, the much older British envoy to Naples, who had acquired her, sight unseen, from a nephew and been smitten by her beauty. Sir William, not so much a cuckold as a consenting partner, has been tentatively identified as the figure in civilian clothes.
Lady Hamilton is sitting on Nelson’s left, so he can hold a parasol with his left hand, having lost his right at Tenerife in 1797. Nelson can be identified by the gold epaulettes on his shoulders and his distinctive bicorn hat.