Nelson & Norfolk exhibition also looks at passion between famous lovers Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton

Nelson and Norfolk at Norwich Castle - Silk picture of Emma Hamilton and Admiral Lord Nelson, late 1

Nelson and Norfolk at Norwich Castle - Silk picture of Emma Hamilton and Admiral Lord Nelson, late 18th Century. Photo: National Maritime Museum - Credit: National Maritime Museum

It is one of the great love stories of history, so no exhibition about Horatio Nelson could really tell his life without mentioning Emma Hamilton. Norwich Castle Museum's Nelson & Norfolk is no exception, as Trevor Heaton discovers.

A print of Emma Hamilton, the lover of Admiral Lord Nelson

A print of Emma Hamilton, the lover of Admiral Lord Nelson - Credit: Colin Finch

Admired, envied, tolerated, criticised, satirised, condemned.

The love story of Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton was all those things and more – and that was just in their own lifetimes.

No wonder, then, that biographers and the public have never lost their appetite for the story. One of Britain's greatest heroes – and one of Britain's most notorious (and fascinating) women. It's the stuff of gossip – and legend.

It would be impossible to tell the story of Horatio Nelson without telling the story of Emma Hamilton. Which is why the Norwich Castle Museum's Nelson & Norfolk exhibition includes some evocative exhibits which touch upon the passion of these two famous lovers.

Even had she never met Nelson, Emma would have – comfortably – been one of the most fascinating women of her age, going from rags to riches and back to rags again.

Emma had won her way through to aristocratic circles by force of personality, charm, intelligence – and beauty. For although notions of attractiveness do change over the centuries, the many paintings of her by George Romney show that Emma Hart would have been one of the most striking women of any age, with her huge and beguiling eyes, perfect skin and rosebud mouth, combining demureness with a worldly-wise frankness. One of the prints based on Romney's work features in the exhibition.

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Everything changed for Emma – and Nelson - one fateful year in Naples. And it is this period, after the Battle of the Nile in 1798, that features in several key exhibits in Nelson & Norfolk.

Nelson was recuperating from a head wound in Naples, the capital of the largest kingdom in pre-unified Italy, as the guest of Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton. Sir William, the British Envoy, had married Emma – the discarded mistress of his nephew Charles Greville – in 1791 when he was 60 and she 26. They made an irresistible couple, as exhibition organiser Ruth Battersby Tooke, Senior Curator – Costume and Textiles, explained. 'He was an incredibly intelligent and erudite man,' she said. A shrewd collector, the fruits of his labours feature in many of our national collections.

'On the Grand Tour everyone was anyone would stop off at the Hamilton's Naples home.' And while there they were treated to some extraordinary performance art from the voluptuous Lady H.

'She would perform her 'Attitudes', giving the impression of some historical or mythological person such as Medea or Mary Magdalene with just a few props,' Ruth said. It just wasn't the sort of thing you expected from the wife of His Majesty's Minister Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Naples.

But, then again, Lady Hamilton had never been one for convention, in a life that already taken her from poverty to the aristocracy, via Drury Lane theatrical circles and appearing as a scantily-clad model for a quack doctor.

Emma, who had first met Nelson in 1793, was soon madly in love with the hero of the Nile. The feeling was mutual. But, Ruth points out, so was the warm friendship of husband, wife, and lover.

'Their motto was 'trio juncta in uno' – three joined in one. There was a great friendship between Sir William and Nelson.

'Sir William wasn't a befuddled old cuckold. They were all close friends. When he died [in 1803] he held Nelson's hand and was in Emma's arms.'

The fact that Nelson was also already married to someone else – his long-suffering wife Frances (Fanny) – is not something that the exhibition curator wanted it to comment on. 'I am not approaching this [exhibition] in a scandalous way, or taking sides,' she stressed.

The gossip surrounding the three friends' unconventional relationship was overshadowed by Nelson's decision to pitch himself into Neapolitan politics, encouraged by Emma, who was a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina.

These were turbulent times. A French Revolutionary army had forced the king, Ferdinand IV, to flee in late 1798. But then a counter-revolution won back his kingdom, with Nelson joining Emma and the royal family in their determination for bloody vengeance on the rebels. His actions have left a stain on Nelson's career that biographers argue about to this day.

Even at the time it was hugely controversial, as one exhibit shows. It is the title page of a defence of his actions: 'The Vindication of Nelson's Proceedings in the Bay of Naples'. On a lighter note, there is also a Naples-made cabin chair from Nelson's flagship HMS Foudroyant, on the deck of which Emma played harp.

A grateful Ferdinand lavished praise and more on Nelson, creating him Duke of Bronte in August 1799. A dress hem in the exhibition from this time is embroidered with 'Nelson' and 'Bronte', a reminder that Nelson was as much of a style-setter as his striking lover. And, yes, it was worn by Emma.

Another item of clothing is a bodice which belonged to Marie Antoinette, the French queen executed in 1793 in the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette's fate was not lost on her sister, Queen Maria Carolina. In 1791 Emma had visited Paris where she met the imprisoned queen and brought back a letter for her sister – probably the last that passed between the siblings.

The bodice was given to the museum by Norwich-connected Charles Noverre in 1909. It had been in the French émigré family since the queen's execution. Made from blue and white striped silk, it is missing its sleeves which were cut up for mementoes by royalist supporters. 'It would have been worn by Charles' grandmother in St Andrew's Hall under the flag of Le Genereux – another connection,' said Ruth.

That brings us to the unquestioned two star items of this part of the exhibition – one for its mystery, one for its poignancy.

The mystery comes in a locket from the castle's own archives. 'It came into the collection in 1962. The register says 'Commemorative locket, Battle of the Nile, Naples' – that's all it says.'

The locket – sadly, at some stage it must have been dropped as its contents are slightly disarranged – is beautifully made, with the gold case containing two locks of hair, with a Britannia with shield and trident, plus anchor, made from very fine gold chain and seed pearls. A blue enamel plaque refers to the Battle of the Nile.

So did it belong to one of the lovers? The evidence, though not decisive, is compelling.

For a start it was made in Naples, the fine craftsmanship evident by such touches as the iridescent mother-of-pearl background.

Then there are those locks of hair. One is dark brown. Like Emma's. One is sandy-grey. Like Nelson's. And, after all, who else would have felt the need for such a token? It remains sealed, and Ruth has resisted the oh-so-strong temptation to open it up to have the hair analysed. 'We've hummed-and-harred about getting it out,' she admitted. But she is hoping science will one day provide a way of analysing the strands without potentially damaging the locket's delicate contents.

If it were part of an exchange of love tokens you would expect another one to have existed. And so it does: incredibly, one turned up only a few years ago in a cupboard in Portsmouth and although not identical was clearly made as part of the same commission. That went for £44,000 at auction in 2011 to an anonymous private collector.

As Emma fell into penury she gradually sold off all her treasured possessions, even Nelson's Trafalgar coat. It's easy to see that these love tokens, too, might have been given to some tradesman in lieu of a debt, with their provenance lost over the years.

'This is a mystery I would love to be able to resolve,' Ruth added. 'People have asked me what I would have asked Nelson if I was able to go back in time. I have to say this is the one thing I would ask him!'

The poignancy comes with a 'needle painting' of Emma and Nelson as Yorick and Maria, from Laurence Sterne's novel A Sentimental Journey. The work is purported to have been created by Emma herself. It shows a demure Emma with her hero, who is unexpectedly clad in clerical garb. He is gesturing towards their home, Merton Place (which is shown in more detail in another exhibit). 'She is playing the [future] loyal grieving widow here,' said Ruth. 'The scene has much of the 'courtly love' about it.'

Made about the time of the Treaty of Amiens – which provided an all-too-brief respite in hostilities over 1802-3 – this was clearly made with the thought of Nelson's life after his naval service. 'I find this a very moving exhibit. It's absolute wish-fulfilment. It's a wish made visible – to just be together.'

But that, despite the lovers' fervent hopes, was destined not to be.

Nelson & Norfolk, sponsored by Woodforde's Brewery and Ben Burgess and Co, is running at Norwich Castle Museum until October 1. The exhibition features many rare or never-before-seen objects from national and private collections. For full information about opening hours and prices, please see or call the information line on 01603 493648.