Charades with the Hamiltons


27/12/2012 by noonobservation

It’s important to remember what Christmas is all about. As well as lunchtime gin, TV-related arguments and meat-sweats, Christmas is also about slightly undignified parlour games. Sadly, my family are ill-suited to such exertions due their mutual suspicion and my parents’ selective deafness. This is a shame, because there is nothing better than a good game of charades for torturing one’s relatives.

Emma HamiltonThough the game of charades dates back to at least the Cretaceous period, it did not reach its artistic zenith until the 1780s when it was taken up by Emma and Sir William Hamilton, the famous mistresses of Lord Nelson. Combining Sir William’s love of antiquities with Emma’s love of being oggled, the pair developed this simple game into a terrifying visual spectacle known as The Attitudes; a blood-chilling pageant of classical mythology wrapped in cashmere shawls.

A bit of background…

Emma Hamilton was born Amy Lyons, the daughter of an obscure and short-lived blacksmith from a particularly dirty part of Cheshire. Social advancement via Holyoaks not yet being possible, Amy’s laborious climb into the ranks of the English aristocracy was largely achieved by laboriously climbing on top of the English aristocracy.

Emma learned basic acting and dancing during her early career as a “goddess” at Dr Graham’s “Temple of Health and Hymen” in London, where, dressed as a nymph, she helped to treat infertile couples using interpretive dance and electrocution. Her time as the object of painter George Romney’s obsessive devotion also gave her a good grounding in sitting very still and wearing scanty Grecian dresses.

William HamiltonSir William Hamilton was an expert in Etruscan vases and classical statues who spent his spare time being the British ambassador to Naples. When his relative, Charles Greville, sent him his statuesque mistress “Emma Hart” as an indefinite holiday guest, Sir William soon recognised her latent talents for standing, wearing shawls and having nice hair. These abilities, rather than her excellent singing or flair for languages would soon propel Emma to international stardom.


attitudesEmma’s Attitudes were a whole new art form, blending dancing, acting, fashion and pouting with Sir William’s love of antiquity. Using several large shawls and a few props (e.g. tambourines, urns, children), Emma would strike a series of poses, mimicking paintings and statues from ancient Greece and Rome for the classically educated audience to guess. Here is how German super-poet, Goethe described Emma’s attitudes in 1787:

Emma Hamilton2“…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, sitting, kneeling, 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 head-dress… as a performance it’s like nothing you ever saw before in your life.”

Originally performed in a large, upturned packing chest, painted black inside and surrounded by a gilt picture frame, Emma quickly expanded her Attitudes to fill a whole room. Her audience too expanded and Emma soon established herself as Site No. 112 on the Grande Tour, and thus became required study for all well educated young gentleman-tourists.

Recreating The Attitudes

In the Christmas spirit of experimental historical research, I thought I would treat my sister to my own Attitudes, using a charity shop dress, three shawls and the contents of my parents’ kitchen. You can play along at home.

Attitudes1Attitude 1: Using 2 shawls, 1 knife, 1 raw turkey and a gammon joint. Is it…

a) Queen Rhea Silvia about to toss Romulus and Remus into the Tiber.

b) Medea about annoy her husband by murdering their children.

c) Andromache protecting her children from the Greeks during the sack of Troy.

Attitude 2Attitude 2: Using 2 shawls and some Christmas tinsel. Is it…

a) Eve having a chat with a deceptively affable snake.

b) The death of Cleopatra

c) Cher contemplating further colonic irrigation.

Attitude 3Attitude 3: Using one shawl and a baking tin.

Is it…

a) a hesperides

b) a bacchante

c) a hippy

Attitude 4Attitude 4: Using 3 shawls and a bottle of wine, plus about 20 minutes of scarf-arranging. Is it…

a) Agrippina weeping over the ashes of Germanicus

b) A bacchante

c) The death of Amy Winehouse.

Attitude 5Attitude 5: Using 3 shawls and several elastic bands.

Is it…

a) Cleopatra waiting for Mark Anthony

b) Eva Braun waiting for Hitler

c) Princess Leia waiting for someone taller to rescue her.

Hopefully your extensive education in Classics will have rendered this game a walk in the Horti Liciniani.

Emma continued to perform her Attitudes for the next 20 years, despite her fluctuating weight and social respectability. She is credited with starting the craze for see-through Grecian dresses and toga parties that swept Europe in the 1790s.

Answers to follow in the New Year.

One thought on “Charades with the Hamiltons

  1. Answers: 1) Medea; 2) Cleopatra; 3) baccante; 4) Winehouse; 5) Leia

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