Friday, October 17, 2008

Tart of the Week: The Honourable Mrs. Anne Damer


The adventurous life of Mrs. Damer began in 1748 when she was born to a prominent Whig family as Anne Seymour Conway. Her father, Henry Seymour Conway was a cousin of Horace Walpole and her mother was the extremely Scottish, Caroline Bruce, Lady Ailesbury. While her parents were abroad little Anne experimented with the art of sculpture, as encouraged by her godfather, Horace Walpole. Life seemed pretty normal and boring for young Anne but luckily a dumb husband changed all that (as they usually do for many of our tarts of aristocracy).

John Damer was a drunk and a gambler, which wasn't so unusual for the time. He was also the son of an earl who provided a generous annual income which had to have looked good to 19 year old Anne. This on top of this Anne brought in some fortunes of her own from inheritances. Well, John, being the idiot he was, gambled away most of their money in first six years of their marriage. What he didn't gamble away he spent on his wardrobe. In the seventh year of marriage, he lost it all in one night. He then retired to a room above the Bedford Arms in Covent Garden and shot himself through the head. Anne was now a widow. A widow in a lot of debt.

This put Mrs. Damer in an awful situation. But believe it or not, it was probably the best thing that could happen to her. Walpole not only took her in at his home in Strawberry Hill but he helped to get her on her feet again and allowed freedoms that her marriage lacked. The old bachelor loved her as his own and even willed his Strawberry Hill home to her. Anne took up her childhood hobby of sculpture and honed her skills until she was a reputable artist. Her work reflects the Neoclassicism of the period which helped to gain her many allegorical commissions such as the heads of Isis and Tamesis which still grace the keystones of Henley Bridge today. Her friendships that developed between Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Farren also earned her some theatrical commissions including reliefs for Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. By 1784 Anne was an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy and remained so until 1818.

Her new freedom also allowed her many friendships. Due to her Whig roots, she was naturally drawn to the Devonshire House Circle and became a close friend of Georgiana. She was one of the many devoted canvassers in the 1784 Westminster Election. Mrs. Damer also frequented the masquerades quite often; not the best way to keep a good reputation. In fact, many rumors of Mrs. Damer being a lesbian surfaced, although this could be due to her affinity for male clothing. In truth, Anne was, in all likelihood, a lesbian and enjoyed the company of her female friends. It is thought that Walpole introduced her to the author, Mary Berry, with whom she had a long-standing romantic relationship.

Anne also enjoyed her widowhood because it allowed her travel. She was good friend and regularar guest of the expat, William Hamilton, (of Emma notariety) the ambassador to Naples. At one point in her travels to Europe she was captured by a privateer but released. She also happened to be in Paris during the Treaty of Amiens and met Napoleon himself.

Anne died a happy old lady in 1828. As requested, she was buried with her sculptor's tools and apron as well as with the ashes of her favorite dog.

5 comments:

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Heather. Have you read Emma Donoghue's book about Anne Damer and Eliza Farren? From the synopsis I read, she also suggests that Anne and Eliza were "good friends" in the Ladies of Llangollen kind of way.

Heather Carroll said...

I did happen to hear that there was a novel about Damer and Farren. Although I think the two really did just have a friendship, Damer's relationship with Berry was probably (as you so perfectly put it!) in the Ladies of Llangallen way, esp. since they were both living in Walpole's estate.

katie t said...

i love it!

Grace said...

"Life Mask", the novel by Emma Donoghue about Anne Damer is really fantastic. She does actually take the line that Farren and Damer had a platonic (or unconsummated?) relationship. The book is brilliantly researched and beautifully written, like all Donoghue's work. Plus the D of D makes an appearance, so what's not to like?

Anonymous said...

Have to agree about the novel "Life Mask" - well written and well-researched. It was the depth of the detail of the writing that led me to research the life of the sculptress Anne Damer - and to look into the images of the sculptures that she did.