Anne Seymour Damer – In Focus

Strawberry Hill House is turning the spotlight onto the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer in their In Focus series this autumn. Peter Gray reports.

In the latest episode of its In Focus series, Strawberry Hill House celebrates the work of sculptress Anne Seymour. The artist is intimately connected to the Twickenham estate, having inherited it from her godfather Horace Walpole upon his death in 1797. 

The exhibition focuses on Damer’s remarkable bust of her mother, Lady Ailesbury, Caroline Campbell. The work reveals much about Damer’s technique and artistry, with Campbell’s serene and composed expression evoking the ideals of ancient sculpture, a connection further echoes by Damer’s dual signatures in Latin and Greek.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The bust had immense personal significance for the artist, who kept it throughout her life and fashioned another version of the work for her mother’s tomb. For many years, the sculpture could be viewed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

A second marble bust, a Niobid, which was until recently thought to be lost, can be seen at Strawberry Hill for the very first time. In Greek mythology, Niobid was one of Niobe’s daughters, who were slain by Apollo and Artemis after Niobe boasted of having more children than their mother, the goddess Leto. In his Book of Visitors, Walpole reported this was the first marble bust ever sculpted by Damer: “Bust of Niobe in marble. Her first attempt”, which is confirmed by the inscription on the back of the bust, ‘Opus Primum’, first work.

The Niobid head is a copy after one of the heads that compose the antique sculptural group of Niobe excavated in Rome in 1583 which Anne would have seen this during her Grand Tour to Italy. The bust appears less accomplished and mature than the later, idealized heads by Damer, of which the bust of Lady Ailesbury is an excellent example.

As part of the In Focus display, there is a chance to see a rare portrait of Anne as a sculptress, by John Downman (1750-1824). In his drawing, on loan from a private collection, we see her working on a bust of the Polish Prince Lubomirski, as the young Bacchus (the bust is today held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). Downman’s portrait, dated 1793, represents Anne at the age of 43 and is the most detailed representation of her while at work.

Anne Seymour Damer by John Dowman

Also featuring in the exhibition are the Portrait of General Henry Seymour Conway, Lady Ailesbury and Anne Damer by John Giles Eccardt (1754), commissioned by Walpole for the Blue Bedchamber, and a very unusual, embroidered piece after Thomas Gainsborough, Two Beggar Boys, executed by Damer’s mother, whose needlework Walpole much admired.

Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, Anne Seymour Damer was a rare and remarkable individual in male-dominated Georgian society, not only was she renowned as a gifted actor and writer but a successful, professional sculptress. Writing in 1780, Walpole noted just how unusual this was at the time, as he observed that Anne: “…has chosen a walk more difficult and far more uncommon than painting. The annals of statuary record few artists of the fair sex, and not one that I recollect of any celebrity… [but her] busts from the life are not inferior to the antique.”

It is also thanks to Walpole’s correspondence and writing, including his creation of the first catalogue raisonné devoted to her work that we know that Damer showed signs of her talent from an early age, that she trained with the Anglo-Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi and later with the modeller and carver John Bacon.

Such was his fondness for Anne and enthusiasm for her work, that he was prone to hyperbole, once comparing her to Bernini and Praxiteles of Athens. In his defence however, it is arguable that Walpole’s florid descriptions were motivated by a desire to see her talent recognised at a time when there was no great inclination to do so, in a male-dominated society and area of the arts.

At Strawberry Hill he housed what was probably the largest collection of Anne Damer’s works ever formed. It was comprised of twelve sculptures, of which four were wax medallions – in the style of the feted wax modeller, Isaac Gosset – along with four heads and four sculpted animals. Her sculptures were mainly located in the House’s private rooms, in which Walpole lived.

When Walpole died in 1797, he left Strawberry Hill to Anne and also money to keep the house, the collection, and the garden in order. In 1798, she moved in with her widowed mother (living there until 1810) and had her studio installed in the Printing House. She carefully annotated any change in the collection display and kept showing the house to occasional visitors.   

Despite her lack of formal training, Damer was nevertheless an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy between 1784 and 1818, showing over 30 works. The artist even made several public monuments, including an over life-size statue of King George III for Edinburgh Registry office, where it still stands. Nonetheless, Damer’s credibility as a sculptor was often questioned because of her lack of training.

During her life, Anne Damer challenged gender roles not only in relation to her artistic environment, but in many other ways. Her intense relationships with women in her circle, from actress Elizabeth Farren to author Mary Berry, were often the subject of gossip, while contemporary sources referred to her as a ‘Sapphist’. Jibes were also made about her so-called ‘masculine’ pursuits, as the diarist Joseph Farrington observed: ‘the singularities of Mrs Damer are remarkable — She wears a Mans Hat, and Shoes, — and a Jacket also like a man’s — thus she walks about the fields with a hooking stick…’.

She continued to sculpt until the end of her life, dying aged 79, in 1828 at her Mayfair home. She was buried at St. Mary’s, Sundridge, Kent in the same church as her mother. It is said that in her will, Anne requested that her letters be destroyed and that she be interred with the bones of her dog and her sculpting tools.

Derek Purnell, Director, Strawberry Hill House & Garden, says: “If it wasn’t for Walpole, Anne Damer would be a mere name in the history of British Art. Walpole was the first to insert her work in an art historical discourse. Her presence at Strawberry opens a new exciting chapter in the history of the house and its inhabitants, that is absolutely necessary for us to research more comprehensively.”

Dr Silvia Davoli, Research Curator at Strawberry Hill House explains why Anne Seymour Damer is perhaps not as well-known as she deserves to be: “Evaluating the appreciation of Anne Damer’s work at the time is really difficult, especially as opinions on her work were very often contradictory. Members of her family, or scholars related to her family had a very high opinion of her work. On the other hand, artists like Joseph Farington or James Smith distrusted her abilities as a sculptor, whereas others like Canova and John Flaxman it seems appreciated her work.”

She adds: “Most of the public commissions Damer received during her life were derived from her family, which means that very little information remains even on the commissions themselves. However, the fact that for many years she exhibited her works at the RA as an honorary exhibitor show us that she certainly was more than a gifted amateur.”

Strawberry Hill House & Garden is internationally famous as Britain’s finest example of domestic Georgian Gothic revival architecture. Created by renowned writer Horace Walpole (1717-1797), The house has been open to the public for over 250 years.

Horace Walpole was a pivotal figure in 18th-century society, literature, art, and architecture. The third son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, Horace Walpole was a man of many talents with a large network of influential friends. From 1739-41, Walpole embarked on a Grand Tour and European influences can be seen in the design of Strawberry Hill House and the works that formed its vast collection of treasures. He was author of the world’s first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.

During the 19th and the 20th-centuries the Villa was occupied by Frances, Countess Waldegrave (1821-1879), whose father John Braham was an internationally famous Jewish opera singer; and Herbert Stern, 1st Baron Michelham (1851-1919), who belonged to a European Jewish dynasty of bankers. Both Lady Waldegrave and the Stern family left at Strawberry Hill tangible signs of their presence through their choice of furnishings, decor, and sumptuous collections.

Strawberry Hill’s 18th-century garden is one of the earliest in the English naturalistic style. Horace Walpole’s delightful essay on garden design is perhaps the most famous and influential piece of writing on the English landscape garden, first published in 1780 as part of his Anecdotes of Painting in England. In recent years, the House and Garden have been sympathetically restored to recreate Walpole’s unique vision and in the 21st-century his “land of beauties” continues to thrive as a haven for wildlife and visitors throughout the year.

In Focus: Celebrating Sculptress Anne Seymour Damer will be at Strawberry Hill House from the 17th of October 2021 until the 3rd of January 2022. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

For information on other exciting exhibitions in London, please click here.

-London's Best Events-
What: new exhibition
When: 17 Oct 21 - 3 Jan 22
Where: Strawberry Hill