Anne Seymour Conway was born in 1748 to a respected Whig family; her father was nephew to Robert Walpole. She married young, to the future Earl of Dorchester, but they were il matched: she was sociable and loved society, while her husband was grave, but loved spending money whilst disastrously managing it. After 7 years of marriage with no children they separated and in 1776 John Damer shot himself in a bawdy house in Covent Garden. He left huge debts but she retained enough income to survive but she became a sculptor, after training in terracotta with Giuseppe Ceracchi and marble with John Bacon and anatomy from Dr William Cumberland Cruikshank.She was close friends with Lady Melbourne and the Duchess of Devonshire, and the three were depicted as Macbeth’s three witches by Daniel Gardner.
She was widely written about for both her skill and also as a curiosity. She had an extensive library claimed tone more akin to those of a collector than a craftsman, apparently showing the influence of Walpole rather than her craftsmen teachers. Critics acknowledged she must have been good to be a student of Bacon, and some proclaimed her as Britain’s finest, but her refusal to abide by strict classical rules led others to mock her ability.
She produced busts of her famous friends as well as of dogs and cats and some public sculpture. She also produced busts of famous men of her age such as Nelson, Sir Joseph Banks, and Sir Humphrey Davey. She was good enough to exhibit 34 pieces at the Royal Academy but being a female, only as an honorary member. She also submitted plans for Nelson at Trafalgar Square, and some believed she deserved it, though she downgraded her own skill by offering to charge only the cost of materials. Much of her terracotta work is lost, but enough of them and the marble survive to show she had prodigious talent.
When Walpole’s dog Tonton died in 1789 she gave him a marble sculpture of two kittens which he talked to as he had to his dog.
In 1784 she carved a marble bust of her friend Viscountess Melbourne, which inspired Erasmus darwin to write:
Long with soft touch shall gamer’s chisel charm,
With grace delight us, and with beauty warm;
foster’s fine form shall hearts unborn engage,
And MELBOURN’s smile enchant another age.
She also loved acting and producing plays, but the Tory press spread rumours that she was gay, linking her with Mrs Siddons and Elizabeth Farron.
Like many of her age, she loved travel, and was brave enough to go too though Portugal and Spain, and Revolutionary France in 1790-1. In Lisbon she wrote a novel, Belmour which eventually ran to three editions.
On the death of Horace Walpole, she was left a life interest in his wonderful house Strawberry Hill where she recorded the contents and as guide to visitors, as well as editing and publishing Walpole’s work. She lived there with her mother from 1798 where she created a theatre to continue her interest in writing and acting with her friends.
She was a good linguist, and a knowledgable gardner; and was of friend to Josephine Buonaparte and also Joseph Banks
On her death she ordered all her correspondence destroyed; she was buried with her sculpting tools and the bones of her favourite dog.
And yet for all this, she does not rate a mentioning my large tome by the NPG Brilliant Women 18th Century Bluestockings, so it seems academics are still struggling to deal with this brilliant talented artist. I love this image of her – she was no diletante, she was a genuine working artist, intelligent, well read and versatile. I cannot think of another sculptor who worked so well in such varied media. Plus she was incredibly high up in the social order, so deserves to be better remembered on that front also.
Source: Anne Seymour Damer, Sculpture & Society Ed. Michael Snodin