by Cassandra Reeves
Anne Seymour Damer (1749–1828) was born Anne Seymour Conway on November 8th in Sundridge, Kent at Coombe Bank, Sevenoaks. An only child, Anne’s father Henry Seymour Conway (1721–1795) held the highest rank in the British Army for many years as field marshal before continuing to lead a long and distinguished military career, acting as Leader of the House of Commons, Chief Secretary for Ireland, Secretary of State for the Southern Department and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army ("Henry Seymour Conway"). Her mother was Lady Caroline Campbell (1721–1803), becoming Countess of Ailesbury through her first marriage to Charles Bruce, 3rd Earl of Ailesbury ("Anne Seymour Damer: A Woman of Art and Fashion, 1748-1828"). Henry was not only successful in his military career but dabbled as a playwright with a fondness for literature. His influence on Anne fostered her love for the theatre and of the arts. Anne’s father was good friends with his cousin Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717–1797) who would become her godfather.
As a child, Henry’s occupation required him to constantly travel and where he went, Lady Caroline followed. Perforce, Anne divided her time between Remenham near Henley-on-Thames at their palatial family home Park Place and Walpole’s towering Gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill House ("Anne Damer entry: Life screen within Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present"). Walpole himself was not only son of the first British prime minister but a politician, antiquarian, art collector and accomplished writer, penning what is widely thought to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764). His coined term for the gloomy warmth exhibited by abbeys and cathedrals was “gloomth” (“Castle of Otranto”) which is perhaps an apt description of the man himself, as well as the life he led.
Anne was well-educated from an early age, with a propensity toward the classics – she was fluent in Latin, knew a decent amount of Greek, and began to learn the intricacies of sculpture and anatomy from respected artists William Cruikshank, Giuseppe Ceracchi and John Bacon ("Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role"). An eccentric and lover of the arts, Walpole strongly believed in Anne’s artistry and was one of the central figures in her life, encouraging her to pursue her talents. In his personal letters, he described Anne as “so eminently a classic genius” and “so superior an artist” as well as remarking “I love her as my own child.” ("Anne Seymour Damer, sculptor") Such was Horace’s affection for his goddaughter, he bequeathed the entirety of his possessions and home to her upon his death on March 2nd, 1797.
At only nineteen, Anne married the Honorable John Damer (1744–1776) on June 14th, 1767. The twenty-three-year-old Irish-born, eldest son of Joseph Damer, 1st Earl of Dorchester (1718–1798) was an educated man, studying at both Eton and Trinity College and became a Member of Parliament, aligning himself with the Whigs ("John Damer"). Despite his education, John was reckless with his finances and had a terrible gambling addiction. This marriage was a distressing one, and while Anne tried her best to be the perfect example of an 18th-century wife, she separated from John just four years later in 1771. In a biography two years after her death, Lady Charlotte Bury would say of the marriage: “the happiest ties of woman's life were denied to her. During the short time that she was a wife she behaved excellently well to a singularly depraved husband.” (“The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform”)
On August 15th, 1776, John Damer took his own life in an upstairs bedroom of the Bedford Arms tavern in Covent Garden. After soliciting help from his father to pay off copious and overwhelming debts, he was refused. With seemingly no other options, John retired for the evening and shot himself with a pistol. In a letter to Sir Horace Mann, Walpole would claim that John left a note, reading: “The people of the house are not to blame for what has happened; it was my own act.” (“Covent Garden: Part 2 of 3”) Though John's note was a clear indication he had taken his own life, Anne was blamed in part for her husband’s demise. After his death, she was initially denied by her father-in-law of her jointure of £2,500 and forbidden to keep any of John’s possessions. John's father eventually permitted her to receive her jointure, which Anne first chose to use toward paying off her late husband’s debts, living in a small apartment by herself to save money whilst doing so ("The Life of Anne Damer: Portait of a Regency Artist").
While the death of one's husband would have been a devastating event for an 18th century woman and might surely have meant the start of a decline, this was perhaps the real beginning of Anne’s life and allowed her to start her career. With John’s debts paid off, Anne was receiving a regular income from her jointure and living at Strawberry Hill House. Coming from an extremely aristocratic family already, this meant she was incredibly independently wealthy without need for a husband and, now unmarried, was free to do as she pleased. This, for her, meant pursuing her second passion next to art: the theatre. Anne was involved in amateur theatricals at both Strawberry Hill and the Duke of Richmond's home, Richmond House. One of the most notable was The Way To Keep Him ("The Life of Anne Damer: Portait of a Regency Artist").
Anne was also a prominent figure among the Whig faction of the aristocracy, using her social prowess to influence the opinions of her peers along with her close friends and fellow eminent women, Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire ("The Life of Anne Damer: Portait of a Regency Artist"). Their social prowess and influence may best be evidenced through their depiction as the three witches from Macbeth in a 1775 portait by Daniel Gardner.
In addition to acting, various social escapades and a continued focus on her artistry, in her first year as a widow Anne travelled to Italy and Portugal both to study art and to escape the incessant attacks against her newspapers and anonymous authors that vilified her for her separation, blamed her for her husband’s suicide, attacked her for not grieving as was expected of a woman and accused her of Sapphism – an antiquated term for what we would now call lesbianism. Those writing against Anne and accusing her of relationships and affairs with multiple women of London's aristocracy may have been right. Rumors of her dalliances with those of the fairer sex began with famous comedic actress Elizabeth Farren (1759–1829). Elizabeth was nine years Anne’s junior. They met through their involvement with amateur theatricals held at the Duke of Richmond’s home and Strawberry Hill, where Elizabeth was director and supervisor ("The Life of Anne Damer: Portait of a Regency Artist"). The alleged affair between them was not only seen as deplorable based on it occurring between two women, but immoral as Elizabeth was betrothed to Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby ("Farren, Elizabeth").
This affair was satirized in writings and pamphlets, with claims being made that Anne was able to do more for Elizabeth sexually than her husband could. These strikes against Anne’s character were perhaps never more obvious than in A Sapphick Epistle, from Jack Cavendish to the Honourable and most beautiful Mrs D---r. Anonymously published by who believed to be Lord John Cavendish, this 1771 poem defames Anne for her affair with Elizabeth and alleged another relationship with the actress, Kitty Clive. In response to these attacks, Anne publicly defended herself and worked tirelessly over the course of the next decade on her art. Anne was an accomplished sculptor, exhibiting her works at The Royal Academy of Arts between 1784 to 1818. She specialized in busts and was well known for her sculptures of animals ("Anne Seymour Damer, sculptor").
Upon Horace Walpole’s death in 1797, Anne inherited Strawberry Hill and all his belongings and lived on the property until 1811. The task of taking care of his estate might have been daunting had it not been for her close companion and the woman who is considered to be the love of Anne’s life, Mary Berry (1763–1852), who had been moved onto the estate by Walpole. Horace referred to Mary and her sister Agnes as his wives and had a fondness bordering on obsession with the women ("Belmour: A Modern Edition"). This relationship was only ever strictly platonic, due in part to the large age gap between Walpole and the sisters – Mary and Agnes in their mid-20's, Walpole in his 70's. Anne and Mary influenced each other’s lives indelibly with evidence suggesting their relationship started in 1789 when Anne was 40 and Mary was 26 ("Letter about Anne Damer to Isobel Grundy"). Mary, an author, published Social Life in England and France from the French Revolution (1831) as well as a compilation of her personal writings, Journals and Correspondence (1865) ("Mary Berry"). In these letters, we see the best examples of the deep love and respect the two women had for each other. In one undated letter from Anne to Mary, she laments: "Of one thing I am convinced, that the first moment my mind will in any degree... recover will be when I again see you and press you to my heart." (“Belmour: A Modern Edition”) As painter Joseph Farrington wrote in his 1798 journal, a parting between the two was described by servants “as if it had been parting before death." (“Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook”)
Despite this, accusations in 1794 regarding their relationship and sexuality plagued them, forcing them apart. Mary felt it best not to meet in private, only around others. In 1794, she wrote to Anne: "[We would not] be separated, God almighty forbid—but a change of manner, a less frequency of meeting, a something must be done.... You see, my friend, for my friend you are, & ever must be, & no power on Earth, but yourself, ever can, or shall make you otherwise—You see the necessity of all & double the caution I enjoyned." (“Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role”) Although Mary had suitors and proposals, none led to marriage, with Berry described by Scottish poet Joanna Baillie as being “really anxious” about what Anne would say, needing to speak with her before accepting. (“The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie”) In correspondence whilst Anne was abroad penning her 1801 novel, Belmour, it is clear the very idea that Mary might marry threw Anne into a state of melancholy.
Indeed, her novel is seen as an allegory to her and Berry’s forbidden relationship, with a widower pining after a married woman, forcing them into clandestine meetings until the woman’s husband dies and they can be together. As it was with Anne and Mary, upon her return to England the women embarked on the task of organizing Walpole’s estate. By this time Anne’s reputation in London was that of an eclectic artist, with her penchant for dressing in men’s clothing, odd career choice as female sculptor in an entirely male-dominated profession, and decision not to seek another marriage after her husband’s death. Though rumors of her relationships with women were still thrown around, the fervor surrounding them had calmed, allowing her and Mary to become closer without fear of reproach. After moving from Strawberry Hill, Anne purchased York House in Twickenham and a home in the wealthy neighborhood of Upper Brooke Street at No. 18 ("Upper Brook Street: North Side"), living between both with Berry for the remainder of her life.
On May 28th, 1828, Anne passed at her Upper Brook Street home. She was buried beside her mother at St Mary's Church in Sundridge, Kent with the ashes of her beloved dog, Fidele and her sculptor’s tools ("Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role"). Anne’s life may be compared to that of a phoenix, rising from the ashes of debt and public scorn, setting a precedent for women sculptors in crafting a career for herself from that which did not exist, and socially and politically influencing those around her. She may best be remembered not just for being a publicly "out" lesbian and Britain's first female sculptor, but by the way in which she stayed true to herself at all costs, defended her character against her detractors, and lived her life as authentically as possible.