‘The annals of statuary record few artists of the fair sex, and not one that I recollect of any celebrity. Mrs Damer’s busts from the life are not inferior to the antique, and theirs we are sure, were not more like.’
Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, London, 1849, vol. I, pp.xx-xxi
This striking portrait bust was carved in 1789 by Anne Seymour Damer. Depicting Damer’s mother, Lady Caroline Campbell, later Countess of Ailesbury, this remarkably bold piece of sculpture demonstrates Damer’s ability both as a designer of powerful neo-classicism and a formidable technician. One of only a dozen documented works in marble by Damer, this bust was fist listed by Horace Walpole in his Book of Visitors in 1789, it was engraved the same year by John Jones and later replicated by Damer for her mother’s tomb. The bust, set on a socle copiously inscribed in both Ancient Greek and Latin, was retained by Damer, and left by her to one of her cousins, Lady Louisa Johnston. Most recently it has been on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it was installed in their new British galleries.
Damer is arguably the most considerable female sculptor of the eighteenth century. Despite a number of recent exhibitions and publications, her work remains little known and her place as not only one of the pioneering female artists of the eighteenth century, but one of the most consistently original neo-classical sculptors of the period has been largely overlooked. Born into wealth and privilege, Damer’s work has often been undermined by her inferred status as an amateur. A fact compounded by the misogynistic tone of her early biographer, Allan Cunningham, who cast doubt on the authorship of Damer’s marbles, suggesting she used assistants to carve her busts. However, Damer saw herself as a professional: trained to model by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi and instructed in carving marble in the productive studio of John Bacon, Damer had a solid practical grounding. In common with male artists of the period she travelled extensively on the Continent and there is evidence that she closely studied antique sculpture, and also in common with sculptors such as Joseph Nollekens, restored antiquities. Her work was consistently praised by contemporaries. She exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, received public commissions and worked in a range of materials: wax, terracotta, bronze and marble. Furthermore, Damer is consistently portrayed as a sculptor in contemporary portraits, including works by Richard Cosway and John Downman, both of which show her specifically in the process of working in stone, with mallet and chisel in hand.
Damer was the daughter of the Hon. Henry Seymour Conway, a distinguished army officer and Whig politician and Caroline Campbell, daughter of John, 4th Duke of Argyll and widow of Charles Bruce, 3rd Earl of Ailesbury. She spent her childhood at Park Place, Remenham, near Henley-on-Thames. Her father’s cousin, Horace Walpole was hugely important throughout her childhood, acting as her guardian during her parents’ frequent absences abroad, and at his death he bequeathed her Strawberry Hill as his executor and residuary legatee.
Damer’s early trajectory was conventional enough, in 1767 she married John Damer, eldest son of Joseph Damer, 1st Earl of Dorchester. The Damers were at the heart of London society, Anne taking her place amongst a new generation of Whig hostesses, including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne. The three were depicted in a celebrated pastel by Daniel Gardner in the guise of the three witches from Macbeth (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Damers’ marriage was an unhappy one, John Damer, despite a considerable income, fell into debt and after seven years of marriage the couple separated. Damer’s finances worsened to such an extent that in 1776 he committed suicide in a public house in Covent Garden.
Forced to withdraw from society, it was in widowhood that Damer was able to pursue her interest in sculpture. It is thanks to Horace Walpole that we learn of Damer’s sculptural training with the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi. Giuseppe Ceracchi trained in Rome with Tommaso Righi, then continued his studies at the Accademia di San Luca. In 1773 he travelled to London to work with Agostino Carlini, a founding member of the Royal Academy. Ceracchi exhibited busts at the Royal Academy in the late 1770s and modelled architectural ornaments and bas-relief panels for Robert Adam. In 1778 Ceracchi sculpted the statues of Temperance and Fortitude cast in Portland stone for Strand façade of Sir William Chambers’ Somerset House, London. It was possibly through Carlini that he first met Anne Damer, Carlini had been commissioned by her father-in-law, Lord Dorchester, to produce an impressive and moving monument to himself and his wife at Milton Abbey. Walpole tells us that Ceracchi taught Damer to model, certainly Ceracchi was a virtuosic modeller in terracotta, several bold portrait busts survive, including a celebrated depiction of George Washington now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes. That he taught Damer is confirmed by JT Smith who noted that Ceracchi ‘was the Honourable Mrs Damer’s master in Sculpture, as that lady declared to me herself.’ Through Ceracchi, Damer was exposed to the latest currents of European neo-classicism.
Allan Cunningham further mentions that Damer received lessons in anatomy from Dr William Cumberland Cruikshank. Cruikshank was William Hunter’s assistant and the author of The Anatomy of the Absorbing Vessels of the Human Body, which first appeared in 1786. A series of early anatomical studies by Damer survive in a private collection and demonstrate how diligently she studied the musculature of the human figure. Early studies after the antique, particularly a marble copy of the head of the celebrated Niobe from the Medici collection, suggests that Damer pursued the stages of an academic training, despite being prevented from attending the Academy Schools on grounds of gender.
Ceracchi celebrated Damer as the Muse of Sculpture in a full-length statue in antique costume now in the British Museum, with tools specifically used for carving in stone at her feet (a mallet, bullnosed and flat chisels, and a rasp), she is depicted carrying a model, apparently of her own design, depicting the Genius of the Thames. Ceracchi’s prominent depiction of Damer as a sculptor, specifically a carver of stone raises the question of what evidence we have that Damer worked herself in marble.
In 1781 Damer visited Italy, Walpole wrote to Horace Mann in Florence that she was so reserved and modest that ‘we have by accident discovered that she writes Latin like Pliny and is learning Greek. In Italy she will be a prodigy; she models like Bernini, has excelled the moderns in the similitudes of her busts and has lately begun one in marble.’ The bust in marble may well have been Damer’s self-portrait which she presented to the Uffizi, however, it was more likely to have been the head of Niobe which Walpole remarks in his Book of Visitors was ‘her first attempt’. Damer’s earliest biographers mention that she ‘learned the art of working in marble’ from John Bacon. This seems entirely plausible, John Bacon ran one of the most successful sculptural workshops in London producing funerary monuments, chimneypieces, garden sculpture as well as portrait busts. Bacon was also chief designer and manager of the Coade Artificial Stone Company. In Bacon’s busy studio, Damer could have learnt all she needed about handling marble: from selecting the correct block of stone, to roughing-out the block with punch and mallet, refining the features with chisel and drill and finishing the bust with files, rasps, and abrasives to achieve a smooth surface. Whilst Bacon employed multiple technicians and carvers and made great use of a pointing machine which enabled his assistants to translate his models into full-scale works of sculpture, he was also celebrated as a virtuosic carver. As such, Damer would have had access to a rounded training in handling stone and appreciated the importance of delegating the more menial aspects of working in marble to technicians.
Thanks to Walpole we have a chronological list of Damer’s work, and it is clear from the mid-1780s Damer was regularly completing sculptures in marble. These may have been achieved with the help of a studio assistant, but their routinely rough and uneven finish suggests that Damer worked on them herself. Damer went again to Italy in 1785 returning the following year when Walpole records she made a ‘Bust of her mother Lady Ailesbury in terra-cotta, veiled.’ This terracotta modello does not survive but was presumably the sketch for the present bust. In 1789 Walpole lists a series of Damer’s most celebrated works including ‘Miss Farren in marble as Thalia’, now in the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Three bas-reliefs for the Shakespeare Gallery’, now lost, these were exceptional neo-classical renderings of scenes from Anthony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus for John Boydell’s failed enterprise and ‘The King a model in terra-cotta 7 feet high for Glasgow.’ This last, called by Damer ‘my colossus’, was carved from a nine-ton block of Carrara marble for the General Register Office, Edinburgh. The boldly worked sculpture was topped with a bronze crown and sceptre, cast by the clockmaker Benjamin Vulliamy. Amongst this list appears the present bust, ‘Her mother in marble.’
This group of works demonstrate Damer’s breadth as a designer, working from the intimacy of a portrait bust to monumental public sculpture. But it was her advanced and singular neo-classicism which so marks out her work. Her frequent trips to the Continent meant she was abreast of the prevailing currents of European art, she collected fragments of antique sculpture, owned and studied antique gems (including a Roman onyx and gold ring with a carved chimera, ploughed up in a field in Beverley). Her library of works on classical sculpture shows the level of her knowledge and research in this area; alongside the classic works of Montfaucon, Perrault, Belloni, Stuart and Revett there were books on Herculaneum, Spalatro, ancient numismatics and gems, and European collections of antique sculpture. Unlike most of her male contemporaries, Damer read both Ancient Greek and Latin and her library lists many texts in these languages.
The boldly Grecian bust ranks as one of Damer’s most impressive and captivating portraits. Damer has shown her mother as an antique matron, starkly portraying her with almost archaic features; large, almond-shaped eyes, the flat bridge of the nose and regular wave of her hair. But this severely classical style belies the feeling of great intimacy in the delicacy of the handling and in the tender message engraved in the Greek inscription: ‘Friend and Mother’. The sitter’s slight smile and regular, beautiful features all point to the bond that existed between mother and daughter. The bust itself shows signs of Damer’s technique; the hair was created by drilling and some of the drill marks are still evident. As with other busts of the period, including her depiction of Prince Lubormirski of 1788 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Damer places the bust on a socle which is variously inscribed on the front and sides of the socle in Latin. The bust itself is signed in Greek.
The stark symmetry of design and bold handling of both the sitter’s hair and deeply cut costume all recall ancient busts, particularly archaic Greek sculpture. This veiled figure, proudly proclaiming her mother’s Campbell lineage and evidently intended to be viewed from below, it may well have been specifically designed for her mother’s tomb at St Mary’s, Sundridge in Kent. Lady Ailesbury had been born at Coombe Bank in Sundridge, which belonged successively to her father and brother, Lord Frederick Campbell. Damer made a second version of the bust which was eventually set-up in the chancel at St Mary’s, Sundridge.
The most vivid accounts of Lady Ailesbury come from Horace Walpole: ‘Her face and person were charming, lively she was, almost to étourderie, and so agreeable she was that I never heard her mentioned afterwards by one of her contemporaries who did not prefer her as the most perfect creature they ever saw.’ The handsome Lady Ailesbury was well-read, being particularly interested in Rousseau, for whom she secured a pension of £100 a year. Amongst her close circle were the historian, David Hume, the writers Gray, Thomson and Shenstone and the painters Reynolds and Angelica Kauffmann. Lady Ailesbury was herself celebrated for the remarkable copies after old masters she rendered in embroidery.
Damer continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1818, showing a mixture of portrait busts, sculptures of animals and designs for major public projects, including a monument for Admiral Nelson in 1807. Damer produced a pantheon of portraits of celebrated men of her age including Nelson, whom she had met in Naples, Joseph Banks, Sir Humphry Davy and Charles James Fox. Damer’s reputation grew considerably in her lifetime. Contemporaries marvelled at her technical virtuosity and the novelty of a female sculptor. By 1804 critics articulated the belief that she was the greatest sculptor of the day, a claim which reached a height in an article in the Morning Post penned by Thomas Hope in which he proclaimed Damer as the personification of romantic genius – working without assistants, reducing art to an intellectual form, and wiping the floor with mere modellers, workmen, and businessmen who constituted the profession. It was these unsought encomia which undoubtedly upset her earliest biographers who presented her as an aristocratic curiosity. These assessments have clouded later scholarship, along with the persistent contemporary rumours about her personal life and close female friendships. Framed as Sapphic, Damer’s sexuality became the subject of lurid speculation. As Greg Sullivan has recently observed it is these competing aspects of Damer’s biography and career which complicate any evaluation of her sculpture: ‘today, although we are slightly hamstrung by an absence of documentation, we are perhaps more open to sympathetic interpretation of Damer’s work. Even so, the complex mix, in one career of sculptural, gender and sexual politics, autodidacticism, European neoclassicism, and class, perhaps still might lead us to conclude that ‘the oddity of her achievement is striking.’
Most of her surviving works are in public collections, and this is one of the few portrait busts to have appeared on the market in recent years.
- Alison Yarrington, ‘The Female Pygmalin: Anne Seymour Damer, Allan Cunningham and the writing of a woman sculptor’s life,’ The Sculpture Journal, vol. I, 1997, pp.32-44.
- Damer restored a bust of Jupiter Serapis for Horace Walpole and repaired the beak on Walpole’s famed Boccapaduli Eagle.
- John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and his Times, London, 1828, vol. II, p.120.
- Ed. W. S. Lewis, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, New Haven and London, 1944, vol.XII, p.272.
- Emma Donoghue, ‘Random Shafts of Malice: The Outings of Anne Seymour Damer’, in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. John C. Beynon and Caroline Gonda, Ashgate, 2010, pp.127-146.
- Greg Sullivan, ‘Anne Seymour Damer’s Odd Achievement’, in ed. Michael Snodin, Anne Seymour Damer: Sculpture & Society, exh. cat., 2014, p.7.