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The Honorable Mrs. Damer

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     Though many ladies, from Angelica Kauffman and Maria Cosway downwards, have been distinguished by their pencil, and still more by their pen, yet few have made themselves a name by the chisel of the statuary and sculptor. One great exception, however, must be made to this rule in the person of the Hon. Mrs. Damer, the author of the colossal marble bust of Lord Nelson, for which that hero sat to her on his return to England after the battle of the Nile, and which she presented to the City of London, to be placed in the Guildball, where it still stands.
     Anne Seymour Conway, only daughter of Field-Marshall Conway (brother of the first Marquis of Hertford) and of Caroline, Countess Dowager of Ailesbury, and granddaughter of John, fourth Duke of Argyll, was born in the year 1748. She married, in June, 1767, the Hon. John Damer, eldest son of Joseph, first Lord Milton, and brother of George, Earl of Dorchester, but her marriage proved to be an unhappy one. Mr. Damer was heir 'in expectancy' to £22,000 a year, but was of a turn of mind too eccentric to be confined within the limits of any fortune. He shot himself at the Bedford Arms,' in Covent Garden, on August the 15th, 1776. leaving Mrs. Damer, his widow, without issue. Lord Milton refused to pay his son's debts; Horace Walpole says that he was very angry with leer, poor soul, and meanly wanted to make her sell her jewels in order to pay them out of her own pocket.
     Air. Darner's suicide was hastened, and indeed provoked, by his father's unkindness. Horace Walpole, after entering at length into this matter in a letter to Sir Horace Alarm, a few days after the act bad been committed, gives the following circumstantial account: 'On Thursday Mr. Damer slipped at the "Bedford Arms," in Covent Garden, with four ladies and a blind fiddler. At three in the morning he dismissed his seraglio, ordering his Orpheus to come up again in half-an-hour. When he returned, he found his master dead, and smelt gunpowder. He called, the master of the house came up, and they found Mr. Damer sitting in a chair dead, with one pistol beside him, and another in his pocket. The ball had not gone through his head, or made any report. On the table lay a scrap of paper, inscribed with those words:
     ''The people of the house are not to blame for what has happened, it was my own act . . .
What a catastrophe for a man of thirty-two, heir to two-and-twenty thousand a year!'
     Walpole remarks, with his usual cynicism on this affair, that 'Five thousand a year in present, and £22,000 in reversion, are not, it would seem, sufficient for happiness, and cannot check a pistol:
     From this period Mrs. Damer seems to have devoted herself to the cultivation of her talents, and particularly to her chisel. In early life she showed so much taste in art and literature, that Horace Walpole bequeathed to her the reversion of Strawberry Hill, his favorite ‘bijou' residence, with remainder to Lord Waldegrave.
     Walpole appears to have been very fond of her, and frequently had her to stay with him at Strawberry Hill, where she often assisted in 'doing the honors' of the place. In 1752, Walpole wrote a pleasant letter about her-in which be speaks of her as his ‘little wife'--to Field-Marshall Conway, her father. He also, in another letter, styles her ‘the infanta' ; and her progress in the art of waxen statuary is duly chronicled by him in 1762. Walpole, in fact, was very proud of her, and when she grew up and married, and danced at court balls and 'Almack's,' he acknowledged that be was 'apt to, be frightened about her.' It seems that Horace Walpole would at times even go so far as to interest himself in the matter of her personal adornment; for, in a letter to a friend, in 1775, be writes: 'Tell Mrs. Damer, that the fashion is now to erect the toupée into a high, detached tuft of hair, like a cockatoo's crest; and this toupee they call la physiognomies; I don't guess why.’
     In 1779, the Duchess of Leinster, another lady, and Mrs. Damer, when making a voyage, were captured by a privateer, but released very shortly afterwards. The lives of artists are generally most uneventful, and this is almost the only incident which history records concerning Mrs. Damer.
     The young widow mixed largely in the fashionable world and in the literary society of her day. She was somewhat delicate, and of classical taste. Her great friend and benefactor says that she ` writes Latin like Pliny, and is learning Greek' He also admits that she was shy, modest, and reserved; adding that `you won't discover one thousandth part of her understanding.'
     In the art of sculpture, Miss Conway (or Mrs. Damer) undoubtedly took the lead of all amateurs. In early life she received lessons from Ceracclin, and also from the elder Bacon; and she even followed the example of professional artists, in taking a voyage to Italy to improve herself. Her elegant, tasteful, and classical productions are widely scattered as presents. At the suggestion of her relative, Sir Alexander Johnson, with a view to aid the advancement of European arts in India, she sent a bust of Lord Nelson to the King of Tanjore.
     It was by the advice of no less a person than David Hume, the historian, when he was acting as private secretary to her father, the field marshal, that her attention was first drawn to the study of the principles of sculpture, and afterwards to its practice as an art. Her progress was rapid, the more so as her eye had been trained to admire beauty of form among the art-treasures of Strawberry Hill; and it was not long before she attained to a perfection in statuary which made her name known among connoisseurs, not only in England but on the Continent.
     On the death of her father's intimate friend, Horace Walpole (for by that name he is far better known than by the earldom which be possessed for the last six years of his life), Mrs. Darner took up her residence at Strawberry Hill. She occupied this, her 'Twickenham Castle,' till about the year 1810; when, finding the situation lonely, she gave up the house, together with the two thousand pounds a year which her cousin had left to keep it up and maintain it, to the Waldegraves, who continued to inhabit it till a recent date. Removing thence to East Sheen, she found the air unsuited to her delicate constitution, and in consequence purchased from Prince Stahzemberg York House, Twickenham, formerly the residence of Lord Chancellor Clarendon, where she spent the remainder of a long life.
     On settling down at Twickenham, she found that a studio was absolutely necessary, in order to carry out her favorite pursuit, and, in fact, to her happiness; and therefore, as one wing of the mansion had been converted into a theatre, she resolved to turn the other wing into a studio and gallery of sculpture. Here she worked constantly ; and here grew into life, one by one, that series of works in marble and stone with which all admirers of Flaxman and Chantry are familiar.
     The list of Mrs. Damer's works is too long to be given here. Among the best known of them, however, are a figure of a 'Dog,' for which she was highly honored by the Academy of Florence; an 'Osprey,' formerly at Strawberry Hill; the colossal bust of Nelson in the Guildhall, and that executed for the King of Tanjore, as already mentioned; and a third for King William I., when Duke of Clarence and Lord High Admiral; heads of the rivers Thame and Isis, which adorn the key-stones of the bridge over the Thames at Henley (near which town was her father's mansion, Park Place); two 'Dogs' in marble for her sister, the Duchess of Richmond-now at Goodwood ; a bust of herself, presented by her to the late Mr. R. P. Knight, F.S.A.; several pieces for Boydell's Shakespeare;' statues of her mother, the Countess of Ailesbury; Miss Farren (afterwards Countess of Derby); Miss Barry, the friend of Horace Walpole, and editor of his works; the Hon. Peniston Lamb, and his brother, the second Lord Melbourne, when children; Sir Humphry Davy; Queen Caroline, the consort of George IV.; and a bust of Mrs. Siddons, which has been considered a very masterly performance. The statue of King George III. in the register office at Edinburgh is the work of her hands, and so is the beautiful bust of Sir Joseph Banks which adorns the British Museum. Horace Walpole makes mention of a group of marble kittens which Mrs. Damer gave him; and adds that they , are so much alive that I talk to them.'
     But it was not merely as a sculptor that Airs. Damer acquired celebrity hr her day, for she was also a very clever actress. When the Duke of Richmond patronized private theatricals, he was glad to avail himself of Mrs. Damer's assistance. She was the ' Thalia' of the scene. She appeared in the character of 'Violante' in the Wonder when Lord Henry Fitzgerald supported the part of 'Don Felix.' She also was eminent as 'Mrs. Lovemore,' in 'The Way to Keep Him,' and as 'Lady Freelove,' in ' The Jealous Wife: At a later period, during her stay at Strawberry Hill, she herself fitted up an elegant little theatre. Here the comedy called 'Fashionable Lovers' (which has been attributed to the pen of Lord Orford) was first represented. Kemble obtained permission to transplant this comedy to the boards of Drury Lane, but there it was not successful.
     Mrs. Damer lived to a great age, respected and admired by all her contemporaries; and at her death, in 1828, she bequeathed York House to her cousin, Lady Johnston, the wife of the late Right Hon. Sir Alexander Johnston, and only daughter of Lord William Campbell, a younger son of the Duke of Argyll.
     It is clear from what is said above that, in an ago not very remarkable for the love of art, Mrs. Darner secured for herself a name and reputation which was all her own, and fairly distanced the amateur artists of her time. And she may certainly be pronounced singularly happy, if there is any truth in the words of Pericles that ‘the lady is the most to be envied whose name is least mentioned among men whether for praise or blame.' But few anecdotes are told about her; and she does not figure much in the anecdotal memoirs of the `Georgian Era.' At her death she was guilty of one little piece of pardonable eccentricity; for  'Sylvanus Urban' tells us that 'she directed that her apron and her tools should be buried with her, and also the bones of a favorite dog that died before her.'

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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