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,
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
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.
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
Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887
Chapters From the Family Chest