The Henley Sculptress

“So superior an artist”: Anne Seymour Damer

Here at the River & Rowing Museum, we’re passionate about shining a spotlight on talented female artists who have been inspired by the core themes in our collection; Henley on Thames, the River Thames and international rowing. You may have seen the highly intricate wood engravings of Gertrude Hermes, who took inspiration from the Thames, in our current exhibition. If not, check it out before it closes on 11 October 2020 (you can buy tickets online here)!

Anne Seymour Damer is another fascinating female artist whose works are on permanent display in the Museum’s Henley Gallery. Damer is a key figure in the story of Henley but you could be forgiven if her name doesn’t ring a bell to you. After all, Damer has gone from being a household name in her day to fading from public view in more recent years. But her artistic achievements and contribution to Henley’s heritage cannot be disputed.

Damer was born in Kent in 1748, but spent much of her childhood at Park Place in Remenham, near Henley on Thames. The only daughter of Field Marshall Henry Seymour Conway, who became Assistant Secretary in Ireland in 1751, and Lady Caroline Campbell, her background was aristocratic.

See an image of Park Place, Remenham, in River & Rowing Museum’s Collection Online

In the 18th century, several high-ranking landowners lived in the town of Henley and the neighbouring country houses, amongst them Damer’s father. Henley was becoming a fashionable social centre at this time, and many of these landowners met socially. On 17 October 1788, Damer attended the winter Henley ball which, according to the diarist Caroline Powys, was “a very full one, the whole neighbouring families making it a point to attend. Got home about four, as there is always a supper and dancing after.” Damer also counted many women with influence and radical thinkers amongst her friends, from Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, to Caroline, Princess of Wales.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, few female artists worked in sculpture, which was regarded as a male profession, but this was an area in which Damer was determined to excel. Rather unusually for an aristocratic girl, Damer was trained in sculpture by the artists, Giuseppe Ceracchi and John Bacon. When her parents moved to Ireland in 1751, Damer went to live with her cousin and godfather, the author and Whig politician Horace Walpole, at Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham. Surrounded by Walpole’s collection of stained glass, books and paintings, and encouraged by Walpole himself, her interest in art blossomed.

In 1767, Damer (née Conway) married John Damer at Park Place, but the marriage was far from happy and ended with her husband’s suicide in 1776. When her husband’s father, Lord Milton, refused to settle his son’s gambling debts, Damer was forced to sell all of her jewellery and went to live with her father to save money. But Damer now had the financial independence, thanks to her prenuptial agreement, and freedom to carve out her sculpting career.  Damer started out by making animal sculptures and modelling in wax, but later carved a wide range of subjects in terracotta or stone, and sometimes bronze, an expensive material at this time.

One of her arguably best-known sculpting projects were the keystones of Tamesis and Isis for each side of the central arch on the new bridge in Henley. When a major flood in 1774 was the final nail in the coffin for the wooden bridge in Henley, it was replaced by a much sturdier stone bridge, designed by architect William Hayward. Damer’s father, General Conway, took a great interest in its design.

See images of the Isis and Tamesis keystones in River & Rowing Museum’s Collection Online

You can see the original terracotta and plaster models for Damer’s Tamesis and Isis keystones, which she made in 1785, in the Museum’s Henley Gallery; these are kindly on loan to the Museum. When you look closely at them, you will see that Damer presents Tamesis and Isis as the god and goddess of the river, looking out over the water and protecting the bridge. Interestingly, Isis was modelled on Damer’s close friend, Mrs Freeman, who lived nearby at Fawley Court.

Damer both designed and carved the keystones herself, something Horace Walpole found astonishing:
“She is engaged on an extraordinary work…Mrs Damer offered to make two gigantic masks of the Thame and Isis for the key-stones; and actually modelled them; and a statuary was to execute them. I said, ‘Oh! It will be imagined that you had little hand in them; you must perform them yourself’. She consented.”

The fact that a female artist produced these sculptures was clearly a shock to the system. Walpole remarked that the Tamesis sculpture had a “prodigious effect” and “[t]he keystones of a country bridge carved by a young lady is an unparalleled curiosity!”. For a relatively unheard sculptress, this project was a great opportunity for Damer to raise her public profile, and was followed by many more sculptures which were testament to Damer’s artistic talents, from a full-length gilt metal and white marble sculpture of King George III for the new Register House in Edinburgh to a bust of the Whig politician Sir Charles James Fox which was presented to Napoleon in 1815. Damer was also an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London from 1784 to 1818 and the first woman to exhibit sculpture at the Academy, an impressive 32 times!

Although Damer is arguably best known for being a sculptress, her talents did extend beyond the sphere of sculpture; she was also an actress, author, traveller and socialite. Even so, sculpture appears to have been her main interest, as Princess Dashkova, a close friend of Damer but also the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, noted: “it was not in her [Damer’s] boudoir that her friends found her rather did they find her wrestling with a block of marble, trying to impart to it the shape she wanted.”

Damer sold Park Place in 1796 after her father died. She continued to sculpt until the end of her life. When she died in 1828, such was her love of sculpture that she was buried with her sculpting tools and apron (and the ashes of her favourite dog).

Damer’s keystones on the bridge in Henley can be easily missed, but are still standing strong today. They are testament to her sculpting ability, the acclaim she received in her lifetime and her status in Henley society. As Damer’s biographer, Percy Noble, said, “[s]he is one of the few women in the history of the world who has taken up the hammer and chisel, and, although her work may now appear rather rough and unfinished, in her day her success was highly praised.” So Damer’s impressive keystones, and her role in the story of Henley, should not go unremarked.

To find out more about the fascinating people and events which have shaped Henley’s history, book a spot on one of our Henley Story Curator Tours here. For young ones, you can also have a go at making your very own Tamesis and Isis clay heads at home – click here to find out more.

Quote from blog title: Letter from Horace Walpole to the Earl of Strafford, 31 August 1781, from The Letters of Horace Walpole (1857), Volume VIII