When discussing female artists who rejected traditional gender norms, many art historians reference Rosa Bonheur, but before Bonheaur was the so-called “Sappho of Sculpture” Anne Seymour Damer (1748-1828).
Damer was an English sculptor, described by English writer, art historian, and politician (and her god-father) Horace Walpole as a “female genius.” In addition to sculpting, she was also an accomplished author and theatrical producer and actress. She regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1784 and 1818 and was close friends with many members of high society. While a woman of high society, she also had a reputation of rejecting gendered expectations: Not only did she choose sculpture as her artistic trade, a artform traditionally only practiced by men, but Academic artist Joseph Farrington noted: ‘the singularities of Mrs. Damer are remarkable – she wears a Man’s Hat, and Shoes, – and a Jacket also like a mans –thus she walks about the fields with a hooking stick…”
Damer was born Anne Conway, the only daughter British Field-Marshal Henry Seymour Conway and Caroline Bruce (the daughter of the Duke of Argyll.) In 1766, at the age of 17, Damer was introduced into society and sketched by Angelica Kaufmann in the character of Ceres, which was completed into a painting by an unknown artist in 1800. In 1767, She married John Damer, the son of the 1st Earl of Dorchester, but the marriage was not a successful one. John Damer was described as a poor businessman with a taste for expensive things. The couple had no children and separated after seven years.
Two years after they separated, her husband committed suicide and left Anne a widow. Anne benefitted from a prenuptial agreement in which her father-in-law was obliged to pay her £2500 a year. This money allowed Damer to be financially independent and continue her artistic career.
An exceptionally well-connected woman, Damer traveled to Florence to visit politician Sir Horace Mann, Naples to meet with diplomat and vulcanologist Sir William Hamilton, visited Paris and was granted an audience with Napoleon, became quick friends with Josephine Bonaparte and even travelled to Elba in 1815 to visit Napoleon during his exile.
Damer’s connections offered her access to sculpting training and anatomy lessons which would not have typically been accessible to women. She exhibited at the Royal Academy as an honorary exhibitor, showcasing 32 works between 1784 and 1818. Her subjects were largely her friends and colleagues, a mixture of her close ties with politicians, including a sculpture of King George III, as well as her close friendships with actors.
As a widow, Damer was given more freedom and she never married again after her husband’s death. A number of sources suggest that Damer was involved in lesbian relationships – the anonymous “A Sapphick Epistle” was even dedicated to Damer in 1778 (“Sapphist” was a term frequently used to describe upper-class women suspected of engaging in romantic relationships with other women and was heavily laden with negative connotations.) Despite these rumors, there is no concrete evidence of these relationships. She maintained very close friendships with actresses Elizabeth Farren and writer Mary Berry and the letters exchanged, as well as contemporary accounts from mutual acquaintances, suggest intense intimacy and devotion between Damer and her close friends. Regardless of her sexuality, she was a woman who rejected gendered expectations and enjoyed a large amount of freedom because of it.
Anne continued sculpting throughout her life until she died in 1828. In her will, she directed that all her correspondences be destroyed and that she be buried with the bones of her dog and her sculpting tools.
For more information on Anne Damer: