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1788 The World and the Royal Academy

The society newspaper The World, Fashionable Advertiser had little doubt that Anne Seymour Damer was the star of the sculpture displays that year. She was the only sculptor, in fact, whose works they noticed in their review of the Royal Academy Exhibition:

MRS DAMER is in high luck of late. The Arts are all her own. In this exhibition, she has three works—a Dog in terra cotta [Fig. 1]—A Head of a Child in the character of Paris [lost]—and a boy as Bacchus [Fig. 2], both marble. The last appears to have much of the CAMPBELL character both as to sweet serenity and features—Of this Head and the Dog, who can look on, unmoved? The statuary may say, “With envy, I”1

Other journals, notably The St James’s Chronicle, reviewed the sculpture section without noting the amateur aristocratic exhibitor Mrs Damer at all, confining their commentary to established or emerging professional men: John Deare, Thomas Banks, and John Bacon.2 For The World and its readership, however, the Academy Exhibition was of interest primarily as a high society event. The success of an exhibition depended on how far the event engaged the aristocratic leaders of society as visitors, collectors, judges, and sitters. The World’s casual dismissal in 1788 of the efforts of mere statuaries (i.e. professional sculptors) as soon as a member of the ton (from the French le bon ton, meaning good manners or style) exhibited among them indicates just how important class remained to art appreciation for some sections of the Annual Exhibition’s audience.

The World had been founded in 1786 to chronicle “the world”, by which was meant the activities, leisure pursuits, and gossip of a hundred or so aristocratic leaders of society. The World’s writers flattered themselves that they “would not be behind in fidelity or fashion”.3 Along with other newspapers, it supplied helpful lists of the important people whose portraits might be seen in the current show.4 Anne Seymour Damer was resolutely one of their own: the daughter of the Rt Hon Henry Seymour Conway, Field-Marshal, Secretary of State and landowner, related to the Dukes of Somerset and the Earls of Orford on her father’s side, and to the Campbells and the Argylls through her mother.5 Her marriage to the apparently wealthy John Damer, son of Lord Milton, placed her firmly in the ton. Mrs Damer’s union, however, ended badly when her husband racked up tens of thousands of pounds of debt and killed himself in a London public house. According to her own account, this catastrophe led her to settle into a life of widowhood in which she cultivated the arts of acting, painting, languages, novel writing, and, particularly, her interest in sculpture.6

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Mrs Damer, in other words, had undergone a subtle repositioning of her status within the ruling class, suitable to her changed circumstances. Concentration on the fine arts was part of this redefinition, although it did not mean that she stopped being a rich and privileged member of aristocratic society: her personal jointure, even after she had given up half of it in the first year towards her husband’s debts, still amounted to £2,500 per annum (about £375,000 in today’s spending power). She divided her time between her parents’ Gloucestershire estate, Park Place, their townhouse in Pall Mall, her travels in France, Portugal, and Italy, and her own, newly purchased, London townhouse in Sackville Street.7

The World had enjoyed chronicling Mrs Damer’s activities as one of the ton and celebrated her new artistic pursuits while continuing to revel in the parties she attended, movements between estates, and trips to the opera and theatre.8 The suggestion above that “The Arts are all her own”, for example, is a reference to Mrs Damer’s concurrent prominence as an organiser of high-profile aristocratic amateur dramatics.9 In 1787–8, she starred with the Richmond-House Players, which included the Earl of Derby, Lord Henry Fitzgerald, and other leaders of society, in a number of performances at a purpose-built theatre at Richmond House. Their concurrent performance The Way to Keep Him in 1787 not only featured Damer, but also showcased busts modelled by her as part of the stage scenery.10 In this play and in False Appearances in 1788, which was scripted by her father, she spoke epilogues that referred to “her own wondrous powers of statuary”.11 The audience was limited to others of similar social status. Numerous such performances by a similar cast were greeted with rapturous delight by The World, although less so by an excluded London crowd, who threw stones at the outside of the theatre on one opening night.12

The World, in its very name, suggested a view of the planet in which everything could be sufficiently encapsulated in the activities of a handful of privileged people. Just as they adored plays written and performed by the ruling class and for the ruling class, they relished the idea of a lady of quality energising the displays of the Academy by transforming it into a simulacrum of a world which only contained aristocratic artists and subjects. Mrs Damer’s portrait of a boy was not a member of the Campbell clan, as The World guessed, but its reviewer was correct to suspect a noble countenance: the boy shown as Bacchus was the famously beautiful Polish prince Henry Lubomirski, a recent visitor to London;13 while the dog was one of Damer’s many pets that she immortalised in sculpture.14

The World’s suggestion that professional sculptors would look “with envy” on Mrs Damer’s work bespeaks something like the misguided swagger of the ancien régime on the eve of its greatest challenge. For this newspaper, “The World” was the world: Mrs Damer was the greatest sculptor, just as George III was the greatest architect, and “the Duke of Richmond is certainly the first engineer in England” (someone as socially lowly as James Watt would be unlikely to feature in its pages).15 One issue in 1788 carried a poem titled The Phoenix, in which Mrs Damer was said to have single-handedly revived the arts of ancient Greece through two keystones that she had carved for Henley Bridge (a structure designed by her father that was part of improvements carried out near his estate).16 That year, too, The World greatly praised Mrs Damer’s announcement that she would carve a statue of George III, without any assistants, to be placed without payment in the Edinburgh Registry House.17 Her friends claimed that the fact that she used no assistants made her a greater sculptor than the professionals, who did.18

The World was a short-lived newspaper, its demise in 1794 at least partly due to the changing political landscape of Europe.19 Unsurprisingly, commentators from the professional world of art, especially Joseph Farington and Allan Cunningham, were less receptive to the assumptions underpinning this depiction of Damer’s ascendancy: Farington finding her personally dislikable and the praise of her work extravagant and “ridiculous”, and Cunningham depicting her as an entitled fantasist.20 But in 1788, The World could engage in the entrancing pretence that at the Academy Exhibition, people of quality were not just the viewers and subjects, but were also producers of the best work. For their readers, such exhibits reflected back a familiar world of quality families and well-bred pets; they were carved at leisure, without assistants from the professional or labouring class, and unsullied by commercial considerations.

  1. “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The World, Fashionable Advertiser, 29 April 1788.↩︎

  2. The St James’s Chronicle, 24–27 May 1788.↩︎

  3. The World, 1786, and “The World”, Gale News Vault summary.↩︎

  4. For instance, The London Chronicle, 26–29 April 1788, and The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 29 April 1788, gives a list of “Persons whose pictures are in the Royal Academy”. This latter journal, less society-driven than The World, was disturbed by the preponderance of portraits, which they felt aided personal vanity, but not the arts.↩︎

  5. Richard Webb, Mrs. D: The Life of Anne Damer (1748–1828) (Studley: Brewin Books, 2013), 5–6.↩︎

  6. Webb chronicles Damer’s life within the ton, John Damer’s suicide, and gives the most detailed account of Damer’s financial position in its wake, see Webb, Mrs. D: The Life of Anne Damer (1748–1828), 36–58.↩︎

  7. Webb, Mrs. D: The Life of Anne Damer (1748–1828), 57–58. The figure of £375,000 per annum is calculated using the UK Inflation Calculator.↩︎

  8. In The World, there were over seventy references to Mrs Damer’s current residence, travels, social activities, writing, attendance at theatre, opera, and sculptural productions in 1787–1790 alone. Mrs Damer did not, as is frequently suggested, give up being part of the ton to take up sculpture.↩︎

  9. See Webb, Mrs. D: The Life of Anne Damer (1748–1828), for extensive descriptions of her amateur dramatics; and see also an earlier society biography, Percy Noble, Anne Seymour Damer: A Woman of Art and Fashion, 1748–1828 (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1908).↩︎

  10. The World, 18 May 1787. The busts were of Lady Ailesbury and Lady Melbourne.↩︎

  11. The World, 21 April 1787; 11 June 1788, “Theatrical of Ton”. False Appearances is described as an “alteration” by General Conway of a French play L’Homme du Tour; The World, 12 June 1788, mentions another epilogue on her own powers.↩︎

  12. Webb, Mrs. D: The Life of Anne Damer (1748–1828), 102.↩︎

  13. Given to the University of Oxford by the artist and transferred to the Ashmolean in 1897, see Nicholas Penny, Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, 1540 to the Present Day, Vol. 3 Sculpture of the British School, no. 467.↩︎

  14. Damer exhibited shock-dogs (furry dogs with a shock of hair) at the Academy in 1788, 1789, 1816, and 1818, three of which were terracotta. Figure 1 is thought to have been modelled in 1780, and was followed by several versions of two sleeping dogs, a lapdog, a Terrier, and two kittens. It isn’t clear which of the dogs was shown at the Academy in 1788.↩︎

  15. The World, 17 January 1787.↩︎

  16. “To The British Phoenix”, The World, 25 June 1788. The bridge was largely built through her father, General Conway, as part of local improvements near his Gloucestershire estate, Park Place. He is believed to have designed the bridge as well, and no doubt facilitated the gift of the stone keystones. Horace Walpole, in a typically self-absorbed letter, called the modest bridge the “most beautiful one in the world, next to the Ponte de Trinita”, see Francis Sheppard, “Henley Bridge and its Architect”, Architectural History 27 (1984): 320–330.↩︎

  17. John McLintock, “‘My Colossus, my Overgrown Child’: Anne Seymour Damer’s Statue of George III in Edinburgh”, Burlington Magazine 152 (January 2010): 18–28.↩︎

  18. An argument implied by The World, but made explicitly by Thomas Hope in 1804. This prompted one of Farington’s furious reactions to Damer, writing in his Diary that the argument was “most extravagant & false & ridiculous”, Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), Vol. 9, 3223–3224.↩︎

  19. See, The World was merged with The Morning Post, and the overall content, especially in world events, rendered more serious.↩︎

  20. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 2, 571, and Vol. 9, 3223–3224. Farington toured the exhibitions on occasion with Damer and found her affected and irritating, adding that he felt she had “no exact knowledge of painting whatever she may have of sculpture; and she did not make intelligent remarks on the latter”, he called the aristocratic Thomas Hope’s praise for Damer in 1804 “most extravagant & false & ridiculous”. Allan Cunningham, “Mrs Damer” in The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 6 vols (London: J. Murray, 1829–1833), Vol. 3, 214–236. Most twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship, however, has returned to championing Damer, sometimes as part of an overall account of her life, including Webb’s recent extensive and extremely informative biography, and Percy Noble’s 1908 biography. She has also received interest as a pioneering woman sculptor, see Alison Yarrington’s “The Female Pygmalion: Anne Seymour Damer, Allan Cunningham and the Writing of a Woman Sculptor’s Life”, The Sculpture Journal 1 (1997): 32–44; Alison Yarrington, “Anne Seymour Damer: A Sculptor of ‘Republican Perfection’”, in Elizabeth Eger (ed.), Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage 1730–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 81–99; and Jonathan David Gross, The Life of Anne Damer: Portrait of a Regency Artist (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013).↩︎

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