Written by Jess Burchett
Born in 1748 to an aristocratic Whig family, Anne spent much of her childhood at her godfather’s (Horace Walpole) home whilst her parents travelled. As opposed to an aristocratic girl’s tutorage in classics, music, sewing and domestic skills, Anne received training in sculpture, modelling and anatomy. Horace Walpole’s enormous library and social circle of politicians, thinkers and artists supported her artistic endeavours greatly.
At 17 she entered society, marrying John Damer, son of Lord Milton, the following year. The marriage was arranged by their fathers. John accrued debts preemptively spending their inheritance on expensive clothing and gambling whilst Anne enjoyed the social whirl of fashionable high society. Here her sexuality was questioned, for she favoured male clothing and demonstrative female friendships that were satirised by hostile commentators.
In 1774, Anne and John officially separated. Anne continued within influential circles, being an instrumental campaigner for the Whig politician Charles James Fox. However, two years later John committed suicide, leaving Anne with considerable debts and no children. Fortunately, Anne was still supported financially by John’s father who had agreed to pay her a yearly allowance in the event of her husband’s death – this was not enough to continue her life in high society.
Unphased, she pursued a career as a dedicated sculptor, regarded mainly as a male profession. Whilst women artists did exist at the time, sculpting was a very unusual medium to choose. This did not deter her and her historic achievements should not be underestimated.
Over 30 years Anne exhibited 32 works, primarily busts in Neoclassical style, as an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy. Her subjects were largely drawn from friends and colleagues in Whig circles. Later, her architectural skills were flaunted by her 10-foot statue of Apollo for the frontage of Drury Lane theatre. As the age of revolution brought new movements her style developed; later busts of political heroes of the time were shown in a rougher, more natural, contemporary style. She also published a novel, Belmour, a book she had written whilst travelling. It ran in three editions and was translated into French.
Whilst working she juggled a full social life, moving in literary and theatrical circles; As an enthusiastic amateur actress and playwright, she frequently took part in masques at the Pantheon and amateur theatricals by aristocrats. However, she continued to endure close scrutiny of her personal life by critics and newspaper satirists, who sneered at her ‘masculine’ pursuits. Rumours surfaced surrounding intense female friendships, like the popular Drury Lane actress Elizabeth Farren, and 26-year-old author Mary Berry, whom she was introduced to by her godfather in 1789. They had a passionate friendship and often travelled together. Whilst Anne denied any physical relationship she never denied the strength of her feelings.
Anne was a brave woman, often travelling alone through dangerous circumstances. In 1779, she had watched from the deck, a four-hour running gunfight between a French privateer and the boat on which she was travelling. In 1790 she travelled through Portugal and Spain and back through revolutionary France – she was introduced to Lord Nelson in Naples, a hero of hers. In 1802, during the Treaty of Amiens, she visited Paris, being granted an audience with Napoleon and became determined to present him with her marble bust of Charles James Fox, whom he had admired. 13 years later Anne voyaged alone to France – despite their being at war with Britain – to present the bust, the Emperor giving her a diamond engraved snuffbox featuring his portrait in return.
A child of The Enlightenment, sculptress, author, traveller, theatrical producer and actress, Anne was recognised as a multi-talented woman of her time and deserves similar recognition today.
Written by Jess Burchett
The following article of the series Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society is going to discuss Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
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