Richard Cosway (bap. 1742-1821)
When she began to sculpt, Walpole at once made his admiration for her talents known. Astonished by her precociousness, he had one of her works incised with the inscription ‘Anne Damer made me not Praxiteles’...
This portrait by Richard Cosway shows his friend, the sculptor Anne Damer. Damer, a granddaughter of the 4th Duke of Argyll, was in a highly privileged position for a female sculptor of her age in having been born into a milieu that was highly receptive to and encouraging of her talents. Indeed, she cuts a solitary figure as perhaps the only female sculptor of note working in England at this time. Her father’s secretary, no less a figure than David Hume – the philosopher at the vanguard at the Scottish Enlightenment – was an early supporter of her abilities, supposedly challenging her to rival and surpass the achievements of the Italian plaster workers.
However, perhaps her greatest supporter was yet another figure at the forefront of English cultural life, Horace Walpole. During the sculptor’s childhood, the antiquarian, art historian and society gossip frequently acted as her guardian when her parents undertook their not infrequent tours of Europe. A close emotional bond developed between the two, with Walpole acting as something of a father figure for Anne. When she began to sculpt, Walpole at once made his admiration for her talents known. Astonished by her precociousness, he had one of her works incised with the inscription ‘Anne Damer made me not Praxiteles’, likening her to the ne plus ultra of Greek sculpture himself – no mean praise, given that Walpole was hardly one to shy away from making his dislike for a work of art known. Such was Walpole’s affection for Anne, who acted as something of a surrogate daughter, that he left his life’s crowning achievement – his pioneering Gothick pile at Strawberry Hill – to her on his death in 1797...
In the intervening period, Anne had become known as one of the leading neoclassical sculptors in England. She had been trained by a number of artists and had made a point of taking anatomy lessons – particularly rare for a woman of the period. A lover of animals, among her first works were virtuoso terracotta sculptures of dogs. Such was her fondness for the animals that she asked to be buried with the ashes of her favourite dog (along with her sculptor’s tools). Her connections coupled with her abundant talent soon gained her note, and hers soon became a name on the lips of the aesthetically-minded, with Erasmus Darwin, for instance, singling out her 1784 bust of her friend, the society hostess Lady Melbourne, for particular praise.
Along with Lady Melbourne, Damer frequented circles that would have been seen as having been extremely non-conventional by the standards of the day. Indeed, a portrait by Daniel Gardner in the NPG shows Damer along with Melbourne and also Lady Melbourne’s aunt, Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, shows the sitters in the guise of the three witches of Macbeth. For, like these two keystones of the ‘Devonshire House Set’, Damer refused to have her path in life restricted by the bonds of marriage, leaving her husband of seven years after his debts (which apparently resulted from a penchant for wearing several different sets of clothes a day) became too great for him to hope to repay. Two years later, in 1776, John Damer – Anne’s estranged husband – shot himself following a particularly large loss at the gambling table. His companions for the evening had been, according to Walpole, four prostitutes and a blind fiddler.
Put off romantic male company for life, Anne never married again, but instead cultivated a series of friendships with women, whose closeness drew raised eyebrows and quips about Sapphic tendencies from society wags. Freed by her income as a professional artist, Damer went to tour Europe. Her capture by and subsequent escape from a privateer in the English did not deter her, and she made several visits to the Continent. There, she continued her remarkable habit of making the acquaintance of many of the most notable men of the day, meeting Lord Nelson in Naples 1798 and, in 1802, his great rival Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris. In perhaps a sign of a playful sense of humour, she gifted the latter busts both of her friend – the Francophile Whig politician Charles James Fox – and also of Nelson. Bonaparte must have seen the funny side, for he repaid the gift with a diamond-studded snuffbox (now in the collection of the British Museum).
Damer was not alone, however, in seeking an audience with the newly-installed Corsican autocrat. As Maria Cosway, wife of Richard – the artist of the present work – had herself made the acquaintance of the man soon to be declared Emperor of the French and of his extended family and circle. Indeed, it had been Maria herself – daughter of Florentine hotelliers who had hosted the crème de la crème of the European Grand Tour – who had introduced Damer to this the most fashionable circle in the whole of Europe. Maria had spent time in Paris before, having visited in 1786 with her husband. Whilst Maria embarked on an affair with hero of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, Richard secured a great diplomatic coup in presenting the ill-starred King Louis XVI with a set of tapestries thought to be by Raphael, for which he was awarded a gift of tapestries in turn on a scale usually reserved for princes and foreign potentates.
The Cosways had translated their easy familiarity with the ways of European high society into the salon that they held at Schomberg House, Pall Mall, where their neighbours were no less a pair than Thomas Gainsborough and his wife Margaret. It was here that Damer became among the ‘most intimate friends’ of the Cosways. At these soirées, guests would have been entertained with singing at the keyboard from the highly gifted Maria underneath Richard’s impressive collection of Old Master paintings that included works by Rembrandt and his hero Rubens. Subsequently, Maria talked of the infectiousness of Richard’s personality and delight in merriment, remembering that he was ‘toujours riant, toujours gai’ [always laughing, always happy].
Painted circa 1800, this portrait of Anne is a flattering depiction of the sculptor in her middle years by one of her most devoted friends. It may have been commissioned by one of her close female friends, the lock of hair in the reverse an additional avowal of intimacy. Her circle at this time included the writers Mary Berry and Joanna Baillie, the actresses Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Farren and Princess Daschow, all of whom were frequent visitors to Strawberry Hill. The lack of props in the form of sculpting tools is perhaps a further indication that this portrait was intended for someone who knew her well and did not need to be reminded of her multitude of talents.
 Quoted in, G. Barnett, Richard and Maria Cosway: A Biography (Tiverton, Devon, 1995), p. 261.
 S. Lloyd, “Cosway, Richard (bap. 1742, d. 1821), artist and collector”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn. [Accessed 16th May 2018], from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-6383.