Photo of Anne Seymour Damer’s self portrait. By Michalis Famelis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Each week as I select whom I’m going to feature here on Historical Hotties, I have a kind of inner battle. In the early modern Eurasian context, the majority of the people about whom sources are available belonged to elite strata of their societies; in many cases the (relative) flexibility they enjoyed to do the things that makes them hotties was (in part) a result of social inequalities of various kinds. I was inspired by Monique’s spirit of historical enquiry in her post on Ah Toy last week, so today I’m featuring Anne Seymour Damer, an elite widow, sculptor and accused lesbian (if you’ll pardon the anachronistic term) who lived in 18th and early 19th century England.
Anne was incredibly well-connected. She was born into a noble, whig family, and she counted among her friends David Hume and Horace Walpole. But one of the things that makes Anne fascinating is that, though she has been overshadowed by her male friends (thank you, Great Man history), she was more than a socialite. Anne was an incredible sculptor (she was also an author), and, unlike many elite women who enjoyed fine arts as hobbies, she took up sculpting as a vocation, attaining a high level of training and accessing fields of artistic study typically closed to women, notably anatomy.
Because of her social circle Anne lived in the public eye, and her virtue eventually came under public attack. Less than a decade into her marriage, Anne left her husband (though they did not divorce). She was then widowed in her late twenties when her husband committed suicide. Anne never remarried. On the contrary, because of her noble station she was able to enjoy a degree of independence as a widow (i.e., comparatively free from the control of a father, husband or male relative) that many contemporary women could not achieve. Anne was notoriously independent, and, in addition to her elite male friends, she was also close with several famous women. It was these relationships that attracted ungenerous attention, even when her husband was living: several verse libels were published in the press that questioned Anne’s sexuality, suggesting that she had seduced her female friends. Despite the attacks on her character, once widowed Anne did not take refuge in a second marriage. She continued to use her social position and widowed state to pursue her own goals and desires.
Historical figures like Anne raise so many questions about how to do history in a just way. On the one hand, she was absolutely pushing boundaries of what was considered acceptable for women in her time and place. On the other, she was able to do so because of her elite social station. Undoubtedly, her working-class contemporaries had far less social, political and financial leeway (to say nothing of how the craft work of poor women is rarely regarded as “art” in its own right). Anne has been eclipsed as a historical figure by her male contemporaries. When studying Anne and women like her, the question becomes important: whose lives do theirs obscure?
“Damer, Anne Seymour (1749–1828),” Alison Yarrington in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/7084 (accessed March 18, 2016).