Q&A on Anne Damer With Dr Caroline Gonda
8 March 2021

As part of International Women’s Day 2021, Strawberry Hill House interviewed Dr Caroline Gonda about Anne Damer, Horace Walpole’s niece, challenging gender stereotypes and representation of female artists.

Strawberry Hill House: We think of the relationship between Anne Damer and Walpole as being that of an uncle or Godfather who, in his support of women, championed Damer as an artist by making generous claims for her art. How would you characterise their relationship?

Dr Caroline Gonda: Anne’s father was Walpole’s beloved first cousin, Henry Seymour Conway, and Walpole was her godfather. Walpole wrote that he loved Damer as his own child, and he admired her as an artist. She’s also the person he trusts to appreciate and care for his house and his collection, which is why he leaves her Strawberry Hill and its contents for her lifetime. In doing so, and in leaving Mary Berry and her family the house next door, Walpole creates a different version of kinship, one that’s not just about blood ties.

Strawberry Hill House: Do you think Damer’s art has been undervalued?  If so, why do you think that is?

Dr Caroline Gonda: Damer’s art has been undervalued, partly because she’s a woman and an aristocrat – both of these factors lead people to assume that she can’t be serious about her work. I think there’s also an element of reaction against Walpole’s sometimes extravagant praise of her work, which means that people aren’t looking properly at the art itself.

Strawberry Hill House: You have spoken about the politics of invisibility in relation to Anne Damer.  How can this be when her behaviour and appearance was commented upon so freely?

Dr Caroline Gonda: It’s paradoxical to talk about the politics of invisibility in relation to someone who was so visible in her own lifetime – but I think her public reputation as a Sapphist [what we might now call lesbian] means that she is overlooked or made invisible as a serious artist, and as someone who’s important in the history of Strawberry Hill.

Strawberry Hill House: There are few examples of Damer’s writing – 4 volumes partly in Latin and Greek.  Why do you think just these volumes survive and what do they tell us about Damer’s friendship with Mary Berry?

Dr Caroline Gonda: Some of Damer’s letters to Mary Berry survive, because Berry couldn’t  bring herself to destroy the evidence of having been the object of such faithful devotion. But most of Damer’s papers are lost. Her four notebooks, at the Lewis Walpole Library, are full of extracts from Mary Berry’s loving letters to her, and (particularly in the first notebook) classical quotations from the literature both women loved. The record Damer chooses to preserve in these notebooks is an intense and intimate one, of a relationship often seen as a likeness of souls. It’s a relationship of care, sharing confidences and small everyday details as well as comments on reading and study. It’s not always an easy relationship, particularly given the pressures of social expectation, but it is a strong and loving one.

Strawberry Hill House: Moving forward, how would you like to see Anne Damer ‘interpreted’ at Strawberry Hill House?

Dr Caroline Gonda: I’d like to see more acknowledgement of Damer’s presence at Strawberry Hill House, difficult though it is to find material traces of her time as its owner. The website currently has a section about Walpole and a section about Lady Waldegrave, but not one about Damer. I would like whatever new material there is on Damer to acknowledge her importance in Walpole’s life, and to recognise her as an artist in her own right (and not solely as an example of Walpole’s support for ‘female genius’). I’d also like the new material to acknowledge the mutuality of her relationship with Mary Berry.

Reynolds, Joshua; Anne Seymour Damer; Yale Center for British Art.

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