Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davy, Jane

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DAVY, Lady JANE (1780–1855), best known as the wife of Sir Humphry Davy [q. v.], was the only daughter and heiress of Charles Kerr, a younger son of William Kerr of Kelso, and a merchant in Antigua, who married Jane Tweedie and died in 1796. She was born on 5 Feb. 1780, and married at Marylebone Church, on 3 Oct. 1799, Shuckburgh Ashby Apreece, eldest son of Sir Thomas Hussey Apreece, first baronet of Washingley, Huntingdonshire, but he died without issue at Malvern, on 6 Oct. 1807, during his father's lifetime. When left a widow she retired to Edinburgh and opened the doors of her house to the cleverest and brightest of its residents. Two pictures of her life at this period have been left to us. Mrs. Fletcher says: ‘Mrs. Apreece and Mrs. Waddington divided the admiration of the Edinburgh circles between them—the one [Mrs. Apreece] attractive by the vivacity of her conversation, the other by her remarkable beauty and the grace of her manners.’ Sir Henry Holland says, with more emphasis, that the parties ‘of Mrs. Apreece gained for a time a mastery over all others. Coming suddenly to the Scotch capital as a young and wealthy widow, with the reputation and fashions of a continental traveller at a time when few had travelled at all, acquainted with Madame de Staël, and vaguely reported to be the original of Corinne, then fresh in fame, this lady made herself a circle of her own, and vivified it with certain usages new to the habits of Edinburgh life. … The story was current of a venerable professor seen stooping in the street to adjust the lacing of her boot.’ A wider circle of acquaintance was opened to her when she was married, at her mother's house in Portland Place, London, by the Bishop of Carlisle, on 11 April 1812, to Sir Humphry Davy, then at the height of his fame. Two months later he dedicated to his wife his ‘Elements of Chemical Philosophy’ as a pledge that he should continue ‘to pursue science with unabated ardour,’ and although his subsequent career scarcely fulfilled this public promise, he never ceased to take an active interest in his favourite pursuits. In October 1813 Davy and his wife went on a lengthened foreign tour, and Faraday accompanied them. During this period the worst traits of her character showed themselves. She had been fed on adulation for many years, and did not understand the character of this poor and simple student of science. She liked to show her authority and to mortify her husband's companion, and her temper, says Faraday, made ‘it oftentimes go wrong with me, with herself, and with Sir Humphry.’ She did not join her husband on his last visit to the continent, but when he was seized with ‘a renewed stroke of palsy,’ she travelled day and night, joining him at Rome on 30 March 1829. They journeyed together to Geneva, and she was with her husband when he died there on 29 May 1829. Ticknor called on the Davys in 1815, and described her as ‘small, with black eyes and hair, a very pleasing face, an uncommonly sweet smile, and when she speaks, has much spirit and expression in her countenance.’ Her conversation he deemed somewhat formal, and though he recognised her great powers of mind he could not repeat Madame de Staël's praise, ‘that she had all Corinne's talents without her faults and extravagances.’ Lady Davy was a brunette of the brunettes, and her devoted friend, Sydney Smith, who addressed to her many of his most amusing letters, used to say that she was as brown as a dry toast. She figured in society at Rome and London for many years after Davy's death, and in the eternal city she loved to act the part of cicerone to her friends, among whom Tom Moore was numbered. With the antiquities and classical remains of Rome she was well acquainted, and she had read much of the literature of the Latin and the principal modern languages, but in her knowledge of Italian as a living tongue she was sadly deficient, and many amusing anecdotes of her blunders were long current in society. Sir Walter Scott was one of her distant connections, in the language of the border they were ‘Kerr cousins,’ and he wrote her two of his most interesting letters. She had been an early friend of the mother of J. R. Hope, and in the summer of 1834, when Hope was studying law in London, he accompanied Lady Davy in a tour through Holland. She subsequently introduced the young man to Lockhart, and this led to his marriage with Lockhart's daughter and to his becoming the head of the family as J. R. Hope-Scott. In 1838 she was described as ‘haggard and dried up,’ but she retained long after that date her extraordinary physical activity and her absorbing love of London gaiety. She died in Park Street, Grosvenor Square, London, on 8 May 1855. Sir Humphry Davy appointed her the sole executrix of his property, and she presented his portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence to the Royal Society.

[Gent. Mag. April 1812, p. 386, July 1855, pp. 92–3; Jones's Faraday, i. 184, 197; Ticknor's Life, i. 57, 128, ii. 179; Lockhart's Scott, ii. 403, vi. 2–4, 221–2, vii. 126–7; Ornsby's Hope-Scott, i. 62–5, ii. 132; Moore's Memoirs, passim; Sir Henry Holland's Recollections, 87–8; Lady Holland's Sydney Smith, i. 203, ii. 91, &c.; Mrs. Fletcher's Autobiography, 102–3; Mrs. Somerville's Recollections, 252; Last Leaves of Journal of J. C. Young, 120–1; John Davy's Sir H. Davy, i. 133–5, 424–5; Burke's Landed Gentry (1886) sub ‘Kerr;’ Betham's Baronetage, iv. 114.]

W. P. C.